Huffpost Parents
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Shefali Tsabary Headshot

Rules-Shmules! Can Kids Thrive in a No-Rule Zone?

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

A school that bans the rules?

Yes, that is exactly what a school in New Zealand recently did.

The school principal stopped enforcing the rules as part of a study by Auckland University of Technology and Otago University. The study examined ways to encourage play among children.

Going against the tide, they decided to ban the traditional health and safety rules governing the playground. The kids began climbing trees, riding skateboards and playing games. Students were allowed to play with any object of their fancy -- with old tires, wood and other found objects.

"Climb trees? Rough-house? Skateboard? Unsupervised?" I can just feel the terror ripple through parents.

Our conditioning equates this with utter chaos, mayhem and anarchy.

This loss of control is every parent's greatest nightmare.

We have so vaulted the notion of rules and equated strict rules with a pristine standard of order, control and "good parenting" that another way seems inconceivable, even slightly insane.

Well, the results of this experiment have proven that we couldn't be more wrong.

The school experienced a drastic decrease in bullying, vandalism and injuries.

The kids became so occupied with having fun as kids do when there aren't a bunch of rules that they no longer needed a timeout zone. As an added benefit, less teachers needed to patrol the playground, reported TVNZ.

Another plus: higher concentration levels in the classroom.

Isn't this what all of us want as parents -- kids who are actually interested in learning?

The principle, Bruce McLachlan, to whom I sent a copy of my new book Out of Control: Why Disciplining Your Child Doesn't Work...and What Will, told The Independent: "The kids were motivated, busy and engaged. In my experience, children get into trouble when they are not busy, motivated and engaged. It's during that time they bully other kids, graffiti, or wreck things around the school."

It takes me back to the way I grew up where kids were left largely unsupervised on the playground. Play time was sacrosanct in the neighborhood and centered around things found on the streets -- old bricks, cans, sticks and stones. Being outside and together was the point of it all.

The principle further explained to The Independent, "When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult's perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don't."

There is a real jewel of a lesson here. One that is backed by neuroscience. Auckland University of Technology professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the study team, explained to The Indepdent that when children are taking risks, they develop their brain's frontal lobe -- and this allows them to calculate consequences.

Said Schofied, "You can't teach them that," adding, "They have to learn risk on their own terms."

And there you have the heart of an effective approach to parenting: a child's need to learn for themselves, which requires parents to allow the natural consequences of their actions -- not enforced "discipline" -- to be the teacher.

By "consequences," I'm talking about the inevitable fallout from our actions, not something we impose as parents, which is just a form of punishment and undercuts entirely the child's ability to develop their brain's frontal lobe, instead causing them to resent us as parents rather than seeing us as allies in their self-learning journey.

In case you think this experiment is a one-off, four Auckland schools were involved in the project and all reported the same results.

When parents put in place a bunch of rules, such rules undermine the key element of parenting, which is connection. In turn, this leads to a constant need for correction, which is why the schools required more teachers patrolling the playground while the rules were still in place.

From a child's point of view, rules and the punishments that go with them -- often arbitrarily imposed without any input from the child -- is bullying on the part of the parent. You're bigger, so you get to dominate. As adults, don't we resent someone who overrules us in this way?

When discipline- - rules and punishment -- is our mainstay approach to raising our children, instead of fostering connection, is it any wonder kids either become cowed or end up bullying?

The truth of the matter is this: we are terrified to trust our children's innate capacities to sort through their challenges and create solutions. It is because we come from fear and scarcity from our own unresolved issues around trust, risks, autonomy and courage that we project this onto our children.

It is time to change from scarcity to abundance. Instead of seeing our children as always lacking in some way, we need to see them as fully capable. This will allow them to absorb and reflect back this competence.

We need to start asking: "If not rules, what then?"

It is time for a new way of constructing childhood. One where the child is the constructor and we are simply the providers of the bricks and mortar.

And this is what my book: Out of Control - Why Disciplining Your Child Doesn't Work and What Will outlines in great detail. For a preview of the book, click here.