“Safe, healthy, happy,” my son muttered. I repeated, “What are mommy’s rules for?” Again, he answered, “To keep me safe, healthy, and happy”. My son is four years old and yet, he has heard this question so many times that he has mastered the eye roll to accompany the answer. Success!
Children thrive on structure and repetition can often be a component of that structure. When my child hears the same thing over and over, eventually it seeps through all those toddler brain cells and sets in (hello, Daniel Tiger taught me this key concept!). “Rules keep you safe, healthy and happy” is repeated on the daily in our household. (Now, if only I could come up with a catchy tune to sing along.)
When my son was still very young, I began explaining the reasons for rules. At first, my explanations were far too complicated for his little brain to understand (I am guilty of this a lot!). So, I backtracked and remembered that children need short answers that are easy to remember.
Safe, healthy and happy.
I figured my child could not only remember these three words, but could also understand each concept. When he was smaller, I would remind him of a rule and then follow up with a prompt, “Remember, mommy’s rules keep you …” And we practiced responding with, ‘Safe, healthy, and happy”.
I can raise robots who follow my orders on command with the simple reason of “because I said so” or I can help my children see that there are very good reasons for the household rules. I want them to be able to consider an action and weigh the consequences. The daily repetition “Rules keep you safe, healthy and happy” teaches my son that there are reasons for rules – great reasons! And they should be followed. But it also teaches my son to discern a bad rule.
As my son gets older, I take opportunities to explain a rule and how it keeps him safe, healthy or happy (or a combination of the three!). Recently, my son was sick and I told him he was going to take a nap. He rarely takes naps anymore and so he got angry. As he started crying, I asked him why he thought I was making a nap rule. He thought about it and told me it was to keep him healthy. Bingo! We then talked about how sleep helps bodies heal and is so important when sick. Now, don’t get me wrong. He was still upset and didn’t want to follow the rule.
But I know he understood that it was a good rule because it fit into the “safe, healthy, happy” guidelines.
Down the road, my son may be in a situation when an adult or peer tries to tell him to follow a “rule”. When he’s away from me and the confinement of my authority, I don’t want him to feel lost. I want him to feel confident that he can think through any situation. I want my son to be able to ask himself, “Will this keep me safe? Healthy? Happy?”. If he feels unsafe, I want my son to know that he is allowed to break the rule.
I even want my son to be able to challenge my own rules.
I know full well that sometimes I demand obedience from my children simply because it is convenient for me and not because it carries any sort of value. Sometimes, this is necessary to get through the day, but a lot of the times I can check myself and realize that I need to slow down. If my son can feel confident in his own thinking skills to question if mom or dad are in the right, then I know he will be confident making those same critical decisions out in the real world.
I do want a child who obeys. I want him to respect authority. These are all good things. But I also want him to be able to discern the difference between good and bad authority. Repeating that rules keep you “safe, healthy and happy” isn’t going to teach him this complex nuance. It will, however, build a foundation when he is young that will lead to more questions and discussions.