I’ll admit it, dear reader. I’ve been putting off writing this week’s blog. Call it lack of inspiration, writer’s block, ennui, whatever. Maybe I’ve just been busy. In addition to actually being a dad this week (a little bit extra, since I was away from the family for four days last week), I’ve been working on a new writing project that has commanded a lot of my imagination and brainspace.
Cut to the chase–I asked The Dude what I should write about this week.
“Dude,” I said, “every week I write an article about what it’s like being a dad to you and your sister. What should I write about this week?”
“That you make the rules,” he answered immediately. “Did you write about that yet?”
Well, uh, no. That had not occurred to me, Dude.
“I’m the daddy and I make the rules” is something I jokingly say to The Dude with some frequency, generally as an answer to a “why” question that I don’t want to answer. Typically, this is followed by a lot of giggling and insistence that no, he is the daddy and he makes the rules. I get no respect.
This never occurred to me as a blog topic for a few reasons. One is the joking context in which I use the phrase and the somewhat silly nature of the rules I consider “Dad’s Rules,” like that we always listen to ZZ Top when cooking or eating Mexican food, and… actually, no. That’s the only one. But it’s a really important one, guys.
Another reason it never seemed like a topic for writing was that I do not make unilateral decisions. I parent as part of a team with my wife, and it ain’t a rule until Momma says it’s a rule (except for the ZZ Top thing–we all have to draw our lines somewhere). In fact, the bare truth of it is that Momma makes the rules much more than I do, and there are definitely things I have to remind myself to stop the kids from doing because Momma made a rule. Since she’s home with the kids while I work, I often have to trust that a rule she’s made came down for a good reason, and I have to present a united front to the littles, lest they find an exploitable chink in the armor of parenthood.
Finally, I suppose I should own up to the fact that I’m not really much of a rule maker. I’ve always been bigger on principles than rules. As a teacher, especially moving from high school to middle school last year, it’s been one of my greatest weaknesses. I fail to understand how I have to spell out every little thing when I’ve already made it pretty damn clear I expect my students to, you know, be good or whatever. As a parent, it means a couple different things. On one hand, it means I rely a lot on teachable moments and try to explain to my children why something was wrong instead of just saying, “No, bad,” like I’m talking to a dog with no ability to reason or rationalize. On the other hand, it means I’m constantly at the edge of my patience, going, “What on Earth would make you think that was an okay thing to do?” when the thing in question isn’t a previously discussed behavior or explicitly “against the rules.”
Don’t get me wrong; there are rules. Don’t hit, don’t poke. Just yesterday, The Dude got sent inside during outside play time because he poked his sister with a stick. He didn’t poke hard, and I don’t think she even noticed it. But rules is rules, people, and we are zero tolerance on the stick-poking. As badass as I might think it might be for Li’l Boo to rock a pirate-style eye patch, something tells me when she’s thirteen and those hormones and peer pressure kick in, she won’t be too thrilled with facial disfigurement. Poor kid’s got it hard enough with eczema and a dozen food allergies.
But then, more importantly, there are principles. This morning, Li’l Boo was a bit cranky and wanted none of big brother’s hyperactive crap. Sitting folded up in the corner of the couch with her sippy cup, watching some Mother Goose Club, she was just minding her own, thank you very much. But here comes The Dude, all revved up and ready to play. He didn’t do anything “bad.” He didn’t break any “rules.” He kept his hands to himself. He addressed her by her name and asked her if she wanted to play. Then he did it again. And again. And again. And again a few more times, then once more after that. In his defense, he’s four. Also, she didn’t really answer the question. She did shout no every time he got close to her, though, so that could maybe be interpreted as an answer. You know, if you’re not four.
As I said, no definite rule was explicitly broken, but I’m sure we can all see how this is not ideal behavior. Rather than barking an order or threatening a punishment (as I often do–don’t think I’m above it), I took a moment to explain to The Dude that sometimes everyone wants to be left alone, and we have to give them their space when they want it.
“Li’l Boo loves you very much,” I told him, “but right now, she wants you to leave her alone.”
See, “No means no” is a rule, and it’s one that anyone can and everyone should follow. But it also ignores a lot of the complexity of human relationships. There are a lot of factors that affect whether a no is temporary or permanent, or whether it’s a rejection of a specific behavior or of an entire circumstance or person. As a parent, I most certainly want my son–and my daughter, too–to understand consent and not only to respect others’ boundaries but also to feel comfortable setting boundaries. Part of that is learning that when someone else (or you yourself) wants to be left alone, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have done anything wrong, or that they don’t still love you. And that learning, so important to carrying on mature and healthy relationships, doesn’t come from following rules. It comes from practicing principles: Respect. Compassion. Not pissing off your sister. (That last one is especially important. For safety.)
Of course, following rules is a good way to practice principles. We the rule makers just have to be sure that our rules are actually based on principles and that we aren’t forcing our children to follow them blindly. Children who know the rules but not the meaning and thought behind them will inevitably value the rules too much or too little, and either of those can be dangerous.