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The Parenting Golden Rule

"Treat all others as you would like to be treated yourself."

The Golden Rule has proved its excellence as a moral guide since ancient times. Greek and Jewish thinkers, Confucius, Jesus, and other teachers of ethics all taught this rule, which is called "golden" to indicate its revered place as the ultimate rule of life. What better teaching can we utilize in our day-to-day approach to parenting? A variation of the Golden Rule for parents would be "Treat your child as you would like to be treated if you were in the same position."

It might be illuminating to apply this "Parenting Golden Rule" to several common methods of discipline, by considering the case of a husband and wife in the "same position" as that of children being disciplined in various ways.

1. Physical punishment

The wife accidentally spills coffee on her husband's new jacket. He hits her.

Will the wife be more careful with his belongings in the future? Or might she have him arrested for spousal abuse?

2. Time-out

The husband starts to argue with a visiting friend. The wife tells him "It's not nice to argue with your friend! I won't have this! Go sit in the bedroom for half an hour!"

Will the husband become less argumentative? Will the embarrassment of the situation set him straight? Will he feel like apologizing to his friend?

3. Consequences

The wife is out driving, forgets to fill the tank, and runs out of gas. She phones her husband to ask him to take his car to buy some gas and bring it to her. He refuses, explaining that she has to learn from "natural consequences" to be more responsible.

The next time the tank is low, will the wife remember to get it filled? Or will she be too preoccupied with fantasies of divorce to think about less important matters like car maintenance?

4. Counting

The wife reminds her husband, who is reading the newspaper after dinner, that it's his turn to do the dishes. He murmurs, "Mm hmm," and keeps on reading. The wife says, firmly "You have to do the dishes now! 10-9-8-7..."

Will the husband then feel like cooperating with his wife? Or will he conclude that he's married a lunatic? And would he feel the least bit loved?

All of these disciplinary methods look ridiculous when viewed in this way. But the reason for this is that our society at some point decided that children and adults respond to others according to different principles of behavior. This has been a very harmful mistake. The truth is that children, like adults, feel most like cooperating with those who treat them with kindness, respect, understanding, and dignity. The only "method" that makes sense in a humane relationship - whether with a child or an adult - is unconditional love.

In our society, we have been asking the wrong question. We have asked, "Which set of rules work with children, and which set works with adults?" The reality is, happily, far simpler: all humans behave as well as they are treated. Age makes no difference.

Parents wanting to help their children grow to be loving and responsible adults can do no better than to remember the Parenting Golden Rule: "Treat your child as you would like to be treated if you were in the same position." It's simple, straightforward, and effective. And we don't need to spend any time finding out what age someone is before consulting this rule. One size fits all.

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Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby