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Do as I say -- not as I do! One dad's story of breaking the rules

Ever drive faster than the speed limit, with your children watching from the back seat? Or sneak a candy bar into a movie theater (and share it with your kids)? As parents, how do we justify the occasional rule-breaking when we are trying to teach our children to be fine, upstanding citizens? NBC News Senior Editor John Baiata faced this dilemma during a recent walk in the woods with his daugh
NBC News Senior Editor John Baiata with his two children and dog.
NBC News Senior Editor John Baiata with his two children and dog.Baiata family / Today

Ever drive faster than the speed limit, with your children watching from the back seat? Or sneak a candy bar into a movie theater (and share it with your kids)? As parents, how do we justify the occasional rule-breaking when we are trying to teach our children to be fine, upstanding citizens? NBC News Senior Editor John Baiata faced this dilemma during a recent walk in the woods with his daughter.

NBC News Senior Editor John Baiata with his two children and dog.
NBC News Senior Editor John Baiata with his two children and dog.Baiata family / Today

By John Baiata, TODAY Moms contributor

Ever been called out by one of your kids? It happened to me recently, and it took a moment to prepare what I hoped would be an appropriate response.  I was hiking through the woods with my daughter and our dog.

“Dad, the sign says ‘Dogs must be leashed at all times,’” my daughter said, in a tone that was more admonition than statement of fact.   

“Honey, there’s no one else around, and Ruby (our dog) needs to learn how to behave when she is off the leash, too.  I think it will be OK.”

I could see her processing my answer. My wife and I are constantly stressing to our two children that there are rules in life that must be followed – and consequences to be suffered when they’re not.  What kind of message was I sending by ignoring a rule that was so very clearly spelled out? 

Those same woods lead to a lake that is a popular swimming hole during the summer – despite the clearly visible “no swimming” signs. Years ago – pre-kids – a park ranger approached me as I sat at the lake’s edge drying off after a swim, reminding me of the “no swimming” rule. I replied by saying people had likely been swimming in the lake for hundreds of years, would be for hundreds more, and offered to pay the fine if he felt it necessary to write me a ticket. (He didn’t.)

I chafe at the surfeit of rules that our overly litigious society has spawned. Lakes were made for swimming, beaches for frisbee, and woods for dogs to roam free. As the song goes, “Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” 

But kids change everything, and I wonder if I’d have been so nonchalant with that park ranger had my kids been around then.  I’d have certainly warned them of the dangers of swimming without an adult present. And breaking the law is different from breaking rules: I want my kids to grow to be independent thinkers, not convicted felons.

My son (a kindergartner) and daughter (second grade) attend a school where hugging is not permitted. The reason is not spelled out, but presumably it is out of concern the children might touch each other inappropriately. If you’ve ever laid eyes on a pack of 8-year-old girls, you know how laughably impossible it is to enforce this rule.  It also goes against virtually everything I’ve tried to instill in my children. I’ve told them I think the rule is ridiculous, and not to fret if they break it. 

Of course, most of us break rules every day. Ever drive more than 55mph?  Bring a candy bar into a movie theatre? And most of us would not hesitate to break the law if circumstances demand – smashing a window to escape a fire, for instance.   

But is it possible to set a good example for your children while defying a rule or law you don’t believe in?  Dave Riley, a professor of Human Development and Family studies at the University of Wisconsin, says it is, “as long as you involve your child in thinking through the moral dilemma.”  The key, he says, is taking the time to talk through the reasoning behind a decision, and the potential consequences. “Because I said so,” says Riley, is the worst answer you can give a child.

As a parent, I often find myself wrestling with scenarios that haven’t even presented themselves yet.  Allow my children to drink alcohol before the age of 21? Better they learn to drink responsibly under our watchful eye than, say, at a freshman college keg party, right?  Not such an easy decision when you consider the potential legal consequences for both parent and child. 

A more nuanced approach to these types of situations is called for as your children mature, says Riley.  You should begin to loosen your veto power on some decisions by laying out the pros and cons, and then letting them decide. “You can never prepare your child for every decision they are going to face,” says Riley.  In the end, the best any parent can do is instill their children with their values, and hope for the best.

So take that illicit dip in the lake, and enjoy that candy bar. Just remember: your kids are watching. And taking notes.

John Baiata is a Senior Editor for NBC News.