Rule Number One

road view

As a parent, I've found that it helps to have a few rules, but the fewer the better. In fact, maybe only one.

Rule Number One in Parenting

You can argue. You can disobey. You can throw a tantrum or sulk or cry. I will do my best to be fair, and I will always work toward what I believe to be your best interest. I will not be arbitrarily authoritarian. I will even explain myself when I think it's beneficial or otherwise appropriate to do so. But when I've made a parenting decision, it is in your best interest to abide by it. I can fight harder and longer than you can, I have more resources, and I have the patience of an adult. Any small battle you win will cost you more than it was worth. Rule Number One: Daddy always wins.

Of course, my kids have always enjoyed finding loopholes, but most of the prodding has been something we could resolve by thought experiment:

"But what if I do use up most of the hot water so that my sister has to take a cold shower again?"

"Then you'll take a completely cold shower the next time."

"But what if I get in there and take a hot shower anyway?"

"Then you'll not be allowed to shower for a week, and as you'll be unfit for human company, you'll stay in your room." (Notice the escalating level of punishment in response to compounded disobedience.)

"But what if I shower when I go to the bathroom?"

"Then I'll take time off from work to stay with you, escort you to and supervise your bathroom trips, and make sure that you spend all of your awake time doing something unpleasant and dull such as cleaning floorboards, washing dishes, or reorganizing your sister's Barbie clothes. What's Rule Number One?"

"Daddy always wins."


Rule Number One for Supervising Your Siblings

Having the eldest (available) child stand in as a babysitter once in a while is as old as multi-child parenting itself, and it offers benefits for all concerned. The parent gets some time away, the eldest gets to dabble in responsibility, and all the kids get a little bit of extra freedom. Unfortunately, it also means that the kid who's got the most built up "the younger ones get away with everything" resentment is also suddenly the one in charge. Rule Number One: Don't be a dick.

The kid in charge has the temporary responsibility for the welfare and safety of his siblings, and responsibility is only effective if it comes with the necessary authority. Therefore, in the absence of explicit instructions to the contrary, the kid in charge has the responsibility and the authority to prohibit use of the oven or riding a bike without wearing a helmet, as well as the freedom to permit the viewing by all present of PG-13 movies on Showtime or the opening of that new pack of Oreos. The kid in charge, however, does not have the authority to declare and enforce 6:00pm bed times, administer any form of corporal punishment, or egregiously favor one sibling over another in a dispute.

Who watches the watcher? The other kids are well aware of Rule Number One, and intimidation is effectively removed by the original Rule Number One:

"I'll tell Dad."

"I'll clobber you."

"But Daddy Always Wins, and if you break the babysitting Rule Number One, you'll get it worse than I do."

Yes, he would.

Rule Number One for Unsupervised Dating

Kids will be kids, which also means that young adult kids will be young adults. Or not. But making unenforceable rules is risky, so they should be eminently reasonable. You can't make a rule that your kid can't "go past second base." You can't make a rule that your kid must "wait for marriage." You can't assure your kid that "mutual masturbation is an equally satisfying and intimate means to shared pleasure." Well, I guess you can, but you're a damned fool if you think it's going to matter even a little bit in the back seat of a minivan—windows steamed with teen lust—on the four-month anniversary of the time they realized that they both preferred Frosted Flakes to Cocoa Puffs. By that time, they're making those decisions on their own, and if their actions don't match your teachings, you've lost power, trust, and respect. Your only hope is that your kid behaves safely and intelligently. Rule Number One: "Mr. Happy" always wears a hat.

"Going out, huh? What's rule number one?"

"Aw, geez, Dad. Don't make me say it.

"I can wait. Which means you can wait. What time did you think you were going out?"

"'Mr. Happy' always wears a hat."

"Have fun. And remember: If 'Mr. Happy' ever forgets, we'll have lots to talk about. I guarantee you'll find that conversation far more embarassing and uncomfortable than I.

Well, maybe not. But I don't want to find out.

Rule Number One in Driving

When Rick got his Learner's Permit, he found himself faced with more conflicting rules than ever before. Speed limit 55. Go with traffic somewhere between 62 and 67. Don't tailgate. Crowd that guy a little bit so you can make it through this light cycle. Stay right except to pass. Don't get out of the left lane through here.

Making a choice between being safe and obeying the law can be tough. Rule Number One: Don't be the idiot.

Driving safely requires constant vigilance. You've got to watch for changing road conditions, other drivers' actions, traffic signals and road signs. And most of all, the idiot.

The idiot is the guy in the Lexus who runs the red light through your green. She's the little old lady with the handicapped tag who comes to a full stop at the yield even when there's no one coming. He's the dude in the '87 Escort driving 55 in a 60 and belching clouds of black smoke from the exhaust. She's the high maintenance chick still digging through her glove compartment 15 seconds after the light has turned green. He's the dump truck driver who figures 100 feet is plenty of space to pull out in front of you into 45 mile-per-hour traffic. You know the idiot. Don't be the idiot.

"That cop is only going 40 and the speed limit is 45. Should I pass him?"

"What's rule number one?"

"Don't be the idiot.' But he's a cop."

"See how everyone is slamming on their brakes and slowing down because he's going under the speed limit?"

"Yeah, so?"

"His job is to make things safer, but he's doing just the opposite. Sometimes the cop is the idiot. Stay under the speed limit and pass carefully, but don't be afraid to leave him behind."

Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like life. You'll be merging soon, son. Be careful, but don't be afraid to hit the gas.

This essay was first published on my family website at on 2005-05-30.