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Parenting Advice on Enforcing Rules for Kids: Trying to Follow Them Yourself

Concerned that I was enforcing a number of double standards, I decided to take my own medicine. It tasted funny.

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There is an established standard of behavioral inequality between kids and parents in my home, which is a fancy way of saying my kids are well versed in the old “Do as I say, not as I do” method of parenting. So while I harp on them to cut down on the screen-time, they might wander into my room at midnight to find me reading Twitter on my phone in the dark. And though I harp on them to clean their room, I blithely litter the floor of my own shared quarters with dirty socks and underwear.

If they were more intellectually sophisticated — not your standard 5- and 7-year-old boys — I’m sure they’d call out my hypocrisy. But they shouldn’t have to. I think maybe I should do that for them. Hypocrisy in others is one of those traits that makes me irrationally, mouth-foamingly angry. Political hypocrisy makes me rant on Facebook. Personal hypocrisy makes me rant to myself in the shower. I can’t help it. So let me say at the outset that my hypocrisy towards my children brings me great shame.

That said, I am by no means a rare animal. Hypocritical parents are more rule than exception. And being a hypocrite can be — if we’re to be honest — one of the joys of parenting. The feeling of creating a double standard is intoxicating. (The power! I can feel it surge through me!) But that doesn’t make it okay. Which is why I decided to address the issue. How? By taking the bold step of following my own rules for a week. If I told my boys to pick up their room, I’d have to pick up my room. If I told them to turn off the TV, I’d have to put down my screen. Radical equality for all.

Naturally, things got weird.

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“You have got to go to sleep!” I barked sternly at my children on Monday night. They were making a ruckus and disturbing the adult television time I share with my wife. It was 8:45 PM. I immediately recognized my mistake.

Rules were rules. If I was making them sleep (as if I had such power) then I had to somehow make myself sleep. I shuffled to bed, despondent, got under the covers and turned off the bedroom light.

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“What are you doing?” my wife asked. I explained the new rules I was following and she laughed. “Sucks to be you.”

Importantly, forcing yourself to go to sleep before your ready is impossible. Also, I demanded my kids do just that on a fairly regular basis.

The next day I was on my game. I did not want to tell my kids to do something silly lest I found myself having to get out of bed and eat breakfast earlier than I prefer. So I started pausing before making any demand. I thought about what I was asking and why. It was a kind of forced reflection. And as I thought about what I was asking certain requests revealed themselves to be pretty arbitrary. Did they have to eat their yogurt? It’s not like they were going to starve. They’d have lunch in mere hours. Did they have to change their attitude? If I were being forced to go to Catholic school on a bitterly cold winter day, I’d have trouble changing my attitude too. Did they have to put on clothes before breakfast? Why not after breakfast?

Experiencing the arbitrariness of these rules was a revelation. But that doesn’t mean my kids don’t need rules. They very much do. It just means that following them sucks. On Saturday, I didn’t want to get dressed until noon. I didn’t want to comb my hair. Or put on my damn shoes. Which is when I found the loophole.

“Can I help you put on your coat?” I asked my boys, triumphant. This was the way forward. When I asked if I could help I was no longer making demands. So I couldn’t really be hypocritical. But also — and this was odd — the boys were likely to comply.

By Wednesday I was erasing my hypocrisy, or at least becoming more clever in hiding it. “Get in bed,” I told my boys before happily skipping to my own bed, which was exactly where I wanted to be.

“Listen to your mother,” became a safe default too. I mean, I listen to her.

Yes, I was aware that I was bending the rules. But honestly, I was also learning so much. For instance, one afternoon I told my boys to go outside. Following the rules, I went with them and it was delightful. We all came in refreshed after picking up dead sticks in the yard and using them as swords and guns.

Clearly, hypocrisy was my enemy. And not for the reasons I had suspected. It wasn’t a moral ill — it just facilitated an unfortunate sort of laziness. It allowed me to disengage. In reality, I should be going outside as much as my children. I should be as kind to them as I tell them to be to each other. And that demand for less screen time? Well, that’s just good advice.

As the week comes to a close, I wonder, am I going to stop demanding my kids do things I would not do myself?

That’s a joke of course.That would be ridiculous. They are children and I am an adult. However, I will be more mindful about what I ask.

Some things don’t need to happen when I want, or frankly, ever. And I’ll ask to help more than I demand. But I’ll also take care to understand that there are things I ask of my kids, related to their well-being, that are beneficial for me too. And I’d do well to follow my own prescription. What’s good for the goslings is good for the gander. And it’s always good advice to listen to the goose. The goose gets it.