Playing by the Rules

When I was a teenager and struggling a bit with little things like school and work, my Dad used to tell me a simple phrase to get my head on right: "If you know what the rules are and refuse to play by them, who's the dummy?" I was raised in a rules-bound home, but I have always had a challenging relationship with rules, to the extent that in my mid-20s I began to wonder if I would ever be able to follow them. So I tested myself by joining the Army, where I proved to myself that I could follow rules regardless of the circumstances. It was a wise thing to do, and I like to think that it made me a bit more comfortable with both rules and responsibility.

But I still think rules, in general, suck. Especially for kids.

When Kai was an infant, his Grandmother got him one of those "ring stacking" toys, where there are different colored rings of different sizes that are supposed to be stacked on a pole from largest to smallest. This one was beautiful; it was made of cloth with multi-colored fabrics, and it was so soft. I loved to watch him play with it; you could almost hear him thinking as he picked up a ring in those pudgy little baby fingers and placed it on. In my eyes, it was just perfect.

In his Grandmother's eyes, however, he was doing it wrong. In her schema, you always needed to have the large ring on the bottom. You always needed to pick up the large one first. It always needed to look like a pyramid. And you needed to put ALL of the rings on, in order. She would sit there and correct him, gently at first, with increasing levels of frustration, as she showed him how to do it right.

Kai, being a baby and therefore pretty independent in thought, would do it whatever way he damn well pleased. Ginger and I spent countless hours on our hard cold floor playing with him as he began to process just what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it.

In other words, he did not care about the "rules" of playing with his toy, he just played with it in a way that made sense for him.
And the fact that we did not interfere by telling him he was doing it "wrong" lead him to try new things and come up with ways to solve it that we never would have thought of. As he gained comfort with that toy, he applied the same free logic to all of his pursuits, doing things the way that made sense to him after exhaustive periods of trial and error, his mind working with his heart to catalog all of the possibilities and eliminate the ones that did not please him. And then his brother was born into the same environment, and did the same thing.

These two remarkable boys, to this day, generally refuse to play by the rules. Or, more accurately, they refuse to allow other people to define their parameters for them.

Some may see this as rebellion, but it is accomplished in love and peace.

Some may see it as restrictive of learning, but it is the embodiment of learning.

Some may see it as lax parenting, but it requires love, trust, patience, trust, and engagement.

Some may see it as giving up, but it is giving.

The idea of refusing to allow others to set parameters for you is fundamental both to learning itself and to the application of that learning. If Louis Braille had been too restricted by pre-set parameters, he would not have invented a way for blind people to read and write (which, by the way, he invented when he was 12 years old.) If Russell Simmons had followed convention, hip-hop music may never had made it to the mainstream. If Grace Hopper had allowed herself to follow the parameters of computing or gender conventions, modern programming language would have taken a very different turn. Hell, if James Naismith hadn't been bored in Gym class one day, we might never have had basketball.

What did these people have in common? I have no idea. But I think it's likely that they all viewed the world through the most powerful lens of all: What could be? What is possible? What is fun? What feels right? And it is just as likely that they did not view the world through rules and parameters and restrictions.

Last week, Kade and I took his new mini-basketball outside to play. We started with some fairly traditional soccer, which he morphed to fit his own idea of fun. As the "rules" changed to include hands, and throws, and tackling each other, I could sense the sheer joy he was experiencing as he tried new things and reacted in new ways. Eventually, the game morphed into a music game, where we sat across from each other and bounced/hit the ball back and forth to each other and let the bounces make noises that we turned into a song. It was magical - and free - without rules or parameters.

How do you respond when this happens in your family? Do the old habits of "right and wrong" and "rules" creep into your interactions? Do you find yourself saying "No, that's not the way you play soccer. You can't do it that way. That's not the way it's done. It's against the rules."

If so, stop. Stop now. Children are not sheep to be molded to approach the world through your own viewpoints of right and wrong; they are people who deserve to be respected and allowed the room they need to grow and explore the world on their own terms. If you set rigid parameters in their lives - in play, in behavior, in learning choices - you're putting up a barrier to your child's creativity. You're removing a key element of problem solving. You may be squishing their desire to explore and learn as they get into a mindset of "performing." Most critically, you're inhibiting your child's natural desire and need to define the world through their own eyes, in their own terms, and at their own pace.

Embrace the rules that make sense for safety reasons; throw the other rules for your kids out the window. And as you learn how to enjoy your life more fully through their example, throw out a few of your own, too.


  1. Always love it when Jeff Sabo blogs <3

  2. LOVE!!! So happy to read your wise words again....

  3. Thanks, Jeff. This fed my soul to read.

  4. This is lovely, and so simple. Thank you so much.

  5. I've missed your blog posts! A great read!

  6. What a beautiful post to wake up to ~ I have missed your voice also. I want more Jeff!

  7. My sister finds the most interesting blogs - I'm glad she's a blogger. What an amazing piece of advice to someone who "follows the rules, or else." I see my daughter's frustration when I tell her she's doing it wrong. This Mom will think before I dictate right and wrong.

  8. grand .. I always appreciate your inspiring perspective

  9. awesome jeff, even for those who know this being reminded of it in any way is refreshing! i am like you, with rule breaking, if someone tells me what i can't do, all i want to do is what i am 'not supposed to'. life's short, and it is such an empowering feeling to do things your own way, even if it means 'against the rules'. just like we did and you are doing with your family. there might be hurdles,but dang there is so much joy ;)

  10. When Drue was a baby my FIL would correct her when she played Mr Potato Head! It struck me as so bizarre! "No, no... where do his eyes really go?" LOL!

    As for us, the day after Drew's mom told us we could not get a dog (for whatever reason) we went and bought a St. Bernard!

    So, yes... we get it. But it is so good to be reminded. Thanks, Jeff. Glad you are back :)

  11. Love this Jeff! So glad you are back.
    I'm not a rules type of girl, never have been :)

  12. Jeff is back with a vengeance. Love this, love you. See you soon!

  13. Wonderful that you are back!