“Color inside the lines.”
“Re-write these letters.”
“Sit on your circle.”
“This is not playtime.”
“Keep to the right.”
“Climb the ladder, not the slide.”
There is a good reason why we direct children. We want them to learn to follow rules and obey instructions. We want them to listen. We need them to pay heed. After all, laws and guidelines are part of an orderly society and are important for maturation, regulation, and delaying gratification. Rules help maintain safety. They help define the difference between free play and guided study, between teamwork and individual projects, between creative writing and a summary of a given book or essay.
Rules and guidelines are good. It is healthy for them to be challenged and okay to keep rules even if a child thinks they are stupid or unnecessary (as long as we truly know why). Boundaries clarify what is and isn’t acceptable, where and when and how. There’s nothing wrong with structure. Or with following directions. Or with consequences when one chooses to do otherwise.
Structure is a good thing. So is knowing what’s expected. At least as long as those do not become a means to an end. As long a they are not ways to exact conformity and control, paths to making our adult life easier, roadblocks to creative thought, plugs for personality.
When we extend guidelines into demanding unified and unjustified conformity, we risk snuffing out individuality. It is then that we may end up raising robots, not children. It is then that we gag magic and bind wonder, imagination, awe.
When we say things such as:
“Elephants aren’t purple, color it gray.”
“You can’t draw two suns in the sky. There is only one.”
“Stripes do not go with polka dots. You’ll look funny. Go change.”
“This doesn’t look like Mommy–she has long hair, not short.”
“Don’t mix the Lego with the blocks.”
“You can’t just make up rules–this game has an instruction sheet.”
“People don’t eat olives with cookies.”
“Stop making things up.”
There is nothing wrong with purple (or rainbow) elephants, with three suns, pattern mix-and-match, people who look like aliens and aliens who look like mice, Legos with blocks and carton boxes and a Barbi perched on for a knight, with new rules for old games, and with plenty of made-up imagining.
Order has a place, as does chaos and unpredictability. We ask our children to tolerate our rules and limitations … it is only reasonable that we train ourselves to tolerate (even encourage!) theirs, wild as they may seem to be.
Let your child out of the box. You’d be amazed what children can achieve. How much they can create, plan, build, conjure, put together. How far their brilliant, fresh thinking, free mind can go!