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Disclaimer:
This question is triggered by the current COVID-19 pandemic, but should please be seen as a more general question.

To cut a long story short, a long-planned birthday party sleepover at a friends house was violating both the existing and newly imposed contact restrictions and curfew rules issued by the government. The plans both exceed the permitted number of participants and the duration.

We had expected that the host family would cancel the event, but they decided to proceed as planned. So we as parents decided that we weren’t comfortable with our daughter attending1 and she stayed home. The other friend of the BFF trio (birthday girl is no. 3) went, and it seems they had a lot of fun.

Our daughter intellectually understands our reasoning and accepted our decision without fuss. But of course she was disappointed and sad on the evening of the party.

How can we help our children deal with situations where following the rules means that they are being “punished” for doing so while others are blatantly ignoring them and are being “rewarded” for their behavior?

This question applies to a whole lot of situations, like not cheating at tests when others do so, get better grades and are not caught, or showing fairness and self restraint when dealing with egoistic peers that will grab as much as they can... The list of examples could be continued ad infinitum.

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1 Not part of the question, just a bit of background details: The fact that the other guests and the host family were quite nonchalantly willing to ignore the safety precautions fit with our previous general observation of them being rather careless, socializing in larger and mixing circles etc., and we do have vulnerable family members whose well-being we have to consider. In other words, we didn’t trust them enough in the specific situation.

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    This scenario describes most laws. If there was no reward for doing the thing, then it mostly wouldn't need a law against it. How have you discussed "stealing is bad" with your daughter, and how have you squared that with "stealing gets me things, which are nice" (I get "rewarded" for stealing)? – Brondahl Dec 21 '20 at 1:29
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    @Brondahl probably traffic violations like speeding or running red lights are the best analogy: most of the time it doesn’t hurt anyone, but is capable of causing deadly accidents. – Spc_555 Dec 21 '20 at 16:13
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    Your daughter following the rules did not reward the rule breakers as her declination was irrelevant to the proceeding of the sleepover. Sorry, the title is a bit misleading. – MonkeyZeus Dec 21 '20 at 18:18
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    @MonkeyZeus Ironically in this case it did - when she backed out, she lowered the number of participating households to the permitted level, at least until the time of the curfew. But you are of course welcome to suggest a better title. – Stephie Dec 21 '20 at 22:31
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    A title that I can suggest would be "How to help our child value ethical behavior?" – MonkeyZeus Dec 22 '20 at 14:08
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Our daughter intellectually understands our reasoning and accepted our decision without fuss. But of course she was disappointed and sad on the evening of the party.

This is a good outcome and probably the best you can hope for. It's perfectly okay and normal to be sad & disappointed, I would be too.

How can we help our children deal with situations where following the rules means that the are being “punished” for doing so while others are blatantly ignoring them and are being “rewarded” for their behavior?

By talking with her and NOT phrasing it as "reward" and "punishment". It's more about doing the "right" and the "wrong" thing. "Right" and "Wrong" here are not absolute terms but it means behaving consistently with your own values and goals. There are always things you can do that feel tempting, but you don't do them since it violates your own rules: anything from not driving drunk or lying to staying away from that yummy tub of ice cream in the freezer.

Let's look at your example. You can start with a "goal" discussion: let her think about how she would phrase goals & guidelines for Covid. You'll probably come up with something like this: "Our goal for Covid is to stay healthy ourselves and not put other people at risk". If that's your goal, then she did the "right" thing by not going to the party.

Other people may behave differently perhaps because they either have other values or goals or they don't have the character or strength to stick to them. That's okay. We don't judge (unless it does harm to someone else). In this case, the other kids took significant risk for themselves but also to other people, so this is questionable behavior. This may have no consequences but it could also result in serious harm to an innocent person.

The niece of a friend of ours went to an outdoor bar and got Covid. Now her entire family has it and her father is in the hospital fighting for his life.

Sticking to your own goals and values is the best way to go through life. It's not always easy and not always pleasant and things will still go wrong occasionally, but it will result in much more long term happiness.

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    I deliberately used the terms reward and punishment in the question (not with the child), as they pretty much sum up how it feels. And looking at the problem from another angle, rule breaking can be inherently (self-)rewarding when you get what you want even though you weren’t supposed to. – Stephie Dec 20 '20 at 22:37
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    You say 'don't judge', but children do need to learn to think critically, which includes evaluating the values and choices of others. Ignoring COVID restrictions can be a serious health risk, and reflects an attitude to the government and the law that the OP and OP's daughter may not want to adopt. Talking critically with the daughter about what her friends did will be important, as well as thinking ahead of time how to explain their choices to her friends. You can do all of that without being judgemental or disrespectful (even though you may not in the end respect their choices at all.) – curiousdannii Dec 20 '20 at 23:25
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    @Stephie: t understand that it FEELS like reward and punishment, but it's not exactly what's happening and the more you talk and think about it this way, the more your child will see it the same way too. Maybe a better framework is long term happiness vs instant gratification. You don't eat the tub of ice cream since it's more important to you to stay healthy and fit. Maybe you can help her feel good about the decision: she did the "right" thing and protected herself and her family and that's more important than missing a party. – Hilmar Dec 21 '20 at 20:17
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(Good) rules exist because there's something that's tempting to do but can cause bad things to happen. Frequently these bad things are not guaranteed and perhaps not even likely to happen, which can make breaking the rule tempting. No rules are inherently rewarding all the time when you follow them or punishing all the time when you break them, or the rule wouldn't exist. It'd just be something people do because it benefits them or don't do because it hurts them.

Consider the example of wearing a seat belt. Most people are very rarely in a serious car accident. I'm in my thirties and I don't think my life would be any worse today if I had never put on a seatbelt. However, that's just luck, and I could easily get into a wreck the next time I drive. So although I personally find a seatbelt uncomfortable and annoying to wear, I still wear it. My "reward" is being less likely to be seriously injured or killed in a car wreck.

The same thing is true of your particular example. If nobody at the party has covid, then there's no harm in getting together, but the important thing is you can't know that, just like you can't know if you will get into a car accident. Probably nothing bad will happen in this particular case, which makes it tempting to risk. But what if someone does have it, she catches it, then gives it to someone else who then dies? Could she live with herself?

So the "reward" for following covid rules is not getting sick and not getting the people you care about sick. The "punishment" for breaking them is potentially killing multiple people. I don't think the issue here is really that there's no reward for following the rules and no punishment for breaking them: the issue is there's a definite, small reward for breaking the rules (socializing with friends) and an unlikely but much larger punishment for breaking them (catching and spreading a deadly disease). This is also true of most rules.

Nobody enjoys following covid rules. It makes all of us sad to not spend time with friends and family. If your goal is for her to happily give up socializing, I think you're out of luck. So long as she understands what's at stake and why it's important to sometimes prioritize unlikely but serious long-term consequences over short-term happiness, she'll be okay.

Get her in the habit of considering why a rule exists, as some rules should be broken. Thinking through all the consequences of breaking a rule can make it easier to follow, when it is a justified one. And, of course, there may be good reasons for rules which aren't obvious, so it's also important to not to break rules just because they seem pointless.

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    Thanks for your input. The question deals less with why rules exist and more with the - for lack of better words - perceived disadvantage of those who are following said rules. As I said, intellectually she understood and fully supported our decision. But it still hurt, especially as her two best friends decided to ignore the rules and had fun. For younger kids, your answer is a good starting point for a discussion about rules and the reasons for their existence. – Stephie Dec 21 '20 at 6:05
  • "Rules exist because breaking them can cause bad things to happen"--in an ideal world this would always be true, but there's also a great many rules in our world that exist to shift the balance of power or benefits toward a particular group of people. (Which may be good sometimes and bad sometimes.) This might be worth mentioning in your 4th paragraph when you talk about taking a critical approach to rules and situating them with your own values. – Tiercelet Dec 21 '20 at 16:08
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    @Stephie of course it hurts. I edited a bit to more directly address rewards/punishments, but I don't think you really have a problem here. It might make her feel better to read some stories of covid rule breaking gone terribly wrong, to know she is really doing the right thing, but nothing is going to make it fun to miss out on a sleepover. – Kat Dec 22 '20 at 1:24
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You can re-frame this as a question of cooperation. If you hold the door for someone who is carrying something heavy then it is extra work for you and a benefit to them. Society is about mutual cooperation. If you hold the door for someone today, then tomorrow you might be carrying something heavy and someone might hold the door for you. The benefit of mutual cooperation is better than if no one cooperated.

But there's the Prisoner's Dilemma where it is individually more beneficial if you could get all of the rewards of cooperation without actually paying the cost of cooperating.

In a pandemic, the options look like this:

  • No one cooperates: Everyone goes about their normal life, but disease spreads, people get sick, very bad.
  • Everyone cooperates: No one gets to enjoy their normal life, people only go out when essential, but the spread of disease is reduced.
  • Only some people cooperate: For the people who cooperate, they don't get to enjoy their normal lives and also the disease is still spreading more than if everyone cooperated. For the people who don't cooperate, they do get to enjoy their normal lives and they have a reduced spread compared to the situation where no one cooperated.

Simple versions of the prisoner's dilemma have optional solutions, like "tit for tat" (if someone cooperates then next time you cooperate, if someone betrays then next time you betray). But cooperation in society is a case where the prisoner's dilemma is multiplayer, continuously iterated (everyone makes choices all the time to cooperate or not), with imperfect information (you don't always know what everyone has chosen or what their options were), and sometimes asymmetric (the rewards aren't equal for everyone). That makes things difficult and there are ongoing problems all over the world with this.

BUT... Humans generally have an instinct to cooperate. Most people would rather live in a society with cooperation, even if it is sometimes imperfect. Since hopefully this includes your daughter,

  1. You can think about/talk about times and places where cooperation does work. This generally makes me feel optimistic about the potential for future cooperation.
  2. Remember that information is imperfect here, you don't always know when/how much everyone is cooperating, so you can optimistically treat it as though people are cooperating by default.
  3. In this case, cooperation is asymmetric...cooperating still protects you from getting sick even if other's aren't cooperating.
  4. If someone routinely doesn't cooperate, you can make boundaries so that you limit how much effort you spend cooperating with them when they don't reciprocate.
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Human beings are generally habit beings. We learn habits and then use them in auto pilot. Here our goal becomes learning the habits which will not cause us to crash later. When evaluated in only one scenario, breaking the rules can seem rewarding however we are subconsciously training our minds that breaking the rules is rewarding.

When we evaluate based on multiple scenarios, children can realize that breaking the rules can start out as rewarding but since we are habitual beings we continue practicing it and it leads to punishment. Presenting multiple views and examples to children can help them see the whole picture and give them comfort.

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First and foremost, we model very carefully and very visibly the behaviors with our children. We talk about the things we are missing that we really miss - I can't go to gymnastics, my wife can't go to the movies, we can't take a trip to go skiing; we talk about that frequently with the children, because it helps them normalize their feelings and puts them in a frame of reference. "I'm sad I can't go to the party, just like Dad is sad he can't do these other things he likes". Then when we discuss why they shouldn't go, we have this to refer back to as well which can help make that connection.

Second, we try to involve them in the decisions when it's possible. Not in cases like yours, where it's clearly against the rules, but in cases where it's permitted but might add a little danger - such as earlier in the summer, when local cases were very low, we'd talk about going to the store or to the playground or whatnot with the children. We'd weigh the pros and cons, and come to a decision together with their input - and sometimes that meant doing the (slightly) more risky thing. The idea here is to not only give them agency, but to give them insight into what factors you are conisdering when telling them they cannot go.

Third, we try to offer alternatives that help take the sting away. In my older son's case, for example, he wasn't allowed to have a birthday sleepover this year (as he usually does), even though it was at a low transmission time, because we considered it still too risky. So instead, we allowed him to have an entire day of screentime with his friends - playing games together and chatting, something we don't remotely do on a normal time.

This takes some of the sting out of not being permitted to do the fun thing; in the case you describe, had that happened here, we might have done something very fun for our child at the same time as the sleepover (say, an ice cream sundae night, or watch a new movie or their favorite movie, or play whatever game they find most fun) - something that gives them a lot of our attention, so that they are able to have fun in some fashion, even if not in the same fashion they were hoping to.

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    We did have first card games and then a movie night exactly for that reason on the day if the party. We do miss the little things, the traditions and habits (farmers market on Saturdays, ending with a break in our favorite cafe is now reduced to just a dash to the market and back home) and we talk about it. We also try to make new traditions and have found things we want to keep after the pandemic. – Stephie Dec 21 '20 at 22:24

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