Is 'playing by the rules' overrated?

"Is playing by the rules highly overrated?"
"Is playing by the rules highly overrated?" 

“Dad, do you think that playing by the rules is highly overrated?” asked my five-year-old son on a recent car trip. I’m not sure what it is about the back seat of a car that makes kids philosophical -- but a previous week’s question from there was “What is a soul?”

Still this was a big question and a bit of a surprise until I realised where I had heard it before. It is the first line of the theme song to cartoon show Dennis and Gnasher, characters from UK comic The Beano, and (after explaining overrated to him) he asked me an amended version: “Dad, do you think we should play by the rules all the time?”

So I girded my loins and I lied. I told him, “Yes, we should always play by the rules”. Now this may seem like the right answer to a kid in kindergarten, but the fact is I don’t believe it. I mean there are certain rules that you need to follow – the majority criminal law, driving on the left hand side, the law of gravity – but generally I find our society to be vastly overregulated and that a great deal of rules are useless and should be treated more like guidelines.

But my son is five, so what harm could it do?

Well, apparently that answer could turn him into a mini-Gestapo. For the next few weeks he became obsessed with rules. He would ask me what signs said, quickly worked out that a red circle with a cross through it meant, and was even quicker to point out to anyone when he thought they had transgressed these rules – and some he made up. He told kids at school not to climb on play equipment, he told his brother not to touch an electrical substation or he’d die and it took a lengthy negotiation to get him to give his mum her mother’s day card a day early (I was going away) because his teacher had told him it had to be presented on Sunday, that was the rule!

The following day my wife came up to me and asked why it was that Dash had told her that “Daddy doesn’t have to follow the rules”.

But it was when he innocently asked me what the speed limit was while we were driving -- and when I told him pointed out to me that I was going 3km over -- that I decided it was enough. I was clearly raising a future parking officer.

I explained that perhaps I had been a little rigid with my previous answer. Some rules were pretty serious but others you could bend a little, but something got lost in translation.

The following day my wife came up to me and asked why it was that Dash had told her that “Daddy doesn’t have to follow the rules”.

Back to the drawing board. I tried the fact that there were Big Rules and Little Rules, Core Rules and Non-core Rules and I tried the concept that yes you could bend some rules BUT you had to learn them first. Gradually, his obsession with playing the rule police subsided but I was amazed that such a simple exchange could spin out of control.

This is my first attempt at a complicated question (I brushed the soul question off by using a combination of new-age hocum and an episode of Doctor Who) and they are challenging. You do not want to confuse a young mind but I sometimes fear that simplification may mean that a wrong message is sent. There is also the crazy guilt I feel about lying to my kids about something that I believe in (Santa Claus aside, and no I don’t know why that’s ok either).

Yes, I do think that playing by the rules is highly overrated, but it has got nothing on opening up a parental can of worms.