Thursday, July 26, 2012

Our Spectrum Through a Lens of Rules

Do you obey rules?

Why or why not?

What about the children you know – yours or others’?

Continuing on the trajectory that began in my next-to-last post about boundaries, we now turn to those more concrete, explicit boundaries known as “rules.”

Figure I: Chart of Obedience

This chart describes some of the main ways individuals react to rules.

People may obey rules out of a sense of justice or fear or respect. They may do so for the sake of appearances -- or because it has not occurred to them to do otherwise. People may disobey rules because they are not aware of them – or are aware and simply do not care. Or they may do so because they are rebellious and see rules as made to be broken. They may enjoy being sneaky, or feel that they need to be sneaky in order to do what they want to do.  In this chart, the motives of justice and injustice meet on the spectrum, as do two expressions of apathy.

Finding ways to help my Full Spectrum household follow those rules I deem important has been an ongoing challenge. In fact, when I consider getting my children to obey rules, the classic notion of “herding cats” comes to mind. G cares deeply about justice and will sometimes follow rules for this reason, but he tends toward the “Lack of Awareness/Who Cares?” quadrant of my chart.  Z typically obeys rules for the sake of appearances or out of fear or respect, while having a very strong propensity toward sneakiness and rebellion. I’ve yet to determine if, for Z, defiance is based on a feeling of injustice. 

In basic societal terms, it seems that G wants to be “good,” and is sometimes unable to figure out how, while Z seems to want to be “bad,” and is only sometimes successful due to constrictions which force her to act “good.” Obviously this is an oversimplification, and not language I would ever actively use in parenting, but it does reflect how I often feel as we try to navigate the world of rules as a family.

I was fortunate to encounter my parenting idol, Xiao Chuan Ayi (Auntie [given Chinese name]), when G was but a lad of two.  Xiao Chuan Ayi is unflappable, serene, as stable as I have always been high strung.  And she has two brilliant, active sons.

Her standard admonition is very simple: “You know what? That is not safe [or kind or polite or…],” said with great poise and tranquility and authority. Her boys could be breaking all sorts of rules -- swinging from a chandelier with machetes, making war cries and sprinkling those below with water balloons -- and, with a word and a Special Look from their mother, they are standing at attention. On the ground! She would surely argue that they don’t get off the chandelier immediately 100% of the time but, trust me, they listen more than most.

 Following the admirable Xiao Chuan Ayi, “You know what? “ became my earliest go-to phrase. “You know what? That is not safe/kind/polite/[fill-in-the-blank]…” was a relatively effective way to at least communicate rules and boundaries. if not to actually enact them in each instance.

The problem was and remains that I have neither what Xiao Chuan Ayi terms, “The Chinese Look of Death,” nor its Whitey McWhiterson equivalent.

“What if I got angry?” my demeanor and past conduct seem to say to my kids, “Oh yeah? Well…What if I-I-I…raised my voice to a fairly loud volume and then told you, um, you couldn’t have any dessert but, uh, you could certainly have some blueberries with a teensy bit of Hershey’s syrup on them? Huh? Huh??? What then!”

Very threatening.

“You know what?” Infractions in areas I really care about – kindness, respect, safety – may call my Full Spectrum of Doom down upon my chilluns. In those instances I am able to invoke a fearsome aspect of myself without, indeed, really even trying. I just – some stuff I just don’t care about, even though I am supposed to.  Sure, I would like my children to know how to properly set a table.  I have a hard time, however, mustering obedience-ensuring wrath over a fork in the wrong place.

But I should not imply that my friend rules through fear. To be clear, Xiao Chuan Ayi’s Chinese Look of Death may be most remarkable in how unnecessary it is -- because the woman just exudes calm. To wit, G, Z and I were recently at her house on a lovely summer morning and, through a series of stomach-related mishaps, managed to cover her entire bathroom floor (heck, her entire bathroom) in diarrhea. After cracking up big time (now that’s a good friend), she whisked G and Z away so I could deal with the disastrophe at hand.

While I scrubbed away upstairs, the children – those same children who had not stopped flapping their jibs for the first three weeks of July -- stayed downstairs with their Ayi, quietly entertaining themselves.  As I attempted at length to restore my dear friend’s bathroom to some semblance of cleanliness, not a peep was to be heard. Meanwhile, Xiao Chuan Ayi was…accomplishing things!

Or consider G’s kindergarten teacher, Mrs S.* Mrs. S is of small stature and looks like a stereotypical blonde angel. She is gentle, kind and quiet. Yet she was in complete control of a classroom that consisted of eleven rambunctious boys and two girls. Imagine the boy-filled, first-time-in-school chaos, and the tiny teacher in its midst. Yet: “Now girls and boys,” she would say softly, and the Entire Room would Instantly hush!

News flash: that type of gentle admonition leading to thrall does not often happen in our household, despite a much more favorable child-to-adult ratio.

Sometimes kids don’t listen. As parents, we must choose our battles. One task, then, is deciding which rules matter to us. The second is figuring out how to convey their importance in a way that makes sense, so that our rules are clear, just, fair and compelling.  Then we try to follow through with consistency and regularity.  If we can begin to do so with the inner authority and peaceful mien of a Xiao Chuan Ayi or a Mrs. S, so much the better.

I’ve heard tell my paternal grandmother (who taught first grade) had this gift, but such subtleties do not come naturally to me. From where I stand on the spectrum, rules that are just and good are meant to be followed and those that are not just and good are to be disregarded. Simple. Explaining why this is so feels alien.

Modes of enforcing rules seem either mysteriously subtle or ham-handed or violent.  Also, ineffective: yelling, exhortation, protracted explanations and dire consequences all have little impact given Z and G’s Spectrum locales. The way they handle rules could ultimately affect their overall well-being and chances of success in life, ergo, the need to cultivate new approaches.

The gentle authority of teachers like Xiao Chuan Ayi, Mrs. S, and my Grammy seems a tricky, elusive, extremely worthwhile art, and certainly one to which I aspire. 


Full Spectrum Mama

* Mrs. S will be Z’s first grade teacher in the fall, and her placid, earthy solidity promises to be a great match for X’s mountain-moving attempts.


  1. Thank you Full Spectrum Mama, this was just what I needed to boost my confidence going into first grade this Fall! Heather

  2. Having read this I believed it was really enlightening. I appreciate you
    taking the time and effort to put this content together.
    I once again find myself spending a lot of time both reading and posting comments.
    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

    Look at my web blog:


Dear Readers, Full Spectrum Mama seeks to honor and represent a Full Spectrum of opinions. All reasonably coherent comments will be published. If you are having trouble posting a comment (for reasons I cannot figure out, most people do??!!) , please email FSM @: