Home > City mama, motherhood, the playground > Rules, culture, the rule of law, and what makes a geek

Rules, culture, the rule of law, and what makes a geek

I’ve been thinking a lot about rules lately. About how The Child wants, desperately, to obey rules. She wants a strict set of rules and for them to be followed and enforced. Because that’s what my little girl needs, I’ve become a Rules Queen.

The problems with this that I’ve encountered are two-fold. First, explaining to her that it’s not her job to enforce the rules. This bugs the hell out of her. In dance class, another little girl was dancing even though it wasn’t her turn. She handled it well, didn’t freak out or anything, but she did tell the little girl to sit down during class (I heard). And she’s kept talking about it for days afterwards. Explaining that it’s the teacher’s job, not hers, to enforce the rules lead to my realization of the second problem: Almost no one follows or enforces rules.

The teacher at the dance class didn’t. Other moms often don’t. Certainly other kids don’t. What’s more, we live in a culture where the guy who follows the rules, in literature or tv or movies, is usually regarded as too uptight, a jerk, someone without humor or reason. Rule-followers are mocked, derided, and made into the bad guys. Often they finally “loosen up” and turn into OK guys at the end. (This goes double for women. Usually they wind up having sex (or finding a boyfriend) and become much more fun/sympathetic characters.)

I remember, vividly, one day when I was in first grade. It was the first week of school and we were all very excited because we got to wait by the big-kid door for class to start (as opposed to the playground, where the Kindergarten kids waited). The Principal, Mr. Scizer, came out and told us all, in his nicest, most jocular manner, that we had to wait down at the playground. It was a new rule.

The next day, I saw my best friend, Caryn, and a bunch of kids all waiting up at the door instead of at the playground. Being a bossy little miss-know-it-all (AKA, someone who followed rules), I reminded them that Mr. Scizer had said we needed to wait at the playground.

They told me that I’d misunderstood, he was joking. I said he wasn’t. Eventually he came out and told us, somewhat angrily, that we needed to go down to the playground. And everyone was angry … at me.

That was, in many ways, the start of my social isolation in grammar school. I didn’t understand the unspoken code of when it was important to follow the rules and when it was important to break the rules. I’m still not sure I get it, sometimes. In fact, a lot of geeks/nerds are the ones who somehow failed to internalize the unspoken code of when to break rules.

I worry about The Child’s love of rules. And the fact that she gets very upset when other people break the rules. I’ve tried explaining that it’s not our job to tell other kids what to do, or even other grown ups, but it’s hard since often I also want to march over to the rule breaker and read them the riot act. And sometimes I do just that — I delivered a stern lecture to the guy smoking at the toddler park, right in front of the “no smoking” sign, for instance.

A lot of the moms stared at me, laughed, or turned away with a sneer when I did. Some of them said, “That’s right!” and told me they’d wished they’d done it. So mixed results.

But when I tried to get the kid down the hall from me to stop smoking in my dorm hallway, she laughed at me and several of her friends made my life difficult. I knew, despite my handicap, that going to the RA would be over the line — despite the fact that she was breaking the rules and making me sick (I had bad asthma). What’s more, I’d be putting the RA in an awkward position because it was understood that RAs enforced certain rules but not others. And any RA who enforced ALL the rules was considered a “ball-busting uptight bitch.”

I have spent much of my life dealing with the same long-simmering anger that afflicts The Child when she sees someone breaking the rules. (And don’t get me started on The Husband!) I worry that my inability to understand this silent and shifting gray area will force her, as it did me, into the geek category.

And that’s the last thing I want for her.

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