The parent-child relationship is based on care, nurturing the physical, cognitive, social and emotional development of the child. This means that children not only need physical nourishment in the form of food, but they also have a biological need to form a secure, stable and strong bond with their caregivers, namely those primarily responsible for looking after them. This bond is important because it will allow them to acquire the abilities needed to participate in society as an individual with their own personality. One of these abilities concerns respect for rules - including moral rules based on politeness, decency and respect for others, as well as rules based on convention, in other words appropriate forms of behaviour recognised by the given social and cultural context.
Children, rules and moral development.
Mums and dads are without doubt those primarily responsible for teaching their children respect for rules, so society authorises parents to manage this delicate balancing act between authority and permissiveness. When your children are very young, they view you as highly capable, strong, competent and important, so their respect for you is unconditional and they accept the rules you set without questioning whether they are right or wrong (from their point of view, obviously): obedience in this case is ensured by the thought that "mum and dad said so, so I must do as I am told".
As they grow, however, and come into contact with other children, for example at nursery, they encounter realities that differ from their own family environment, as a result of which they may notice behaviours that do not reflect their own way of doing things.
In this case it is important for you, as parents, to provide explanations, calibrating your language, naturally, to your child’s age, and avoiding complex reasoning that they would not understand.
When they are older, around 4/5 years of age, children may start to "reflect" on the rules you have set and they might not agree with them, but generally speaking their obedience will be ensured by their fear of a "telling off" or "punishment".
Only towards 8/9 years of age do children develop a sense of obedience founded on the "respect" for their parents built up over the years, so by this age your child will have learned that you are capable of taking care of them with competence and foresight, and they will obey you because they trust your judgement.
Similarly, "moral judgement" in children, i.e. what is right and what is wrong, what is to be avoided or promoted in relation to others, develops starting from unconditional acceptance of the rules and principles that you, as parents, propose (heteronomous morality). Then from around age 7, children themselves, based on their own life experiences and the behaviour they have seen in you, their parents, and their relationships with their peers, start to internalise and embrace a general code of values which they will rely on whenever they need to make a choice or a judgement.
What are the best parenting styles?
To ensure that children learn rules and moral values, experts recommend adopting an "authoritative" parenting style based on an awareness of parental responsibility: that is to say, parents accept it is their duty to raise their children well and so they provide clear, straightforward rules, explaining the reasons for their choices, but all with a child-centred approach that welcomes dialogue with the child as opposed to simply enforcing their parental will from on high (the latter parenting style is termed "authoritarian"). With an authoritative parenting style children grow up respecting rules because they trust their parents, whereas with an authoritarian style their obedience derives from their fear of consequences.
Another parenting style which has been much in vogue in recent times, but which is considered educationally ineffective, is what is termed "permissive": here the parents may well be loving and affectionate, but because they are overly indulgent, they are unable to provide a firm framework of rules for their child's behaviour, resulting in confusion and failure to learn rules.
The ancient Romans believed that "virtue lies in the middle", and indeed the secret is to walk the tightrope between the authoritarian and permissive styles, treading the authoritative mid-ground and carefully calibrating that authority which, as parents, you have to exercise WITH your children. This approach allows you to be open and flexible, accepting the doubts, protests and complaints your child will inevitably present.
How to teach children to accept rules?
As parents you can help your children to learn to respect rules by adopting a few "simple" measures:
- shared rules are important (parents must agree on them!), if your child senses that one of you might capitulate, rest assured they will take advantage (they might be little, but they are smart and observant, so they will try to bypass the obstacle if at all possible!);
- rules should be few in number, but firm and straightforward (rules must apply every time, without exception, otherwise children find them confusing);
- spoken rules are not especially effective: rules are best learned from example! Remember that your children learn through an innate mechanism of imitation, so they will mimic what they see, and not what they are told;
- for young children above all, remember that most of what they learn they comes through play, so if there are new rules to be introduced, try doing this in a playful and fun way, perhaps by inventing a story (something children really love), using your voice and facial expressions to engage them;
- if your child has been disobedient, always try to understand why, and what need prompted them to act that way;
- do not be afraid to say ‘no’ when necessary, as children need to know exactly what is allowed, including how and when;
- when your children are disobedient try not to lose your temper or shout: instead, speak calmly to them, underlining firmly and confidently exactly what is wrong.