As a child, I remember asking why a lot. Probably no more than any other child though since I sure remember all my children questioning EVERYTHING. I found the typical response of ‘because I said so’ and ‘because I’m the parent’ wholly unsatisfying and I resolved, at a very young age, that I would never answer my future child’s questioning of rules and why things are so, without anything less than a proper explanation.
My fir st child, born in my 32nd year, asked the questions typical of a toddler. Why is the sky blue? Why are the days longer in summer? She also asked things like “Why do I have to hold your hand to cross the road?”’ and “Why can’t I have ice cream for breakfast?” Fast forward to 3 more children and the questions have become more challenging! “Why do we have to brush our teeth?” “Do we really need to bathe?” “Why do people think using swear (cuss) words are bad but saying other mean things is considered OK?” “Do we have to pretend to like people that we really don’t like?” “Why do people think it’s weird for boys to have long hair?”
Over the years, my kids questions have forced me to reconsider the rules of our society. What these rules are based on and do we really need them?. ‘The Rules’ didn’t seem to serve my children – or me as a parent. After all, a rule must be enforced, and the more complex my children’s questions become, the less I liked the idea of justifying and enforcing them.
While reading a well-known unschooling blog some years ago, I first heard the idea of values-based living. The timing corresponded perfectly with my children’s deep need to push the boundaries of literally every element of our day, including some of the nonsensical rules in the school system.
Why do we have to line up?
Why do we have to sit on the mat with our legs crossed?
Why are lunch and playtime so short when they are the best part of the day?
Why am I only allowed to draw what the teacher says in art class?
Why do we have to do homework when we’ve already been at school for so many hours?
Why is it that we spend more time at school than we do with our own families?
It became more and more difficult to answer these questions and explain them away by justifying them as rules. Rules, it seemed, would only work if we followed them, and my children, and increasingly their parents, were disinclined to follow them, and if a child won’t follow the rules, what then? Without resorting to punitive measures, one has little hope of compelling another person to follow rules that make no sense.
But if we weren’t going to have rules, how would we know how to live? How could conflict be prevented? How would we know when to go to bed? I was more and more drawn to the idea of ditching all the rules and diving deep into my own heart to find where my values lie.
So what are values? I like to think of them as elements that drive our thoughts, actions, habits, and practices. They are the common threads that, if we let them, guide us toward shared goals. They are words that we use to describe our interconnectedness and our part in the complex web of the universe. Historically we might think of values as being associated with a religion, a set of cultural traditions, or, in modern times, a movement – sometimes for social change. There is the risk though, that prescribed values can become no more than a set of rules, reduced to ‘the way things are done’ and thereby enforced by peer pressure, coercion and punishment. So values must be more than mere rules. They must sit in our hearts and manifest through instinct.
In my own life, I’ve noticed that as I’ve let go of rules, particularly those that are arbitrary and seem to be driven only by a need for order and control, I have been able to step more confidently into my values which are increasingly providing me with consistency. Not the type of consistency one gets from folding your towels a particular way or enforcing a pants rule at the dinner table, but the way you feel when you find the common thread that guides your decisions and the comfort derived from feeling into the deep knowledge that you are on the right path in life.
Those human values: respect for life, celebration of difference and joy in diversity, connectedness to our emotions, and acceptance of the full range in emotions of our children, honesty, loyalty, manifesting as unconditional love, open-mindedness, non judgement, and especially the ability to see the world through the eyes of others are all part of our innate humanness.
It would seem that we are at a crossroads. We are being asked to care for our fellow humans and our world but with all of the complicated man made systems that only rules can answer to. Many of us feel this conflict between knowing we must follow our humanity, our instincts, but living in a society so rigid with rules, many of them invisible and unspoken, that it can seem impossible to know howto start dismantling them.
Living in our values ultimately requires trust. Trust in others to live in harmony with us and trust in ourselves that we will be guided toward the right decisions. It’s the same type of trust that committed members of a religion or spiritual movement must practice, particularly when faced with conflict and challenging situations. It is this type of faith that can liberate us from rules and will ultimately lead us toward something inherently better and more satisfying.