Is obeying the rules too hard?
Is being an obedient learner a disadvantage? Tracy Engelbrecht wonders.

My 8-year-old daughter came to me upset by something that happened at school.

"It’s not fair mommy. When we have computers, I always have to share with someone else, because I always get there last. I get there last because I’m the ONLY one who walks to the computer room, like we’re supposed to. Everybody else runs!"

Oh my goodness, the righteous indignation; the angry face!

My first thought was to simply comfort her, say that maybe it wouldn’t happen next time. Then I realized it wasn’t the computer-sharing that was the problem. The real issue for her was the injustice of constantly coming off second-best when she’d done the right thing and nobody else had. 

A juicy parental quandary, just the thing to pep up a boring Tuesday evening. So what to do? Tell her ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’; it’s okay to ignore what you’ve been asked to do, because it’s not a big deal and everybody else is doing the opposite? Or tell her to keep doing what she believes is the right thing, even if it means she misses out?

A few pertinent and carefully-worded questions later, she figured out that even if nobody saw her run and she didn’t get into trouble, she’d still know she did wrong and that would destroy any good feeling she got from having “won” her spot at the head of the queue.

‘I’ll feel pretty guilty mommy. That would be a bigger feeling than getting the computer.’

Ja okay, so running in the passage is not the worst thing you can do. It’s not necessarily the first step down the slippery slope of juvenile delinquency. That’s not the point. I could forbid her to run and tell her to behave correctly or else, because I /God/ the tooth fairy said so – also not the point. 

The point is that she must develop her own sense of what’s okay and what’s not, not rely on being kept in check by teachers or the threat of eternal damnation. She must draw her own line in her mind. It’s much harder to break your own rules than somebody else’s. 

When those running kiddies get caught, they might feel bad for a bit, while they’re being punished.  But not bad enough to stop them again next time.  They either don’t understand why they shouldn’t be running – or they understand but don’t care, because that would interfere with their own immediate desires. That’s understandable and normal behavior when you’re 4, but not so much at age 8, or 15 or 35.

The pain of being principled

Sticking to what you believe is right is flipping hard, when all around you it seems evident that it doesn’t pay. There are times when the unfairness makes you so angry, when it doesn’t seem worth it and you just want to scream: ‘Screw you all, I’m running in the damn passage!’  

Maybe for some, it’s worth it and the end will always justify the means. I know I’m not one of those people. My internal line just itches too bloody much when I step over it, and I always wish I hadn’t.  I know there’ll be those who disagree and say it’s all about survival of the fittest and I’m raising my child to be weak and second-best.

To those people, I’d say, um… something rude. She’s not the one with the problem. Why should she change because others can’t behave?

Does school (and society) subtly favour those who break the rules?

Read more by Tracy Engelbrecht

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