Rules Kids Need to Break

Kids Need to Break Rules That Squelch Self-Identity, Researchers Say

By Daniel J. DeNoon
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

March 25, 2010 -- The rules kids are most likely to break may be the rules they most need to break, a new study suggests.

Growing up means more than learning the rules you must follow. It means learning which rules you can legitimately break, suggest University of California, Davis researcher Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, PhD, and colleagues.

Rules that must be followed are moral rules such as "Don't steal your brother's paints." Rules that children may be justified in disobeying are rules that restrict the freedom to be oneself, such as "You can't be friends with Suzy."

"Children learn to identify situations where there may be legitimate grounds for disobeying," Lagattuta and colleagues say.

When does this happen? It appears to be when kids' motivation for rule breaking changes from "me, me, me" to "I gotta be me." This change from selfishness to selfhood already is under way by age 4 but deepens by the time a child is 7, the researchers find.

What Kids Need to Learn about Obeying, Breaking Rules

To explore how children deal with the conflict between what they want and what parents say they may not do, Lagattuta and colleagues studied 60 boys and girls, evenly divided between ages 4, 5, and 7.

In half-hour sessions, they used illustrated story boards to present child characters in a rule-breaking situation, and asked the children what the character would do (not what the character should do) and how the character would feel about it.

In some of the situations, the character was strongly self-identified with a prohibited action. For example, a character called "Gloria the Painter" wants to paint pictures, but her mother says, "Gloria, you should not paint pictures!" and leaves the room. In another situation, Gloria can paint only if she takes her brother's paint set away from him -- and is explicitly told not to steal her brother's paints. Or the character in these situations may be named Gloria, but is described as a girl who likes to paint, but likes to do other things, too.

The youngest children in the study were most likely to break rules in all situations -- a finding the researchers found a bit puzzling, as even 3-year-olds have been shown to view moral rules as more binding than those restricting their personal identities.

But by the time kids reached age 7, they were much more likely to say story characters felt good about following moral rules. And older children were increasingly able to say characters would obey a rule even though it made them feel bad.

That's a big development, Lagattuta and colleagues suggest. It's easy to tolerate feeling good about obeying a rule ("feel good compliance") and easy to feel bad about breaking a rule ("feel bad transgression"). But these are not the most developmentally advanced responses.

"In some situations, notably when authority figures restrict actions essential to sense of self or identity, judgments of 'feel bad compliance' and 'feel good transgression' may be more appropriate," Lagattuta and colleagues suggest.

Good Parent Rules, Bad Parent Rules

Children not only break rules that intrude on their sense of selves, but they also they feel good about breaking these rules, Lagattuta and colleagues find.

What does this mean for parents?

The findings "argue for balance in promoting morality in young children: Not only restricting actions that they should not do, but also helping them to identify situations where they can assert personal control," Lagattuta and colleagues say. "Such an approach does not advocate telling children to blatantly disobey authority, but rather promotes helping children respectfully negotiate socially and culturally acceptable areas of personal choice."

In a nutshell, the authors say, there's a need for adults to give kids the space they need to make the connection between self-identity and personal control.

Not achieving this balance can be a problem.

"Over-regulation of the child's personal domain may be psychologically harmful in that the adult not only restricts the child's ability to express him or herself, but also evaluates that aspect of the child's identity as immoral or unworthy," Lagattuta and colleagues say.

Although different rules may be perceived as involving moral duty or personal identity in different cultures, the researchers note that studies from various cultures find that mental health depends on development not just of self-control, but of control of one's self.

Lagattuta and colleagues report their findings in the March/April issue of Child Development.


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SOURCES: Lagattuta, K.H. Child Development, March/April 2010; vol 81 (2).

News release, Society for Research in Child Development.

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