The Rules

My boys love rules. Not my rules; those just cramp their style. But they love making up their own.

They’re constantly issuing arbitrary rulings on what is and is not allowed. A prime example happened tonight in the bathroom. I was getting the boys ready for bed and Oscar was on the toilet. I figured I’d brush his teeth, since he was just sitting there anyway.

But he held up a hand. “No, Daddy. You can’t brush my teeth now.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I made a rule that you can’t brush my teeth while I’m pooping!”

“Come on,” I said. “It’ll save time.”

“NO! I MADE A RULE! NO BRUSHING MY TEETH WHILE I’M POOPING!”

I asked him why he liked making rules so much, and he said, “Because I’m smart.”

Which is a pretty good answer, but I know the real reason is because that’s what we do to them. We tell them things like no riding a bike without a helmet, or no bathroom talk at the dinner table, or no leaving Lego on the floor where the babies can eat it. We try to give our reasons, but a lot of the time I’m sure it seems random, like we’re just exercising our control for the heck of it.

And everybody likes to have a sense of control, some domain to call their own. Kids figure this out pretty quickly. Even toddlers know what’s Fair and Not Fair. Listen to a group of boys playing outside and they’ll spend 20 minutes arguing over the rules for the game they’re about to play before they actually accomplish anything.

Xander does this already. I teach him a card game, and then the next time we play he makes up 27 new rules that I can’t possibly remember. Then he changes them mid-game to guarantee he wins.

Poor Oscar, who has two parents AND an older brother bossing him around, is quickly learning to assert his own sense of control whenever he can. He’s much more to-the-point than Xander is, though. One day at breakfast he sat next to me and said “Daddy, let’s play a game.”

“OK,” I said.

“Ha! You lose!” he declared.

“How did I lose? I didn’t even know we were playing yet.”

He held up his palms to me. “I win because this hand says I win and this hand says you lose!”

And that was the end of the game.

There are times when their strong sense of justice is a good thing. A few weeks ago in the grocery store they were arguing over what candy to buy. We’d promised them a reward for being good sports during a family photo session, but I was only buying one treat to share and they both wanted different things. Finally, I dug a nickel out of my wallet and said, “Let’s flip a coin.”

They stared at me, fascinated. “Flip a coin? Why would we do that, Daddy?” Xander asked.

“Simple,” I said. “It’s a fair way to pick what we buy.” I explained heads and tails—if the Queen comes up, we buy gummy worms; if the Beaver comes up, we buy sour soothers. The Beaver won.

They both thought this was terrific. Oscar lost the toss but didn’t complain at all when I put the gummy worms back on the shelf. The Coin had spoken. The Coin was impartial and fair.

When we had another dispute in the cereal aisle, both boys got really excited. “Let’s flip a coin!” Xander cried. This time he lost—and he still didn’t make a fuss! It was wonderful.

Of course, Xander is a diabolical genius, so he’s already figured out how to rig the system. This morning he had made up some complicated plan for me to execute five minutes before I was walking out the door. I told him I didn’t have time, so he grabbed a deck of cards.

“OK, Daddy,” he said. “If it’s a black card, you can go to work. If it’s a red card, you have to do what I want and catch the next bus.” Naturally, he’d stacked the deck and I lost. I told him that was cheating and I still went to work, but I can’t help but marvel at the way he works things out in his mind.

I’m never going to play poker with him, though.

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2 responses to “The Rules

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