The Problem With The Golden Rule

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Empathy doesn’t tend to come naturally to preschoolers. I don’t know about your kids, but the only walking-in-other-people’s-shoes that my girls do on a regular basis is the literal kind. As in, they like to put on my Dansko clogs and shuffle around the house in them. (It’s only a matter of time before someone sprains an ankle.)

For some time now, we’ve been trying to get them to understand and maybe even follow the Golden Rule. (a.k.a. Do unto others….) And this year in our UU church’s religious education program, the Golden Rule happens to be the theme. So the kids are hearing about it in the context of all kinds of stories and situations. Which I like. Because, after all, part of the reason we joined a congregation is to have life lessons and values imparted by means other than just our big, blabbering mouths.

So, the gals are getting Golden Ruled up the wazoo. But there’s a slight problem. See, they—well, wait. This calls for an Adorable Anecdote. ™

Last night while I was making dinner, the girls were playing together in the other room. Actually, they weren’t so much playing together as they were playing in the same space, and from the sound of it, getting in each other’s way. And then, inevitably, somebody got hurt. And then somebody else did. And then Clio runs into the kitchen to report that Elsa had pulled her hair.

“And she pulled it because I pulled hers, but it was an accident!”

Then Elsa appeared and said, with urgency (and a touch of condescension), “But Clio, it’s the Golden rule! You’re supposed to do things to other people that they do to you! Right, Mommy?”


So I explained: “The Golden Rule is that you’re supposed to treat other people they way you’d like to be treated. So it means that if Clio pulls your hair, you don’t pull her hair back. Because if the tables were turned, you wouldn’t want her to pull your hair.”

(Pause.) “But she did pull my hair!”

(Arggh!) “Right, I know, but….you should forgive her. Because if you’d pulled her hair first, you’d want her to forgive you and not pull it back. That’s the Golden Rule.”

“Mommy, can I have some of that cheese?” (Pointing to a bag of shredded cheddar she’d just noticed on the counter.)

“I want some too!”

End of teachable moment.

This wasn’t the first time we’d had a “do to others what they do to you” misinterpretation of the Golden Rule in the Baby Squared household. Honestly, I think the rule-as-rule may just be too complicated a concept for them to grasp. It requires a level of abstract thinking — not to mention selflessness — that I’m not sure the average four- or five-year-0ld possesses. And although it’s a “rule,” following it yields no tangible results. After all, just because you act nice to people doesn’t necessarily mean they (or anyone else) will be nice back to you.

Then there’s the manner of the whole “do (un)to others” or “treat others,” phrasing. Waaay too open-ended.

So how about this, for a more age-appropriate version: Be nice to people. Because it makes them happy.

And its corollary: Don’t pull your sister’s hair, or I won’t give you any cheese.

(Yes, you may quote me.)

Cool Letterpress Golden Rule poster, above, by Studio On Fire. Buy it here. (This is not a paid product placement. Just giving credit where credit is due!)

DOUBLE TIME, my memoir of parenting twins and battling depression (among other things) is available for pre-order! Order before May 8, and I’ll send you a free signed bookplate. Click for details.

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Article Posted 4 years Ago
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