This weekend I found myself in the neighborhood of my favorite gourmet cookware store, and with no kids in tow, I was free to browse the kitchen gadgets, spices, and cookbooks at my leisure. It was a busy day for the shop, and there was no parking available within a three-block radius. Not wanting to drive around the block again, I tried a spot near the storefront. The curb was partly painted yellow to mark a driveway, but I hoped I could fit most of my car into the space. Despite scooting as close as possible to the car in front of me, my rear end stuck way out beyond the yellow paint into the driveway. It was Sunday, and the gate at the end of the driveway was locked; surely no one would be making deliveries and I could get away with my parking job. However, after some thought I chickened out and moved the car several blocks away. I just knew I’d be towed, or a police officer would write me a ticket and a crowd would gather to gawk at the dumb person who violated parking rules. Of course, when I came out of the store, someone else had parked in the half-yellow spot I’d abandoned, and the tail end of that car hung out even further into the driveway than mine had. No one seemed to care.
My fear of breaking rules isn’t limited to parking regulations. I worry about following proper procedures or instructions in just about anything I do (yes, I at least skim appliance manuals). Even in graduate school after all the long hours of thesis writing, after facing my advisory committee, and after my public defense, I couldn’t hand in my dissertation until it had been checked for conformity to the university’s formatting standards. Along with all the other finishing PhD and Master’s candidates from various departments, I sat nervously with thesis on my lap, waiting for my turn with the “margin lady.” I’d developed a great relationship with my advisor and committee members, but I didn’t know what to expect from this last “authority” figure. I feared she’d identify some lapse in protocol that would prevent me from graduating, or perhaps rap my knuckles with her ruler. Just as everyone before me had warned, she was pretty stern and she did indeed get out a ruler to measure margins and indentations on every page. Fortunately the minor error she found required reprinting only a single page, but she wouldn’t sign off until it was fixed.
My children are also sticklers for rules when they’re in public, leading others to comment on their good behavior. I’d love to credit our expert parenting for helping them develop a strong sense of right and wrong (and perhaps we have helped to some extent). However, I believe it has much more to do with our children’s personalities. They’re cautious kids who worry about making a misstep around adults with whom they’re not completely comfortable, and they don’t want to do anything wrong in an unpredictable environment.
My kids have fun in school and engage with their teachers and peers, but insist on following rules. If I try to take a shortcut and drop my children off at a door to the school that’s not their assigned entry, they scold me and push me to the right door. My son once got mixed up in an altercation during recess, and all the children involved were sent to the principal’s office. Even though his buddy, who’d been to the office many times, kept telling him it was no big deal, my son cried inconsolably. I’m not sure what he feared because his principal is a very fair, kind woman who didn’t speak to him harshly or punish him. However, he mentioned later that the uncertainty of what would happen and the embarrassment of being in trouble caused him the most anxiety.
At home, I’m happy (?) to say that my kids push boundaries and let loose their wild sides. They squabble, bend our few house rules, throw tantrums, and talk back just like any kids would. Rarely, misbehaving results in lost privileges (video or computer time). More often we subject them to tedious lectures and discussions about the behavior (to which they respond by rolling their eyes and saying “I know, I know. Can I go now?”). Sometimes we can’t help but laugh, thereby encouraging the undesirable behavior. And we even join in on occasion—our potty talk jokes send the kids into hysterics. So, it’s not like we’re raising them to fear authority or stress about breaking rules. With a parent like me who worries about margins and parking violations, maybe our kids won’t go through major teenage rebellions. Or maybe they’ll just hang out with their buddies in illegally parked cars and send text messages with poor grammar, no margins, and bad spelling. I cringe just thinking about it.