“I believe in rules. Sure I do. If there weren’t any rules, how could you break them?” Leo Durocher (American Baseball Player, 1905-1991)
Last weekend I was involved in a conversation with a close girlfriend and my boyfriend on the subject of our individual inclinations towards following rules. It was duly noted by my girlfriend that I don’t like rules OR being told what to do, an opinion that my boyfriend was only too happy to agree with. They both stated primly that they “like following rules”, but differed in their enthusiasm for being bossed around (she likes it, he doesn’t – which begs the question, how on earth did he end up with ME?). This conversation was prompted by a remark my friend made after an afternoon at her house helping with her 12-year-old son’s birthday party. She looked at me with an amused little smirk on her face and said “You just don’t like rules, do you?”. Busted.
This ambitious birthday party featured an elaborate cooking competition which was based on the TV shows “Chopped” and “Cupcake Wars”, and I was there to help lead one of three teams of kids. The two other adult team leaders were my friend’s brother and sister, her adorable, lanky, self-proclaimed “Irish triplet” sibling counterparts. My friend handed us all several sheets of paper which, in too much detail for my liking, outlined the rules for the competition and the course of events for the evening. She also included some forms to fill out with the kids (another thing I don’t like). She then stood up in front of the children and pronounced ominously “THIS competition has a LOT of rules, so pay attention!”. My vision immediately blurred into soft-focus-mode as I stared at the pages she’d handed me, the lines of words blobbing together into a dense Times New Roman clump. I wandered off to the kitchen in search of an adult beverage, reflexively defaulted to my seat-of-the-pants mode, and hoped for the best.
This party was QUITE the undertaking. This friend of mine is responsible for some of the most creative, home-grown parties my children have ever attended. I am very grateful for this, because there is NO WAY I would have the wherewithal to pull off any one of these parties, let alone do it in my own home, and these events have made for some happy memories for my kids. She and I have matching sets of children in age and gender (we opted for greater spacing between them than did her enterprising mother… ). Through the past 15 years that our families have been friends, my three children have attended parties which have included among others, the following themes: casino, spa, bunco, mad science, movie theater, and something that included a passport (it was a long time ago, I think it was a treasure hunt). These parties are put together completely from scratch, all with the gracious help of another cohort of hers who is apparently an amazingly organized person and is also good at making rules and bossing people around (she’s an accountant).
So at the end of the shindig, (which I would venture to say was successful because of all the rules and regulations included in the sheaf of papers I neglected to read), I was feeling a little grouchy, not to mention delirious, after having spent three hours in the company of a bunch of sugared-up 12-year-olds. No doubt my grouchiness was also a result of having been bossed around all night by my dear friend and her sweet but militant cohort. As a result, I began morphing back into my own sixth-grade self, and while I wasn’t exactly ENCOURAGING my team to cheat or break the rules, I wasn’t stopping them either. By the end of the party, I felt a familiar rule-induced hysteria welling up in my chest, and I found myself adopting my classic posture of rebellion which includes hands on hips, eye rolling and foot stomping. This behavior was undoubtedly the reason for my friend’s smirky comment.
My team did NOT win the competition despite having the most glorious cupcake arrangement of all, which we dubbed “fantasy island”. Unfortunately none of the adults at the party managed to snap a photo of it, but let me just say that it involved liberal scatterings of glittery blue sprinkles (water), mounds of shredded coconut (froth) and featured a teetering stack of fluorescent green frosted cupcakes covered in teeny candy rocks (cliff). At the end of the party, my girlfriend announced the winning team. She pointed out that they had won by a slim margin, and that the points deducted for rule-breaking (bad manners) by certain children were likely what kept the other teams from being victorious. I wondered to myself silently if perhaps my disregard of the rules had hurt my team (shudder!).
After the party, the adults sat around on couches while the remaining children slipped off to the basement to eat more sugary foods and do the stuff 12-year-olds do when the adults aren’t paying attention. The discussion turned to the childhood of my friend and her siblings. It seems that a portion of it was unhappily overshadowed by rules that were delivered old-testament-style by their father and a stepmother whose behavior at times was not too far removed from a certain famous fairy tale stepmother. They recalled that rules were made and enforced without much love or reason behind them. Of course they each have different perspectives on this time in their lives, but for all it led to suffering, and contributed to a certain amount of estrangement from their father as adults.
The rules in my home as a child were somewhat flexible and usually made sense to me, even if I didn’t like them. I could feel the love behind them. While some things were non-negotiable, I was encouraged to think for myself and to present my own ideas, even if I was eventually shut down or diverted. The consequences for breaking rules were predictable and consistent, and not too punitive.
It is hard to tell why people are the way they are, but clearly human personalities are dictated by a complex mash-up of nature and nurture. Because I have three children who are each very different from the other, I can say for sure that like my friend and her siblings, one set of parents can produce a variety of personalities and temperaments who will each react very differently to the same set of circumstances.
I do not know why my friend and I are different when it comes to the subject of “rule following”. In addition to our inborn personality traits, I wonder about our childhoods. My childhood allowed me the space and the luxury to explore some of the more “challenging” aspects of my nature. To break the rules in my friend’s family could lead to dire consequences such as those mentioned by her brother in our couch conversation. He recounted living in tree forts for months at a time as a teenager to avoid the rules of his home and their consequences.
While I am super grateful for my sheltered childhood, I have also learned that it sometimes protected me from experiencing the natural consequences that come with a reckless disregard of rules. This hasn’t always served me well as an adult, as the learning curve has been rather steep at times, and the rules of my adult life aren’t always as easy to navigate as they were in my childhood. I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that there is a time and a place to challenge rules in grown-up life, and “knee-jerk” is not a good modus operandi for a happy life, nor is “naive”.
My friend is a very capable woman and a loving mother who has provided her children with the kind of home I had as a child. It is a stable and predictable home governed by two loving parents. It feels like she and I are coming towards each other from different places sometimes, but we always meet in the middle of it all to share something very profound. I am truly grateful for her friendship and her unwavering support and love for my family, despite the fact that at times she is good at forcing me take a deeper, harder look at myself.