This morning I declared a new rule; that for every candy wrapper I found outside of a garbage can, I would confiscate one piece of candy. It was not a reasoned or calculated declaration, just the natural response of knowing that the influx of Halloween candies would mean garbage all over the house. Sometimes these in-the-moment rules feel brilliant in the moment of creation. Sometimes they are. Other times, not so much. The problem with new rules is that they then have to be enforced. In theory since I am both the maker of family rules and the enforcer thereof, no problems should result. Yet they do.
My new rule was immediately met with rules lawyering. What if Gleek left the wrapper out, but I confiscated a piece of Patch’s candy? How would that be fair? I answered that perhaps they should just pick up any wrapper they saw rather than stopping to worry whose it was. The first confiscations occurred within thirty minutes. The first post-confiscation argument about fault happened thirty seconds later. This is where rule enforcement breaks down. Now I know that any confiscation will likely result in an argument. Instead of instantly applying consequences when I see a wrapper, I pause. Is this a good time to deal with an argument? Should I pretend I didn’t see the wrapper and hope they’ll snatch it up? Should I draw attention to the wrapper and give them a chance to clean it up? The rule will be most effective if I apply the consequence quickly, efficiently, and without comment. In theory it will solve the problem of candy wrappers. However it also creates hidden incentives. If Gleek has a candy stash and Link only has one piece, he has no incentive other than good citizenship to clean up his wrapper. An angry child might fish wrappers out of the trash and strew them all over the house on purpose in order to get a siblings’ candy confiscated. Suddenly instead of a simple action and consequence I have to start listening to cases and weighing motives. The rule which was supposed to make my life simpler can instead be a time sink.
Then there is the issue of co-enforcement. I made up my new rule instantly without consulting Howard in advance. In this case he liked the rule, but what if he disagreed with it? We’ve done that to each other before, requiring the other to decide between parental unity or discipline preferences. Even when we agree on the rule and consequence, our enforcement techniques will differ. The kids will quickly learn which parent is more lenient on which rules. They will take advantage of this knowledge.
All of this makes rule making sound futile. Yet it isn’t. The creation and abolition of rules helps our family define who we are. All those arguments about “Why should I lose my candy when he left the wrapper on the floor” are really discussions about compassion, fairness, and boundaries. We’re learning methods of confrontation both good and bad. Sometimes it all goes wrong and ends with slammed doors. Other times we wend our way through argument into laughter. Bit by bit we define who we are when we are together as a family. Rules come into existence as they are needed and they wisp away when the purpose has passed. Hopefully somewhere within the next three days this particular rule will help us re-define ourselves as people who throw garbage in the trash can instead of waiting for mom to pick it up.