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Rules Kids Need to Break

Kids Need to Break Rules That Squelch Self-Identity, Researchers Say
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

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 Suzy."

"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 feel bad.

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 responses.

"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 suggest.

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