Get off the table!

Our children are besieged by adult rules. Playing games with "rules" that are meant to be broken and acting the part of the helpless enforcer can provide them some welcome relief.

Once a month I lead a group of parents and children who get together for an afternoon of play. I've noticed how things that are forbidden are particularly attractive to children (and adults for that matter) so during one of these play times I tried an experiment. I made up a totally arbitrary rule that no one was allowed to get on the long, low art table, which in reality was perfectly safe and fine to be on. Naturally the children were drawn to the table like bees to honey.

They would climb on, a sparkle of mischief in their eye. I would explain, in a mock reasonable, very adult tone of voice that it was against the rules, and tell them to “Get off the table”. They would refuse, defiance mixed with laughter. I would tell them sternly that no one was allowed on the table; it was a rule. Of course they wouldn’t budge, so I would lift them off, and carry them to the other room, congratulating myself audibly on having maintained the rules. Of course they would sneak back to the table and, when I discovered them there, would laugh and laugh with glee. I would express surprise and outrage and haul them off, more loudly and forcibly, depositing them bodily on the couch and explaining how important and non-negotiable a rule it was and how they had to learn to do what I said. They would slip off the couch and return to the table, laughing at their naughtiness and at my inability to maintain "proper adult authority."

Month after month (year after year, by now) the children have come back to this game and been eager to play for as long as I have the energy to haul them bodily off. (What gets really exhausting is when the adults get into the game, just as enthusiastic about a chance to break rules, but physically more of a challenge.) They laugh and laugh as I play the part of an adult who is stern and authoritarian, but ultimately powerless in the face of their determined persistence.

It’s such a simple game. They love it so much. It reminds me once again of how pervasive is the rule of adult authority in their lives--hour after hour, day after day. They have to do so many things they wouldn’t choose to do just because somebody bigger says they have to. They are barred from taking initiative over and over again because of adult rules and prohibitions. They are wild for a chance to turn the tables (without really hurting the adults that they love and count on), to laugh and laugh from the position of being on top.

I have an image of all that laughter dissolving some of the tension that accumulates from always operating as the underdog. I imagine it leaving them freer to think in those situations, to remember the reality of their own power, to have less need to take those feelings out on some one even smaller or more vulnerable than them. I imagine them becoming more flexible about when to acquiesce to authority and when to stand up to it. And all from this the simple game of "Get off the table!"