I once sneaked my child into an event he was not old enough to attend.
It was on a family visit to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. There was a kids-only guided cave tour, complete with take-home hard hat and flashlight. My older son met the age requirement but my second son was a year too young. His father and I knew we’d have trouble if only one kid could go (and if only one could get the hard hat). Besides, we wanted a kid-free afternoon. So we sent the little guy along with his big brother and hoped for the best.
And you? Have you ever thought – as we did – that your child is more mature than her age and that the rules that keep her out are arbitrary? Have you ever thought – as we did – that your child should be an exception?
Let’s think about this. The idea that “rules are made to be broken” is the sort of thing that makes national park guides and others tear their hair out. Yes, it’s true that rules like the ones that restrict a child’s access to the cave tour are blunt instruments. They rely on an estimate of children’s typical maturity level at particular ages and certainly your child, at an age too young to participate, might be more responsible and more mature than another child whose age gets him in. But event planners have nothing else to go on but typical maturity levels.
If one can imagine an age at which a child would definitely be too little to participate, then setting even an arbitrary lower age limit is sensible. It keeps kids out of trouble who might get into trouble, or who might endanger others by distracting the event leaders.
But event rules have other limitations than age. The rules that govern kindergarten entrance, that determine who gets invited to join the traveling soccer team, and that select children for the gifted program all have rules that seem arbitrary to parents who want to get their kids in. It’s a short step from lobbying for our elementary-grade children to later trying to manipulate their college entrance and attempting to influence someone considering them for their first job. Parents have done such things. Parents have tried to bend the rules to favor their children at every point in their children’s lives.
Here’s the truth: every child is exceptional. If rules were bent to accommodate every parent who claimed his child is special, there would be no rules at all. No rules would mean no programs.
Right now you might be wondering if you can say your toddler is ready for the toilet-trained-only preschool even though you know he’s not. You might be thinking your book-reading four-year-old should be admitted to kindergarten a year early, even though she struggles to get along with older kids. Or you might be wondering if you dare take your underage kid to an R movie. If this is what you’re thinking, think carefully.
Yes, it might be that rules are made to be broken and I’ve broken my share. But rules are also a guideline for children’s success. Pushing kids ahead into activities they’re not prepared for doesn’t do them a favor. It might set them up for anxiety, stress, and failure.
Every child is exceptional. But not every child – maybe not any child – should be an exception.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.