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Principles Not Rules:
Living & Learning in the Real World

by Robyn Coburn

end school zoneRecently on an unschooling e-list, someone asked, “How does a person who has no rules to follow as a child cope with life as an adult in a world filled with rules?”

There were several replies addressing the idea that a home without rules does not mean chaos, but instead can be a world of principles. And that made me muse on the possibly startling notion that the regular adult world is actually far less filled with rules than the world of any ordinarily parented child.

I look around at the adult world and I don’t see a world full of arbitrary rules. Instead, in a civil society like ours, I see a world of customs and laws. Most of the time, the customs and laws of the adult world make some kind of apparent sense, being based on some principle, and they engage the reasoned co-operation of most of us.

Moreover, our freely living and learning children are not isolated from the real world, but living in it, and have the opportunity to see the purposeful nature of real world customs and laws. They are subject to the customs and mores of society. This is in contrast to the notion of adult freedom from rules that permeates the longing daydreams of restricted and limited children.

Rules are a two sided, oxymoronic coin – on one side the expectation of automatic compliance, on the other side the punishment for breakage. Rules for children are often not designed to be useful in themselves but function as molds, designed to teach some idea, especially the idea that rules must be followed, without defiance or even contemplation.

Children who live surrounded by rules, instead of learning about principles, end up becoming adept at getting around rules, finding the loopholes in rules, disguising non-compliance or deflecting blame for non-compliance (i.e. lying about what they did). These are the skills that they then bring into adult life.

The few rules in a child’s life that might be useful, such as “don’t turn on the stove when Mommy is out,” can be simply and easily converted into principles that can allow for empowered exploration and make real sense to a freely living child. These only reiterate how ineffective and inefficient arbitrary rule making (or expressing rules in a manner that makes them seem arbitrary) is in itself.

"Our freely living and learning children are not isolated from the real world, but living in it, and have the opportunity to see the purposeful nature of real world customs and laws."

Most children live in domestic situations that are filled with picayune, inflexible rules that they have no authentic say in developing, designed to control their behavior from the outside, with the underlying assumption that children are inherently untrustworthy. The adults in their lives are not subjected to the same rules, or in the event that the adults are supposed to comply but don’t, different consequences result for the adults than the children.

Think of a rule like “No snacks before dinner.” Suppose the cook in the kitchen feels a little hungry. Realistically, is that person not going to grab a taste of the meal or a quick cracker? If another adult comes in and reaches for a cookie are they going to be told they can’t have it because dinner is nearly ready? Perhaps the information that dinner is coming soon would be offered, but what might be the response? “This is just to hold me until then” or the free choice to put the cookie back. Of course I’m assuming a healthy level of equality between the adults here, rather than some kind of weird power playing relationship. However what is a kid told? “No, you have to wait until dinner.”

Rules within the home tend to be entirely for the children to “follow”, whereas principles apply to everyone in the family, as well to other people with whom we all interact in daily life. Principles are ideas like Kindness, Respect, Honesty, Consideration.

There are “rules” for pleasant conduct, many of which are unspoken, but all based on principles like Courtesy, Consideration, and Kindness. Long-term life learners have found that a child’s learning of these behaviors of mannerly folk is best done by observing their parents’ good manners (modeling), and receiving respectful, mannerly treatment, which they then reflect.

There are customs that make living or working in a crowded place easier also. These are practices like raising one’s hand for attention in a moderated meeting that would probably take a young adult about four seconds of observation to learn once they were in that situation. They need not spend 12 years at school to do so, or rehearse throughout childhood. These customary behaviors with strangers and in public situations seem unlikely to be anything we would consider necessary to practice in our own homes, amongst our own family and close friends.

Many laws are based on safety, like speed limits and stopping at stop signs. These laws make sense. Many laws are based on concepts of ancient morality – no stealing, no killing, no trespassing – intent on allowing people to feel reasonably safe in their homes and workplaces. It just never occurs to most of us to break these laws. Many laws are based on keeping the common areas of life functioning, such as paying for the roads or other public facilities, paying the salaries of government employees and paying for the upkeep of the military. I’m talking here about tax laws – somewhat onerous but necessary.

"A child’s learning of the behaviors of mannerly folk is best done by observing their parents’ good manners and receiving respectful, mannerly treatment, which they then reflect."

The mere existence of laws and customs and rules does not mean that they won’t be broken or ignored or fought against, by people who have supposedly been trained to follow rules all their lives.

We all have the choice to keep the laws or not. Most of us are moral people. Most of us obey the laws because we agree that to do otherwise would mean doing wrong by our fellow creatures, or be risky and unwise. We discourage our children from breaking laws for the same reasons that we choose to keep them.

What happens when someone breaks a law? Either nothing because they were not caught, or they get a citation, or get arrested and have a fairly lengthy due process to go through before incarceration or other punishment – that is, assuming conviction.

With the exception of people deliberately engaging in civil disobedience for a cause, one of the things about people who commit crimes is that they usually do not expect to get caught, or they hope to get away with it even if caught. The deterrent effect of punishment is an area of debate in legal, political and religious circles. However, regardless of how many people choose not to commit a crime because they do not wish to risk the consequences, those people who have deliberately broken some law evidently were not deterred at the time.

The final huge difference between the Rule of Law, and the adult-imposed rules of a household over a child’s life is one of political process. Adults in a democracy, through the process of voting, petitioning, and litigation, have the ability and right – even if not taken up – to challenge, change, and influence the laws we agree to follow. It may not be a perfect process, and there are certainly other factors and influences in the political world. But the right and possibilities are still there.

However, the unequal power relationship in a family where the adults have the final say or veto power, and have the power of the law to enforce the rules they choose, whether the kids agree or not, means that the children are disenfranchised as long as they are minors.

Those of us living a life of principles instead of rules, are adults voluntarily discarding the adversarial power relationship that society would say we are entitled to impose on our children. The results are empowered children today in their real life childhoods, and, as the reported experience of unschooled grown children shows, thoughtful, politically engaged, civil, mannerly, principled adults navigating an adult culture not significantly different from the real world they have always inhabited.

Robyn L. Coburn had to start calling herself an “unschooler”, despite her daughter’s young age, in self-defense against the numerous early academics pushers surrounding her in her neighborhood and local support group. Unschooling with someone as vigorously determined to make her own choices as Jayn has been so much easier than any other “imposed teaching” method could possibly be. In her past life Robyn has been a set, costume and lighting designer in the theater, and a production designer and set decorator in film. She enjoys reading, swimming, sewing, the kind of electronic games that involve puzzles instead of finger drills, classic cinema (i.e. old movies), various crafts, traveling and an intermittently-attended-to nascent interest in screenwriting. This essay has been included in our book "Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier.

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