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Teaching Children the Difference Between Rules & Laws

By Sheri Oz ; Updated June 13, 2017

You want your kids to grow up to be law-abiding citizens. This begins by teaching them to obey rules at home, in school and at clubs where they engage in extra-curricular activities. Learning to follow rules teaches children to pay attention to social norms; teaching them to think about the reasoning behind rules teaches them to develop a moral compass. When you teach them about the differences between rules and laws, you help them develop a civic consciousness.

Defining Rules and Laws

Rules are codes that guide behavior at the level of families, organizations and communities. Laws are rules that are proposed by and voted upon by the government. Punishment for disobeying rules and laws are different in degree, and if you break a law you might have to pay a fine or have to defend yourself in court, while breaking a rule results in punishments determined by parents or others with whom the child has a personal relationship. If a child breaks a rule in a game, for example, she might lose her turn. If a child breaks a parental rule about staying out too late, he may be grounded.

Importance of Parents

In the home, children first learn respect for authority and the need to conform to social norms, and later they transfer their understandings to larger community organizations and finally to the political entity in which they live. Professors Robert Daniel Hess and Judith V. Torney-Purta explain that parents are major players in the values their children adopt while growing up. Recognizing that your children will use your values as their baseline means you should evaluate how you express your values, including your approach to the laws of the land and to societal norms, to make sure your children have a clear picture of where you stand.

Complex Concepts

A study published in the journal “Child Development” found that children ages 6 to 10 were able to handle complex issues, such as unjust versus socially beneficial laws and personal rights under variable conditions. This means that, from a young age, many children can comprehend the differences between rules and laws.

Important discussions

Not only should you explain to your children the reasons for family rules and the punishments for not obeying them, but you should also ask them how they understood what you said and what they think about it. This will give you the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings. As important, you will be able to help them understand the difference between not liking rules, yet understanding their merit. Discuss the conditions under which you would be willing to amend your rules, thereby involving your children actively in defining the rules that govern family life. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry emphasizes the importance of just family rules and openness to hearing your children's views. This opens the door to discussing laws: the importance of laws, how laws are created and the extent that citizens can influence society’s evolving laws.

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