Children aged 4 to 7 will often disobey rules when they feel the restrictions will curtail their "personal domain," according to new research published in the current issue of the journal Child Development. This includes limits on their friends, clothing and leisure activities.
Giving children some degree of choice over these decisions is important for their "mental health," write the researchers from Brock University, the University of California, Davis and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The researchers gauged children's beliefs by asking 60 four- to seven-year-olds to look at illustrated cards showing parents forbidding children from doing something they wanted to do. The children were asked how they thought the young characters would feel and act.
Sometimes, the parent's rule affected a child's "personal domain of jurisdiction" - what they wore, who they played with or their beloved hobby. Other times, the rule fell within a wider moral domain, such as not stealing or hitting others.
When it came to moral rules, children said the characters would probably abide and feel good about it.
But for rules that intruded on the characters' personal domains, like mom banning them from painting, children said the characters would break the rules and that this disobedience would feel good. This was especially true when the researchers told them the outlawed activities were an essential part of a character's identity.
"At the same time as they are starting to understand why rules are important, they're also trying to figure out areas of their life where they can have control and choice," said lead author Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, an associate psychology professor at the University of California, Davis's Center for Mind and Brain.
Previous research has shown that most four-year-olds don't take kindly to even basic moral rules: "Getting what you want makes you feel good and not getting what you want makes you feel bad," Dr. Lagattuta.
As children get closer to age 7, they start to comprehend that following rules can feel good.
"They understand that aspects of willpower can feel good because you avoided negative consequences. … They also increasingly understand that breaking rules can make you feel bad, even if you get what you want."
That compliance goes out the window when it comes to limits placed on their friends and clothing, which they now feel they've got "legitimate grounds to disobey."
The authors say the research has practical implications for parents and educators, suggesting they aim to balance control with identifying situations in which children can start practising personal control.
"I think the case in most families, especially nowadays, is for parents to overcontrol and hover over their children a lot. Ultimately, you want your child to grow up and be an independent decision maker. … You want to guide them in the right direction and give them some practice in making decisions in these safer areas where there aren't big consequences," such as like letting them pick out a shirt in the morning, Dr. Lagattuta offered.
So how to honour children's personal kingdoms without turning them into spoiled brats?
"It's about picking your battles," she said.