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Breaking the Rules for Justice

A "no parking" sign is posted against a clear blue sky; a superimposed quotation from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. says "The young know the rules, the old know the exceptions."

We teach kids to follow rules; often, their safety depends on it. Yet, we honor their questioning spirits. We want them to recognize situations when it may be right to break a rule.

Here are some paths to explore "breaking rules for a just cause," as a family:

Talk about rules vs. promises. Unitarian Universalists come together by covenant rather than by creed. Use this parent handout from the Tapestry of Faith children's program, Toolbox of Faith, to talk with children about why the faithful promises, or covenants, we make are different from a set of rules. 

Tell your child about a time you broke rules because you thought they weren't fair. Ask your child when they have experienced unfair rules. Talk together about ways to change an unfair rule, such as writing a letter or having a meeting with the appropriate people in authority. Give your child an opportunity to help create or revise a family rule so that it is fair while maintaining safety and health.

Look at the role of rule-breaking in the Civil Rights era. Anti-segregation demonstrators defied laws and customs when they sat, black and white together, at lunch counters. The story of The Children's Crusade tells how and why, despite a safety risk, activists allowed children to march to desegregate Birmingham, Alabama. Find first-hand reflections from Children's Crusade participants in "How the Children of Birmingham Changed the Civil Rights Movement," posted in May, 2013 on the Daily Beast website. Discuss with your children the decisions the Birmingham families and their community leaders made. Point out that while racism is still with us, people's courage to break unfair rules helped to get those rules changed.

Start a conversation about civil disobedience with a developmentally appropriate book. Find books to share with children pre-K through grade 6 in "11 Children's Books about Nonviolent Protest and Resistance," an October, 2016 blog post from The Institute for Humane Education.

Include the youngest school-age children in a family discussion about the government's pursuit of immigrants for deportation. Explain that a person born in another country who lives and works or goes to school here in the U.S. is breaking a law if they don't have legal papers that say they can stay. But, does that mean they are doing something wrong?

Introduce your family to Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani woman noted for her brave civil disobedience. At age 15, already an outspoken advocate for girls' education, she was shot by a Taliban militant. Since her recovery, she promotes her cause internationally and co-won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. She has said, "They wanted to silence one Malala, but instead now thousands and millions of Malalas are speaking."

Read "When Breaking the Rules is Required," a Huffington Post article that considers ethical decision-making in the context of new self-driving car technology.

Bring in humor. "A Rule is to Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy" is a fun-spirited picture book for parents and children that affirms freedom, responsibility, and thinking for oneself.

Thoreau, Gandhi, and King

Civil disobedience is a tried-and-true tactic of justice-seekers. Henry Thoreau was one of our faith ancestors who famously employed civil disobedience. Subsequently, both Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Jr. drew inspiration from Thoreau's choice to sit in jail rather than pay taxes that supported a war. "The Power of Peace," a story in the Tapestry of Faith curriculum, Love Connects Us, is a good way to introduce children age 8 and older to these three, iconic rule-breakers.

"The Power of Peace"

A Light Across the River

The Families insert in UU World magazine, Winter 2017, features a dramatic story about Underground Railroad conductors defying rules to make justice.