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Note to reader: I enjoy asking questions that could potentially shape and focus the work of Character.org. At the end of this short post I pose 5 Questions. If one of them sparks your imagination, I hope you will share your ideas with me. I’m eager to learn.


This past week, while working with my Character.org colleagues on a worldwide “Golden Rule” initiative, it seemed like every one of my newsfeeds had something about the “rule of law.” I suddenly realized these two ideas have something in common….duh.

I have long been fascinated by rules. When I was young, I had a rage to understand the rules of every sport I played. As a parent, my wife and I spent hours and hours talking to each other about how we were going to teach our children the value of following rules.

But it was during graduate school that I took my deepest dive into the nature of rules. I had the opportunity to conduct research on how high school students were making sense of a “no hat” rule that had just been put in place (the principal was in my doctoral cohort). I never felt more connected to empirical or qualitative data, as students were confidentially sharing with me how they felt about the “no hat” rule and about rules in general (e.g., rules at home, classroom rules, and much more). What I was trying to understand were their reasons for following rules – as well as their reasons for why they sometimes would break a rule.

So much of childhood is wrapped around rules. Every child has to navigate the myriad of “do’s and don’ts” – whether at home, school, even on the playground. Most kids follow rules because they don’t want to get in trouble or punished. Yet, at some point young people want to know the “why” behind a rule. Indeed, research shows that by age 5 kids are able to grasp and understand the intention behind most rules.

We also know that personality differences can shape a young person’s orientation to rules. A young person who scores high on the Big Five trait of Conscientiousness will likely be more willing to follow rules that someone high on Openness to Experience.

But here’s a thought experiment: Can we imagine a future where rules are widely disregarded? Where the Golden Rule has completely withered away or is cynically understood as “Who has the Gold Makes the Rules.”

The truth is that every rule limits our freedom. See that stop sign? Imagine a future where you don’t have to stop if you don’t want to. What about the rule (or custom) of saying thank you? That’s old school. So, what’s new school? Each one of us gets to decide which rules to follow and which ones to throw into the rubbish heap of history.

Okay, you might be thinking that it would be hard to play a game with no rules. But imagine a future where coaches earn their keep by finding ways to bend (even break) the rules. Alright, that future is already here.

I initially thought to end this post with a list of 5 steps that parents and teachers can take to ensure that their children and students grasp the importance of rules. For example, we know from the research that when young people have a voice in creating a rule they are more likely to follow the rule.

Yet I want to take us in a different direction. At Character.org, we see ourselves as advocates for character, standing up for the importance of core values and character strengths in families, schools, and organizations.

Folks, rules need us right now. The notion that you do not “cross the line” — even if you won’t get caught — is rapidly etiolating across our society. Character-nurturing customs and norms are on the verge of becoming an endangered species. My concern is that this withering away of our collective respect for rules is the first step to a society where the virtues of fairness and justice will also be diminished.

Personally, I don’t want to live in a totalitarian, patriarchal theocracy that is The Handmaid’s Tale. But I also don’t want to live in the world of No Country for Old Men where the social contract has disappeared and the only rule that really matters is “might is right.” We can do better. Want to join us?

5 Questions To Spark Your Imagination:

  1. Do you think the very idea of “rules” (including the rule of law) is endangered?
  2. Some people are just fed up with excessive rules, red tape, and onerous regulations. Do you think “rule-creep” has made people suspicious of any rule?
  3. Are we veering away from rigid home structures of yesteryear to a contemporary parenting style that emphasizes too much freedom and license?
  4. What is one rule that your children or students have the most difficulty understanding and following?
  5. What’s one rule that’s most important, almost sacred, to you?

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