Rules Kids Need to Break
Kids Need to Break Rules That Squelch Self-Identity, Researchers Say
March 25, 2010 -- The rules kids are most likely to break may be the rules
they most need to break, a new study suggests.
Growing up means more than learning the rules you must follow. It means
learning which rules you can legitimately break, suggest University of
California, Davis researcher Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, PhD, and colleagues.
Rules that must be followed are moral rules such as "Don't steal your
brother's paints." Rules that children may be justified in disobeying are rules
that restrict the freedom to be oneself, such as "You can't be friends with
"Children learn to identify situations where there may be legitimate grounds
for disobeying," Lagattuta and colleagues say.
When does this happen? It appears to be when kids' motivation for rule
breaking changes from "me, me, me" to "I gotta be me." This change from
selfishness to selfhood already is under way by age 4 but deepens by the time a
child is 7, the researchers find.
What Kids Need to Learn about Obeying, Breaking Rules
To explore how children deal with the conflict between what they want and
what parents say they may not do, Lagattuta and colleagues studied 60 boys and
girls, evenly divided between ages 4, 5, and 7.
In half-hour sessions, they used illustrated story boards to present child
characters in a rule-breaking situation, and asked the children what the
character would do (not what the character should do) and how the
character would feel about it.
In some of the situations, the character was strongly self-identified with a
prohibited action. For example, a character called "Gloria the Painter" wants
to paint pictures, but her mother says, "Gloria, you should not paint
pictures!" and leaves the room. In another situation, Gloria can paint only if
she takes her brother's paint set away from him -- and is explicitly told not
to steal her brother's paints. Or the character in these situations may be
named Gloria, but is described as a girl who likes to paint, but likes to do
other things, too.
The youngest children in the study were most likely to break rules in all
situations -- a finding the researchers found a bit puzzling, as even
3-year-olds have been shown to view moral rules as more binding than those
restricting their personal identities.
But by the time kids reached age 7, they were much more likely to say story
characters felt good about following moral rules. And older children were
increasingly able to say characters would obey a rule even though it made them
That's a big development, Lagattuta and colleagues suggest. It's easy to
tolerate feeling good about obeying a rule
("feel good compliance") and easy to feel bad about breaking a rule ("feel bad
transgression"). But these are not the most developmentally advanced
"In some situations, notably when authority figures restrict actions
essential to sense of self or identity, judgments of 'feel bad compliance' and
'feel good transgression' may be more appropriate," Lagattuta and colleagues