Being a productive and considerate member of a modern, developed society requires a certain amount of conformance. There are generally-accepted customs, behaviors, protocols, etc. that are part of the social construct that we abide by as citizens, implicitly or explicitly. Don’t scream in quiet places. Wear clothes when you leave the house. Don’t pick your nose. Wash your hands after using the restroom. There are literally hundreds of them…all designed to make communal life in our cities and towns tolerable and considerate. As a parent, I find myself pointing out these “rules” quite frequently to my children. “Look around”, I’ll say, “Do you see anyone else sticking goldfish up their nose right now?” Or I’ll admonish, “See all of these people? Are any of them jumping off the tables while screaming at the top of their lungs?” I’ll quickly follow-up these questions with some lecture about needing to be aware of their surroundings and to take social queues from the people around them as a general indicator of the appropriateness of behavior in public spaces.
On the flip side of that coin, the other day I heard my son using some profanity and I asked him where he had heard such language. He stated that “all the other kids at school were using it”. I then sarcastically asked him “If everyone else was jumping off a bridge, does that mean that you should too?” And it was in that moment that I realized just how confusing and nuanced these two situations might be, especially to a child. What is the defining characteristic between the two extremes of “following-the-herd” and “marching-to-the-beat-of-your-own-drum”? Are we people or are we “sheeple” (baaa…I love that term…sorry, had to use it!)
If forced to choose between the two extremes I suppose I’d choose individual choice as the better option of the two. After all, I don’t want my kids to grow up as carbon copies of everyone else in society…that would suck for them and everyone else! I want them to be strong, independent thinkers that follow their own intuition, values, and moral code. And given that I view my role as a mentor and teacher to each of them, it is incumbent upon me to find alternative ways to counsel them in situations where their behaviors run contrary to social norms. And while I have not worked out all of the details on how to do this yet, perhaps the best action in 90% of these situations is no action. That is, if I assume that the behavior in question is not harming anyone…including themselves (physically or emotionally), perhaps its best to let Life teach them the consequences of their actions. In situations where hygiene or physical/emotional harm are involved, perhaps its best to focus on the “why” of why something isn’t socially acceptable and then to reinforce their (the child’s) own values through questioning rather than pointing to some societal reference point as the bellwether of appropriateness.
For example, if they are throwing rocks towards people, I can question them by saying “Do you believe it is OK for people to hurt other innocent people? Do you think it is possible that one of those rocks might hurt someone if your aim is not perfect? Do you think it is a better idea to throw rocks in a different direction to avoid the possibility of hurting someone?” Now look, my kids can be “challenged” at times and the above line of questioning may sound ridiculous and impractical…the chances are high (like 60% high!) that they may even answer “No” to any of the above questions…thereby negating the sequence of logic and causing even more frustration! But it might just be worth the dialog and effort to help them develop their own internal compass in life. And, truth be told, when I talk to my kids rationally and with respect, they usually respond much better than when I issue edicts and commands. It’s counter-intuitive, but give it a try and you might just be amazed at how well it works.
To regress slightly, I also don’t think it is necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater (for lack of a better cliché). Social queues, patterns, and behaviors are an important tool in evaluating appropriate behavior. It just shouldn’t be the only tool.
Now, let’s turn the tables and shine the light inward. If you believe that it is important for our children to be strong-minded, conscious, independent, educated thinkers that follow their own intuition, values, and moral code…shouldn’t this be what we expect from ourselves as well? Maybe something to look at in more detail in your free time…just sayin’.