Three Ways You’re Teaching the Golden Rule Wrong

teaching the golden rule

Everyone has heard the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s one of those basic rules that parents tell their kids to follow. But we may be showing our kids something different.

Here are 3 ways we sometimes misinterpret or misapply the cherished Golden Rule.

1. Do unto others so they will do something good back unto you.

This attitude is manipulation disguised as kindness. It’s a twist on the Golden Rule that teaches us to treat others nicely, not because we would appreciate it, but so we can expect good things from them in return. It’s I scratched your back. Now you better scratch mine in some way. The true spirit of the Golden Rule is to treat others like you wish to be treated without expectation one way or another of how they might treat you. You see it in a spouse who thinks, I helped him/her with XYZ without being asked, so I expect to get a favorable response to my physical advances tonight. It’s in a parent who thinks, I helped my child with his homework. Now I expect him to go to bed without complaining.

2. Do unto others precisely what you want them to do unto you.

This misapplication of the Golden Rule is similar to the first manipulation, but it has a very specific expectation. Instead of just hoping for something positive in return, this twist on the Golden Rule says, I scratched your back. Now you better scratch mine the same exact way. In a family especially, this can be disastrous. It communicates that there are limited ways to express love and care adequately. If I do this, I shove you into my shoes instead of placing myself humbly into yours to understand your needs and wants. It’s in a spouse who thinks, I helped him/her with XYZ, so I expect that when I need help with XYZ, he/she will help without complaint or prompting. It’s in a parent who thinks, I helped without complaint when my child needed last-minute assistance, so he/she better hop to it when I need unexpected help.

3. Do unto others before they do unto you.

This old joke is a cynical twist on the Golden Rule. It forces us to look at others with a skeptical, guarded eye. It’s I’ll stab you in the back before you stab me. It’s the pain-inflicting and pain-avoiding opposite of the Golden Rule. It’s the spouse who thinks, I’m going to push his/her buttons before he/she has a chance to push mine. It’s the parent who says, I am going to let my child know I see his stubborn complaining coming before he says a word, so he gets the message loud and clear that I don’t appreciate it!

The truth is that to live the Golden Rule, we have to take positive risks with people who indeed may ignore or turn on us. But a person’s response does not change the fact that when we choose to treat him or her well, we have followed the rule rightly. We all are bent toward self-centeredness, and we all need help with the Golden Rule from time to time. It guides us on how to treat others when we are tempted to wrong them and when we’re struggling to forgive after we’ve been wronged by them.

What are some other ways you’ve seen the Golden Rule twisted in your family or elsewhere? How have you tried teaching the Golden Rule to your kids? Share your thoughts below.

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