The Trouble with Following the Rules

We were sitting in our marriage therapist’s office.  He was asking us both about our childhoods, as those pesky therapists do, and he noted how we both performed well in school.  Now, I was still in grad school at the time, and though I was 6 months pregnant with our first child I still wanted to maintain the A average I’d had throughout my entire educational career.  I still thought A’s were important and meant something.  With one statement, our therapist challenged that belief and the walls came tumbling down. 

He said, “Really the only thing that straight A’s tell me, is that the person who got them learned how to give other people what they wanted.  They learned how to please teachers and authority figures, but probably didn’t learn what’s important to themselves or how to be uniquely them.”

As I type that now, it’s funny to me that this thought sucked the air out of my lungs and was so impactful, because now I take it as common sense.  We homeschool 2 of our kids partially because we want them to learn for the sake of learning and avoid the achievement trap of grades.  But, at the time, my world was shaken.

It wasn’t a conscious thing, really, but I was never a rule breaker.  I waited quietly in line.  I raised my hand.  I stayed in my seat.  I only ever got in trouble in high school because I would break curfew, but that was more due to lack of executive functioning skills than rebellion.  I got A’s.  I never bucked the system or really even challenged authority overtly.  In my head I may have, and on the fine pages of the world’s worst teenage angst filled poetry journal, but never to an adult’s face.

And our therapist was right.  I didn’t learn about myself or how to be confident or go after what I really wanted in life.  I learned how to be a cog in a system and hang my head and quietly obey.

I don’t want my kids to experience the same thing.  I want them to feel empowered to question the rules and challenge them when appropriate.  Yes, I want them to be respectful, and I want them to be informed and mindful of what rules they challenge and why, but I want them to challenge the rules.

Part of me still wants them to just jump because I tell them to, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve yelled in exasperation, “Why can’t any of you just listen to me on the first time?!?!”  But, really, when I’m not emotionally charged, I want them to have their own, well-developed minds and moral compasses.  And often those minds and moral compasses might find it necessary to break the rules.

Following the rules isn’t world changing.  Following the rules isn’t often life-giving.  Following the rules is the easy way out and I don’t think we should emphasize it so much to our upcoming generations.

I’m writing this post in the week following the US celebration of Independence Day.  And I’m struck by the fact that had the colonists followed the rules, we would still be singing “God Save the Queen” at our national cricket games.  If Rosa Parks had followed the rules, the buses would still be segregated.  If today’s inventors had followed the rules, we’d never have the technology and advances that we do.  Following the rules isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Many of us are raising these out-of-the-box thinkers, who could be the world’s greatest rule-breakers.  I know it’s frustrating.  I grow weary of explaining the reasons why certain rules are enforced.  I wish they’d just listen the first time around.  But, I also have changed some of the rules when those rascally kids give valid reasons to, or call me on the ridiculousness of the rules I’ve laid out.

If we want to raise innovators and leaders and community-changers, then we need to encourage them to break the rules.