To execute laws is a royal office.
Rules are agreements about how people in a community are going to live together. We expect others to adhere to those rules and to the extent that they do they become an underpinning for a predictable, comprehensible world; one upon which we can depend, behave confidently, and over which we ultimately become master. Clearly defined and consistently enforced rules are an important part of creating a place in which children feel secure. And it’s really only when young children feel secure that they thrive.
As a two-year-old Henry didn’t care for school. It made him nervous. He didn’t want mom to leave, but when she did he would only (reluctantly) accept Alexander’s dad A.J. as a surrogate. One day he quietly told us that he was planning to break the whole school. Clearly he felt insecure.
Henry was big on construction, especially traffic cones, so we put out an APB to our families, rounded up some 30 orange pylons of various sizes, and filled the room with them. He thought that was pretty cool and allowed himself to be distracted from his concerns for a few minutes at a time, but it wasn’t enough.
One day he let me engage him in building a block tower. What he liked best was that I let him stand on a chair to build it even taller, but still it was only a temporary thing.
By the end of the year, he was still unsure about preschool, but he’d learned what to expect and had found a few predictable things to look forward to. It really wasn’t until the next year and the advent of “the rules” that he decided that school was a place for him.
For the next two years Henry was one of our most avid rule authorities. So much so that he would often prepare by coming to me to discuss and sort through several prospective rules, and then plan which one he was going to propose at Circle Time that day. Of course, he branched out into other activities, especially as he learned to play with his buddies, but the rules remained his touchstone.
One of the features of Woodland Park’s rule making is that we’ve never found the need to attach any consequences to breaking them, so when children inevitably run to Teacher Tom to say, “Cheryl broke a rule! She’s running!” all we have is, “Oh no, someone might get hurt. Did you remind her that running inside is against the rules?”
Naturally, an adult will step in if necessary, but it works much better to have peers remind each other about rules, than for an all-powerful adult to command obedience. The children tend to take the correction far more easily when coming from a friend. In reality, a lot of kids lose interest in any but the most egregious rule breaking when they’re cast as enforcers, but Henry took the role seriously.
One day as have millions of boys before him, Henry was playing police officer. But this wasn’t the ordinary game of pretend. He was actively engaged in the business of policing the classroom. He patrolled the school, mimicking police lights by holding his fists over his head and “flashing” them opened and closed. After each action he reported to me:
“Matt was dropping things from the loft, so I reminded him it was against the rules.”
“Lauren was standing on a chair, so I reminded her it was against the rules.”
“Faythe was splashing water, so I reminded her it was against the rules.”
Each time I would ask if they were still breaking the rule and, checking once more to make sure, Henry would answer “No.”
And off he’d go, lights flashing, loving school.