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My 8 year old son has an issue with following rules a little too closely. He gets upset if rules and/or routine are broken.

For instance, last night he was upset because a classmate was singing during "the Quiet Game" when they were supposed to see who could be the quietest. He reminded her that it was a quiet time and she responded that she was practicing the song for the concert. He again stated that it was quiet time and she should be quiet so their class could win the game. She insisted she should be practicing the song. He "shushed" her with his fingers against his lips. She hit him in the back, upsetting him BUT he wouldn't say anything to his teacher because it was quiet time.

He didn't want his teacher told of the incident because he didn't want to be singled out or embarrassed.

There have been other instances where he gets upset (can't ask to go to the bathroom because it's not between classes, doesn't feel comfortable speaking up, afraid of doing anything that isn't spelled out as a predefined rule so he has trouble adjusting to new situations) and his Mom and I are trying to get him to be more bold and confident, to think for himself and be sensible about rules as guidelines in some situations.

Are there methods or approaches to aid in achieving this? We fear he'll grow up to be afraid to take chances and fail, or be taken advantage of by other people who know he won't stand up for himself.

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To clarify some information here... I did talk to son's teacher about the above incident (I am Mom) and she stated that the girl in question is known for being difficult. He seems overly sensitive to breaking any rule...with other adults. The incident with the bathroom: he would rather have an accident than ask to go to the bathroom because the teacher had stated to the entire class that they were wasting too much time going to the bathroom. The incident at the concert ruined his whole night, leaving him to state that he hates singing. –  Xandria Dec 17 '13 at 14:33

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This might sound like a total cliche, but have you tried to get him to participate in extracurricular activities? Our daughter, a bit younger than your son, has really started to show more confidence in herself since she started tae kwon do. It sounds like he could use the balance a different atmosphere and environment, not to mention a different set of peers, could bring.

Also, are you modeling failure for him? Speaking as a perfectionist (reformed) that's the parent of a perfectionist, that fear of failure that leads to a failure to try can be crippling if left alone. I've had a lot of luck with failing so that my kids can see. I completely blew the routine for car pickup on my daughter's first day of kindergarten, and she saw the WHOLE THING. She also saw me laugh at myself, and blow it off as something learned. Just this week I dumped too much pepper into a crockpot and spoiled the soup I was cooking; the kids got to see me deal with the consequences and laugh as I did so. I can screw up plenty of times without even trying, but I do try to make sure that when I do screw up (either intentionally or as an object lesson) I make sure the kids see how I handle it, and how I get up, dust myself off and keep on trying. And it IS making a difference. She's much more willing to try new things (i.e., tae kwon do) and fail and then keep on trying.

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As the mom to OP's son, I can say he definitely sees me fail on a regular basis. I am able to normally laugh it off and move on. As to extracurriculars, yes, yes, and more yes. He has intense interests and then moves on to something else intensely. He does not like physical activity, preferring instead to focus on video games (playing one over and over until he has beat it before moving on to the next). I sound very much like a defend-without-merit parent, but I would love for him to react as I do to setbacks. However... –  Xandria Dec 17 '13 at 14:41

There are a couple of stumbling blocks you may be encountering, but first, I'd just like to say, many children have to be taught how to either reign in their over-developed sense of everyone bowing to their needs and whims, or they need to be taught how to speak up for themselves. When these two extremes are balanced, it can be referred to as self-advocacy. Eight is a great year for learning about self-advocacy and your child will need continued support in learning how to self-advocate appropriately right through to adulthood so consider any answer, only the beginning to a journey and a process. I hope you will find at least part of this answer helpful in some way.

Developmental Concern About Fairness

At your son's age, an expectation of "fairness" is fairly standard and something that is highly important to many kids. My guess is he is under the impression that fair means "equal" and "same" (as many kids are) and needs to learn this is not really the case.

My attitude with my daughter has always been that life isn't fair. We are all dealt different cards and have different talents and foibles - this means each of us also needs slightly different things. I then draw from real-life examples to show her this.

One example I have used with her is I was blessed with a better sense of keeping track of the "to-do" list and managing priorities than my husband was. This means he keeps a running list in his phone (He is also a realtor) - I don't have to because I can usually remember better, so he gets the latest and greatest when it comes to phones - I don't because I don't need it. That means more of our budget goes toward his phone than towards mine and she knows that. She also sees me being completely okay with that. When I need it, I grab a piece of paper or my planner to write my lists. I only need my phone to text, make calls, and occasionally snap a picture (I prefer my camera for that last one). At the same time, I am the family record-keeper, so I have the computer with more memory, a better photo program, and the better camera. She knows that too.

A more solid "in" conversation example for a child might be, You like to practice Tae Kwon Do, but you don't like dance classes. Would it be fair if everyone had to take Tae Kwon Do? Would it be fair if everybody had to take Dance? Do you need the same things for both kinds of classes?

It will take many examples before the lesson really sinks in, but he will most likely get it eventually. Some of the other answers here offer you more, great examples of this even in the possible explanations for the examples you gave in your question.

Another developmental step that may be a block for your child

You mention not just rules, but also breaks in routine, some children have trouble with transitioning from one activity to another smoothly if it feels unexpected or out of control to them. We commonly see this in toddlers, but the challenge can linger longer in older children as well. My little sister had such a hard time with routine breaks that even into her teens she'd get a little constipated during travel, particularly busy months (like Dec. with its holidays, tests and everything), or just if things were out of kilter for her. Even now, change is definitely not seen as a friend by her.

Your kid may be one of these that just struggles with transition and change and needs a little extra support on this front. When a routine change is predictable and forseeable - talk with him about it in advance. Mention what will change, why it will change, and what the duration of the change will be. Remind him of the change as it approaches and then reassure him there will be a return to the routine in X number of days, minutes, etc. Give him an opportunity to practice self advocacy by asking him if there is one part of the routine he thinks could be retained for the duration of the break in routine that would help him, what would that be? Then do your best to give him that one thing if you can.

For the momentary breaks in routine - especially those that were unpredictable, there isn't a lot you can do except explain what happened to change things, reassure him when you will be back on track and expect everyone to move on (with a little empathy however that might look for your circumstance - a hug and "sorry", a pat on the shoulder with a look that says, "I know this is hard" - whatever.

Teaching Self-Advocacy

A great way to go about this is to start with teaching your child about win-wins or compromise. The whole point of many rules (once you get past the ones designed simply for safety) is to help find a middle ground that provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That means if a rule isn't meeting the needs of some individual or minority group, that person or persons has a right to speak up with an alternative that still meets the needs of the other but also accounts for the minority needs - this is how negotiations can begin.

How this translates in the life of a child is again, to use examples and be for the parent to be willing to work with the child to find win-wins. You can use the quiet game instance as a wonderful example about this:

He reminded her that it was a quiet time and she responded that she was practicing the song for the concert.

Ask him how he reminded her - there are ways to remind someone that are bossy and there are ways that are self-advocacy. "so and so, we're playing the quiet game now and I'd really like to be on the winning team, can you practice singing later?" would be a perfectly appropriate way to approach the singer in this situation that is exhibiting self-advocacy. If she were to respond with "I'm practicing for the concert and got permission." then he is made aware her singing won't count against him and all is well.

You then have to teach a child to go get help from an adult when they encounter a child that is simply unreasonable and won't budge (as it sounds the singing girl in the example may have been doing), but it is a place to start.

You may also want to make it clear to him that many of your rules are about safety but sometimes there is flexibility too. Invite him to self-advocate with you about things like bedtime, order of things in his bedtime or morning routines, which extra-curriculars he is doing . . . This will likely be a novel idea, so you might want to invite him to speak with you about a rule you already know he might enjoy a slight shift in to get things started. For example, I have made it clear to my daughter that her extra curriculars must include something physical (a sport or dance, something that moves her body and teaches her how to stay fit) and something musical. She can advocate for how to meet those requirements rather than me just insisting on a specific activity.

A good frame to teach kids to help them self-advocate constructively when approaching you or others is,

"I understand you want. . . but I would also like. . . can we try."

Great Resource for Teaching Self-advocacy and good habbits to kids

My favorite resource for teaching self-advocacy to my own daughter and a few of my students has been "The 7 Habits of Happy Kids" and "The 7 Habits of Effective Teens" both by Sean Covey. The three rules of self advocacy in the books are, "seek first to understand, then to be understood," "Think Win win" and "Play well with others." Each book talks about these rules (and four other helpful "rules for life") in an age-appropriate way and we've read the one for kids over and over again at our house. The 7 Habits of highly effective families is by the late Stephen Covey (Sean's father) and can shed some light on the ideas behind the seven habits or rules in an adult-centered way if you'd like to read it as well.

In extreme cases or if the problem continues into adolescence

Let me preface this by saying, I worked in a school for highly gifted children with emotional, behavioral and learning disorders for a number of years. I cannot quote online studies at the moment, but have some background training that causes me to add this last bit on just in case.

I have to say, this is one of those struggles I know can be fairly common so I don't want to alarm you with the next part, you know your kid. This particular challenge can also be symptomatic of emotional disabilities I have encountered. When this is the case, over concern for sticking to routine and/or an over-inflated sense of self-assurance in knowing what is fair or not carries on later in life and in a more extreme form with highly emotive responses when the child sees something as not being part of the routine or as unfair.

I don't know the extremity to which you are struggling with this one, but when I say highly emotive I really do mean extreme. This would be exhibited with jaw dropping behavior or ear-splitting yells, not just a sense of dissappointment and/or confusion. If there is an emotional disability present of which you are already aware, you may want to mention the struggle to your child's therapist or get an opinion from one on whether this is symptomatic of the issue at hand.

If you are not already aware of such a disability in your child, but the problem really does seem extreme, you may want to visit with a child psychologist and discuss it with a professional and see what he/she thinks. Again, this is if you think the problem is profound and extreme - remember this is fairly common in its milder form.

Expect to take the opportunity to give your child feedback about how he approaches negotiations for exceptions for himself and in how he tries to "enforce the rules" by pointing out shifts he can make in his approach that are softer and more respectful of difference for a long time forward. but I hope these first pointers give a good place to start.

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+1 for "Ask him how he reminded her - there are ways to remind someone that are bossy and there are ways that are self-advocacy." If he can learn how to ask someone to stop breaking the rule in a dignified way he will feel less disempowered and frustrated. –  Ossum's Mom Dec 13 '13 at 17:40

My son has fewer qualms about breaking the rules, but a similar misunderstanding of when it's okay or not to make an exception to a rule. There are rules about when it's okay to make an exception to a rule, and some kids just plain have a hard time learning those compared to other children.

My son gets upset because he sees someone else getting away with something that he previously didn't get away with, and he doesn't understand the subtle differences in the situation, or doesn't have all the information. Part of that is because he doesn't pay very good attention to what's going on around him. I don't know if that's the case with your son or not.

Taking your singing example as an illustration, it's possible your son was not privy to a conversation where the teacher explicitly gave his classmate permission to practice her singing. Perhaps he has gotten in trouble for making noise during quiet time, and is trying to enforce fairness.

In that situation, my son has a very difficult time guessing what exceptions are okay to make. He would typically see the girl singing, see the teacher not telling her off for it, decide it's okay to sing his own different song, then get very confused when the teacher tells him off. Adults often don't explain the reason for the exception, but my son needs to be explicitly told in order to learn it, unlike a lot of children who are better at inferring it.

For the bathroom thing, perhaps your son noticed someone not being allowed to go to the bathroom, but didn't notice it was because the child made excessive requests in an attempt to avoid work. Perhaps that person was himself. When you get in trouble often enough for breaking a rule you don't really understand, you tend to want to stick to a strict interpretation of the rule. Likewise, when adults have a hard time explaining subtleties of exceptions to rules, or they see a child make more attempts than normal to define the boundaries of a rule through experimentation, they tend to enforce strict interpretations of a simpler rule.

The result of my son's difficulty inferring exceptions to rules is that it becomes our habit to give him more clear, but more strict boundaries, even in situations when we give his siblings more leeway. It's a difficult tendency to notice in the moment, and perhaps you or your son's teacher do it as well. What we try to do when we notice ourselves is to:

  • Explain the reason for the exceptions we've made for others.
  • Explain other possible exceptions he might qualify for that he might not have thought of.

Instead of, "You can only use the bathroom between classes," the rule is really, "It's always okay to use the bathroom between classes, but if you need to go badly, you can ask me. However, if I think you're just trying to get out of working, you will have to wait."

Adults don't always do a good job of explaining things like that, so you can teach your son to think of the exceptions for himself, and ask an adult for clarification. Ask him questions like, "When do you think it would be okay to use the bathroom during class time?" "When does the teacher let other kids use the bathroom during class time and when does she not?" "Why do you think she says no sometimes?"

If you practice that often enough, he will start to be able to make the connections better for himself.

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definitely! And you don't need to be 8 - I spent a few days in a 13-year-old's classroom so I could decipher the mystery of why kid A did not get in trouble for things and kid B did. It turned out to be this: up until an action has been forbidden ("stop throwing that" or "no more talking") no-one gets in trouble, and afterwards, whether the forbidding was to one person or them all, anyone who does it gets in trouble. You might not believe that a 13 year old couldn't deduce that rule, and an adult teacher never thought to explain it, but that's what I saw. Explain, explain, explain! –  Chrys Dec 11 '13 at 22:24
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+1 for discussing exceptions. My son is not very good at inferring such things even though he is much more a rule-bender than a strict rule-adherent. –  Meg Coates Dec 12 '13 at 0:04
    
+1 for "it's possible your son was not privy to a conversation where the teacher explicitly gave his classmate permission to practice her singing." And even if she didn't have permission, one strategy he can use when he knows he's too upset about someone else breaking the rules is to imagine something that might have happened to make breaking the rule okay in this situation. Like she got permission before class. –  Ossum's Mom Dec 13 '13 at 17:23

There are two reasons for a child to want to follow the rules: so he knows what to do (i.e., so he doesn't look stupid in front of others), and so he doesn't get into trouble. Don't laugh at the first: when doing the right thing is important to you but you have difficulty figuring out what that is, it is very reassuring to have rules that tell you what to do.

Your son must have been very upset when his classmate was supposed to be quiet but she was not. How can it be fair for her to not follow the rule and he has to? He naturally does not want to accept the implicit inference that she has more privileges than he. He sees that he can reclaim his equality by either stopping her from singing, or by singing himself. He doesn't particularly want to sing, and he is afraid of getting into trouble, so he tries to stop her by telling her the rule, but that doesn't work. Now he is even more upset because he has demonstrated his powerlessness in front of everyone. He tries to reclaim some dignity by being even more strict in his adherence to the rule -- to show her that the rule is so important he won't even tell on her when she hit him.

You are right to try to help him get beyond this. However, before you take away his respect for/adherence to the rules and fear of getting into trouble -- you don't want him to go too much in the other direction! -- give him some rules he should always follow (Guillaume used the word principles). The main one is the Golden Rule ("Behave towards others as you would have them behave towards you"). Show him (again as Guillaume suggests) how the specific rules we follow derive from this, and tell him that the degree to which these specific rules should be adhered to depends on how much someone will be hurt if we break them.

Tell him that the rules in school are there to help keep kids from getting hurt and to keep the classrooms organized so everybody can learn easily. In general rules are meant to keep the greatest number of people happy and safe, which is why we shouldn't break them; but that sometimes there are bad rules that should be broken; that sometimes good rules should be broken in certain circumstances; and that sometimes good rules should not be broken (but if once in a while you break these rules, people will still respect you if no one gets hurt and you take your punishment without complaining).

Talk to him about Rosa Parks. Ask him if he can tell you what made the rule about Negroes sitting in the back of the bus a bad one? (Hopefully he will be able to relate this to the Golden Rule.) Talk to him about how brave she must have been to do what she did, and say how much you admire her. (Later you can maybe bring home a book about her from the library and read it together.)

Then ask him if he can think of a situation in which it would be okay to speed (as Guillaume points out). Or to ask to go to the bathroom during class time (as Karl Bielefeldt suggests).

Then ask him if he sometimes admires kids who break the rules. Are there certain kids who seem not afraid to break the rules but are never mean when they do it? Is there a different set of kids who break the rules and everybody resents them for it? What is the difference in the way these two groups of kids break the rules? Ask him, when they get sent to the principal's office (or whatever the punishment is in his school), do they seem to be okay afterwards?

Tell him most kids get sent to the principal's office at least once in their lives. Sometimes because the teacher made a mistake and thought they did something bad when they didn't. Tell him it's okay if it happens to him. Tell him it won't be particularly pleasant but he's tough enough to handle it. Tell him about some time you broke the rules, took your punishment/learned your lesson, and moved beyond it.

Find a book in which good kids break the rules -- or are accused of doing so -- and are punished by the adults around them, but they don't seem to be devastated by it. My daughter and I have been listening to Bud, Not Buddy on CD -- we admire how hard the resilient Bud tries to "Have a Funner Life and Make a Better Liar Out of [Him]self". There's also lots to think about in Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and its sequels, books where bad kids (the Herdmans) break the rules, but it's okay (it's hilarious actually), and the world doesn't end, and maybe they're not all of them as bad as you think at the beginning.

Finally, help him relax about other people breaking the rules, help him take it less personally, by telling him that even if they seem to get away with it, frequently they are not really getting off without consequences. Ask him what does he think his other classmates thought of the girl who thought she was so special that she could break the Quiet Game rule? Does he think they all maybe resented her? Will people want to be friends with someone who cuts people in line all the time or leaves his trash on the lunch table for other kids to clean up?

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Interesting question. The general solution is to make a differences between principles and rules. For example, as a rule we follow rules on the road and don't drive on the wrong side. But the principle behind is to not endanger others life. If one day you are driving someone to the hospital for some urgent matter, driving on the wrong side maybe be the right thing to do, if it is not too dangerous.

I think this difference can and should be understood by kids, and the best way would be to show the example, because explaining is never as powerful as showing.

In your case maybe (my hypothesis) you are following rules very closely yourself. You could grab an occasion to break rules innocently in front of the kid and make a game out of it. For instance, if you usually don't eat anything before dinner, one day you could "steal" a piece of ham in the plate and share with the kid, and say "it is too good to resist", with a blink. But maybe not allow to eat all of them, or put disorder in a well-prepared plate, because the principle behind is to not disrupt a nice family dinner.

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+1 for differentiating between rules and principles; -1 for suggesting the OP encourage his son to break the rules in his own household. (Not that the OP can't be secretly glad if is son progresses this far, but his response to this infraction should be at least a frown or a stern word.) –  Ossum's Mom Dec 13 '13 at 17:17
    
Learning how, why and when to break the rules is as important as learn how, why and when to follow them, and home is the best place to learn that skill. I'd say well-behaved kids are those who know to do both well. (Maybe it is a French specifics, but here in France you see rule-breaking everywhere, always in the name of principles.) –  Guillaume Dec 16 '13 at 2:39

The fact that your child is following the rules and not breaking them is great. That being said, your 8 year old is way to uptight. You could tell him if following a rule might cause him or others harm. That rule could be placed on the BR list. Broken Rule list. Showing him that things are not always just right or wrong. Or just black and white.

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Can you find a way to answer this question without disparaging the kid? Perhaps he needs a little guidance and help with figuring out the limits and how rules can bend - especially at his age this is fairly typical challenge for enough kids that there is, "one in every group" so to speak. Maybe you can focus on helpful suggestions rather than judgements of the child (that you have likely never met btw) –  balanced mama Jan 25 at 1:55

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