What We Owe
to Each Other

29 June 2020

My grandmother had an interesting approach to dealing with her grandchildren. It was simple and consistent: rules are declared when transgressions occur. She had a small cabin on a Minnesota lake, and there was gardening to be done, chores to mind, and neighbors to visit. She had little time to wrangle kids into shape. So she imposed no rules unless your behavior warranted it.

It was incredibly liberating as a young child. The contrast to the strict rules of my parents was staggering. No bedtime? No need to ask permission to leave the cabin? No requirement to share the canoe? Nope. No rules. Work it out. Gran would say.

Of course, it didn’t take long to realize that in some ways “no rules” were far worse than strict rules.

With strict parents, you don’t have to think much about consequences beyond those of breaking the rules. So you push around the imposed limits on behavior until you are caught breaking the rules, and then the hammer falls. Over time you find that rules are applied inconsistently. One sibling might get off with lesser punishment. A rule transgressed might go unpunished one week and severely punished the next.

With Gran’s approach, you found yourself constantly thinking about the consequences, both to yourself and others. You had to think for yourself, and thinking is hard. Early on, my behavior led to a set of rules much more strict than my parents ever imposed. It was miserable. But over time, it gets better. Much better. You start to impose your own rules, and you start to find a balance between your desires and the needs of others.

It’s that last part that is crucial. Being mindful of Gran’s needs led to greater autonomy in the long run. So did learning to work things out, and being willing restrain your behavior for others at times. Taking responsibility for your behavior leads to greater autonomy.

As adults, this is an approach toward which we should strive. While I didn’t recognize it at the time, my grandmother’s hands-off approach encouraged me to mature. It helped me transition from a child governed by others to an adult who self-governs.

As we continue to struggle with the pandemic and many parts of the country are opening up, I’ve thought a lot about Gran’s approach to parenting. Rules are being lifted, and we all have a choice. We can be cautious and mind the consequences of our actions, or we can run wild until strict rules are imposed.

If we act like adults, we won’t need to be treated as children.