the needs of the many


I read something interesting today: someone was quoting a 15-year-old book on raising boys, and it said:

“Boys want to know three things:

1. What are the rules?

2. Who is in charge?

3. Will the rules be enforced by the person in charge?”

I think this is one of those brilliant statements that explains way more than the subject it intends; the same three rules could be adopted for pretty much any of us, boy/girl, child/adult, every time we walk out the door. Some are nakedly obvious – if you’re in a car, the rules are the law, the cops are in charge, and they will enforce them. But it’s the more nebulous situations that force us to contemplate each rule, one by one.

Say you’re in a college class, and the teacher is extremely late. I remember things working as follows:

1. Rule: If a professor is 15 minutes late, you can leave. If it’s a T.A., they only get ten.

2. The absent professor is nominally in charge, but “accepted tradition” is the trump card here.

3. Generally, the professor knows they have little recourse after those 15 minutes.

You’re in traffic, at an intersection where many of you are stopped at a red light. There is no traffic on the other road, so you’re waiting for nobody. The lights aren’t changing. For a long time.

1. Rule: if the lights haven’t changed in a bizarrely long time, you can surmise they’re broken.

2. Again, the cops are in charge. But they’re not around.

3. You can run the red light, and pretty much everyone will follow suit, using the mob mentality to justify it.

Now you’re in a men’s bathroom at an Applebee’s in suburban Virginia. You hear a kid being repeatedly spanked by his father in the next stall, using profanity and causing the child to scream.

1. Rule: if it sounds like child abuse, the newer rules may compel you to confront the father, if only to let the helpless child know that his father’s behavior is unacceptable.

2. Who is in charge? Right then, it’s either you or the father, and which one is bigger. If any other patrons come into the bathroom, the scales tip towards you. If management comes in, suddenly Applebee’s is in charge.

3. If you’re in charge, enforcing them is up to you. Once Applebee’s is in charge, it gets very corporate, and you can bet your ass the father will be escorted from the premises.

In a way, you can gauge your own personality by the way you respond to question 3. It can be defined as a “moral code”, but it’s more aptly described as “in the grand scheme of things, how fucking important is it to observe this arbitrary bullshit in the name of the greater good?” I have to say, I find myself coming down on the side of “this is stupid and I won’t do it” more times than I’d like to admit. I have a fundamental belief that:

1. The rules are moronic.

2. The person in charge only has the power I give them.

3. You can’t get in trouble if nobody sees you do it, and you can run fast enough.

Being married and having a li’l punkinpants has definitely altered all that. Yet I still find myself fighting it occasionally, which sucks, because it smacks of entitlement and exceptionalism, two traits I have no business handing down to Lucy. She’s a girl who wants to know the rules, figures there’s somebody in charge somewhere, and has zero interest in testing it out. She loves to be a part of the program, to do good things for the sake of doing good things, and I’m not ashamed to say I could learn a lot by following her example.



0 thoughts on “the needs of the many

  1. killian

    Brilliant on so many levels. Am posting this to BB for my ethics class RIGHT NOW. Will let you know how class discussion on Tuesday goes. Thanks, and wish me luck!

  2. LFMD

    Lucy is such a beautiful girl! You better keep blogging at least through her teenage years, because I am looking forward to seeing and hearing about the young woman she becomes.

  3. Anon

    So a couple years ago, my (then-)12-year-old son and I headed to a local high school to play some pickup basketball with some co-workers of mine. All the doors were locked, so we couldn’t get in. I turned my back to make a cell call, when I heard a crash. My son had kicked one of the doors to try to open it, and it was glass (not to mention that it open OUT)! It didn’t shatter, but it was cracked and ruined. My first reaction: “There’s no one around! Run!” Then I took a deep breath and became an adult again. I had him own up to what he’d done to the school custodian and punished him. But that initial “Fight or Flight” reaction I had was pretty primal and overwhelming.

  4. emma

    My husband and I were talking about the late professor rule just the other day. We each thought it was ten minutes for professor or TA.
    I haven’t always been, but I have become a frickin’ rule follower to the point that I really don’t even have to know who is enforcing the rule. And I can’t understand why the rest of the world doesn’t follow the rules. Ultimately, I know that it is good that there are people who question the rules.
    I also think that children crave rules and structures and when they are not given any rules, you are asking for a lot of trouble.

  5. jp

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot this morning. I’m pretty much a rule follower like Lucy, and I can tell you how these questions break down differently for me.
    1. What are the rules?
    2. Who is in charge?
    3. What happens when I follow the rules and other people don’t?
    When the answer is that “nothing” happens when I follow the rules and others don’t, it’s incredibly, ridiculously frustrating.
    I hope Lucy never has to discover this herself.

  6. Ehren

    I have definitely been very concerned about the rules ever since I could remember, and hated the rules and rule-enforcers that I thought were stupid. I have confused a deep anxiety about the rules of certain social situations and introversion in the past (i.e., I thought I was introverted when actually I was just afraid of not knowing how to act in unfamiliar social circumstances).
    I tend to want to break most rules that aren’t logical systems. So I am a scrupulous traffic rules follower, and tend to get furious when people creep into a shoulder to gain advantage on a backed-up off-ramp, but I tend to enjoy breaking rules that seem arbitrary, inconsequential and unenforced. Bad rules seem to SCREAM at me to break them. I get itchy about it.

  7. GFWD

    My kids enforce the rules:
    Daddy said a naughty word.
    Daddy didn’t put the bottle in the recycling bin.
    Daddy didn’t put his seatbelt on yet.
    Daddy hasn’t gotten ready and we’re going to be late.
    Little snitches!

  8. Cartoon

    As a combined bicycle/train commuter, I have to get to the station by a certain time. On a daily basis, I have to choose whether to ignore stop signs and red lights in my suburb. My modified rules is to slow to 10 mph at intersections, but don’t stop if no drivers at intersection that would be alarmed or affected by my liberties with the rules, or if I see the law. I’ve done the same commute for at least 5 years, and it’s worked OK for me. I don’t behave this way in a car, because in that case my disregard could hurt someone else.
    If I understand the reason behind the rule, and think its ultimate purpose isn’t being met in my situation, I am OK to ignore the rule. This is my uber-rule.


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