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Rules should have reasons but reasons need not be given for rules.
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Commands, Compliance,
Rules & Reasons
Oct 1997 Alan S.L. Wong

Commands, Compliance, Rules & Reasons

When I ask my child to do something, he asks, "Why?" ... should I reason with him or should I just expect him to obey? It depends on what you have asked him to do, how old he is, and why he asked "Why?"

Compliance to commands and rules

Prov. 29:15 says, "... a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother." "Little emperors" who are used to getting their own ways will probably grow up to be spoiled, selfish, inconsiderate and demanding. Children need to learn obedience. If what you have asked him to do was issued as a command, then expect obedience!

When we make rules, expect our children to follow them. Rules should have reasons but reasons need not be given for rules. Do not think that you can convince your children that your rules are for their own good. Until a child is mature enough to understand logic and the process of reasoning, any explanation is futile. According to Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, children from 2 - 7 years old are in the preoperational stage of cognitive development. The thinking of children in this stage is characterised by intuition (not logic) and egocentrism (i.e., they cannot see another person point of view).

John Rosemond, author of the book "Six-Point Plan For Raising Happy, Healthy Children," describes his recommended form of family government.

Option to say "No" to requests

When we make a request, follow up with reasons for the request. The nature of a request is such that the other person has the right to turn down the request. Moreover, our children need to learn to say, "No." Do you want your children to give unthinking and unquestioning compliance to the requests of any person in authority? Do you like your children to grow up to become order takers or decision makers? If we choose the latter, then we should begin to cultivate independence in our children.

Reasons for rules

As my children grow older, I need to give reasons for rules because children (from 7 - 11 years old) in the concrete operational stage are capable of logical thinking. For example, don't tell lies because if you do then I will find it difficult to trust you. Moreover, giving reasons for rules helps our children to transfer the rules to other situations.

It is important that we train our children to think and evaluate the morality of rules according to biblical principles. This will help guard against "bad" authority such as Marshall Applewhite of Heaven's Gate. Applewhite asked his followers to commit suicide so as to shed their earthly bodies (or "containers") and depart in an UFO to a higher plane of existence. The UFO was supposedly travelling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. In late March 1997, all 39 cult members obeyed and took their own lives in a mass suicide.

Compliance without reasons given

Notwithstanding the seeming shift from expecting obedience to reasoning, I believe that my children should learn to obey me even when reasons are not given for rules and commands. They obey me because they trust me ... because they know that I have their interests at heart (even though I can be impulsive and make mistakes in judgment).

Our relationship with God is a relationship based on faith not reason. In Hebrews 11, we find many examples of men and women who acted in faith in response to God's commands. If children (preschoolers and early primaries) do not learn to trust their parents, they will never learn to trust God.

Children must obey their parents because they are under their authority (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20). Later in life, they will discover that there is always a higher authority to whom they are accountable. They are accountable to their teachers in school; to their commanding officer in the army; to their bosses in their jobs; and ultimately they are accountable to their God. Children might as well learn submission now.

If rules given in the chain of command are not immoral then we are to obey even when we do not feel like obeying. This does not preclude you from speaking your mind but should the person in authority insist then we are to obey. When the child is mature enough, he may question the fairness of a command. For example, "I didn't take it (the toy) out. Why should I pick it up?" There had been times when my response was "I didn't ask whether you took it out. I said, Pick it up." In life, we will be told to do things that we do not like and we have to learn obedience (c.f., Heb. 5:8).

Often when the child asks, "Why?" ... "Why must I do it?" or "Why can't I do it?" ... it is not a request for reasons but a dislike for the command. It may be a challenge of parental authority. My usual response is a repetition of the command in a firm tone. Hui Meng's response is simply "Because I said so." If the question is a sincere request for more information then provide it. However, expect the child to listen to your explanation without interrupting.

Age of reasoning

Some of you may ask, "Alan, you believe in giving reasons for rules to older children but not to young children. What is the cut-off point? At what age (of the child), should I begin to give reasons for rules? You also mentioned that children from 7 to 11 years of age are capable of logical thinking. Does this mean that I should begin to give reasons for rules after my child's seventh birthday?"

The ages that Piaget assigned to the different stages are not rigid. Age is only a clue to developmental level. The experiences of children can affect their rate of cognitive development. Therefore, children may pass from one stage to another at different ages. Moreover, the thinking of children in the concrete operational stage is limited to their own concrete, physical experiences. They are not yet capable of thinking about abstract ideas and hypothetical concepts. The key to timing is to know your child ... as and when he is ready, give reasons for rules but temper reasoning with the perspective that you have the final say.