The Surprising Results of Dropping the Rules

I recently overheard a conversation between two moms in a grocery store. One told her fellow mother that her son had fallen off his bike in a public park and hurt his left leg badly; they think he fractured a bone. The woman then proceeded to say she and her husband decided to take their son’s advice in response—and sue the city manager for not posting enough safety rules inside the park.

Yeah, that sounds about right.

Unfortunately, this interaction is a symptom of how desperately wrong the adults in our generation have led our young people. Not only have we conditioned students to look outward and blame others when something goes wrong—but we assume more rules will solve our problems. Surprisingly, this isn’t typically the case.

According to an article in The Atlantic, “There are no rules on the playground at Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand. Students are allowed to climb trees, ride skateboards, and play contact games. This relaxed approach to playtime started as a research experiment conducted by two local universities, but it went so well that the school opted to make the changes permanent. The school is ‘actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing.’”

I’ve written about Swanson Primary School before—but I want to make sure you catch the positive outcomes of a school with less rules:

  • A decline in bullying.
  • A decline in serious injuries.
  • A decline in vandalism.
  • A rise in student engagement.

Why Is This Story News Worthy?

We are a generation of adults who are more educated than ever. Sadly, because we’re so aware of the pitfalls of any misstep, we’ve actually over-stepped our boundaries as leaders. We’ve done too much and, as a result, we’ve achieved too little to help kids genuinely develop. We’ve hindered their maturation. I contend that good leadership actually spawns more leaders in the process. Our kids should grow into young adults who are ready for both autonomy and responsibility as they mature into and beyond adolescence. Unfortunately, they seem to need us well beyond the adult marker of 18 or 21 years old.

Consider the world adults have created for students today:

  • Parents are on top of them all the time to make the grade, make the team, and make the bed—all because we want them to reach their potential.
  • Schools create more rules and policies—usually because we want to avoid litigation from parents who believe we’ve failed to nurture them.
  • Coaches work to prevent any negative situation from happening to maintain the students’ self-esteem and safety—often leading them to actively avoid taking risks.
  • Retailers remove risky scenarios like dangerous playground equipment, toys or devices because we want to avoid all injuries and mishaps.

All of these steps make sense and are well intended. But, consider for a moment the unintended consequences of this type of leadership:

  • Students depend on whatever rules are in place to regulate their safety rather than thinking for themselves.
  • Students become mere followers of the adults, failing to mature into young adults who can self-regulate, which often results in a “victim” mindset.
  • Students ultimately fail to “own” their time, talent and energy because they’re not in charge of it. They need someone else to manage them.

Journalist Jessica Lahey writes, “Despite the evidence and the growing public tolerance for the idea—if not the reality—of exposing children to risk, many American school administrators do not feel they have the freedom to eliminate playtime rules the way Swanson did. And they certainly don’t see it as a zero-cost game. Parents drive our nation’s tendency toward more restrictive playground rules because parents are the ones who sue schools when their children get hurt.”

So How Do We Become Better Leaders for Our Students?

If we agree that we’ve not empowered our young people to make good decisions without our help, how do we change? How does this new kind of leadership look at different levels of education? Let me suggest some initial steps:

Elementary School: Both parents and teachers should agree they won’t “rescue” a child when they forget something (i.e. gym shorts, backpack, a permission slip, etc.) Adults should work together to build resilience and responsibility in students.

Middle School: Like Swanson Primary School, parents and educators should meet with the students to communicate they are reducing the rules, but increasing student responsibility to take care of each other, the lunchroom and the playground.

High school: Educators and administrators can host focus groups for students to ask how they believe the school could be more effective at reaching its goals. Then, enlist select students to take charge of several initiatives to ensure its follow up.

Universities: Educators and parents should meet with students to define outcomes a student will need to reach by graduation. Then, instead of the adults assuming all responsibility, have them share it with students—from civil discourse, to fraternities, clubs, budgets, etc.

Remember—our inputs should always lead to the outcomes we desire.

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The Surprising Results of Dropping the Rules