When my four-year-old left his first day of French immersion after months at home and said, “Comment ça va,” he explained that the phrase meant “Clean up right now.” This amalgam, mistranslation and all, seemed like the perfect inaugural lesson, because it combined the new language with the rules: you will inquire after the well-being of others, and you will clean up.
A clever friend’s conversation starter with small children is to ask, “What are the rules in your house?” Because small children always know them, especially the ones the adults thought they hadn’t said out loud. Rules are about self-preservation, maybe even more than our desire to socialize is. Do as we say, we teach the young , because conforming is essential to our lives as social beings, our way of belonging to a collective, our survival itself.
This year has reoriented us to rules, to obeying and disobeying them, and has thus made us all children again, from young to old adults, to the forty-fifth president of the United States. As individuals, we face our status as rule lovers or breakers every time we walk down the street with our snouts covered or not and cross ways with someone who’s taken the other path — even though we’re outside and one of us is sure masks are not strictly necessary. At thresholds, we signal to each other where we stand by the care with which we perform the viral dance move of 2020 — the hand-sanitizer rub — or by showing up at gatherings and shouting , “Who’s hugging?” I’ve had stress dreams about arriving at now-mythical in-person meetings not naked but unmasked. Ideally, rules free up our mental space by reducing the choices we have to make each day, but now, with so many new ones to try to fit together, they are instead adding straws to our camel’s cognitive overload. I suspect many among us have had fits to match the tantrums parents throw when the rules shift once again and our inner four-year-old comes out to cry on the floor with our actual four-year-old.
Kids themselves don’t seem to mind wearing the masks, though. Costumes are fun. It’s the weird screening lineups and temperature checks that have been a source of terror and confusion, for my son at least. It’s not that he has to stand in line: It’s which line? And with his teacher unrecognizable in full PPE? I can relate. Lately, I’ve also had nightmares of schoolyards full of masked people and authorities shouting incomprehensible directions, as I, panicking , try to figure out where to go. So many in my family tree are mass-murder victims that being told to queue in a certain place by people in uniforms pointing machines at you and your terrified children can be hair-raising. Of course, most if not all of us now feel that we have reason to believe in these rules, that the authorities imposing them have our survival and not our destruction at heart, while gamification alone can induce children to abide by new fiats. Winning small battles in private, even if it’s just following a direction better than your little sister does, confers special prestige for a kindergartner.
The same can’t be said for twentysomethings, for whom visibility is paramount and following boring rules confers no glamour. So in this reckoning with rules and their breaking , it’s my students and not my children that I am most worried about. A little kid will learn new laws a thousand times a day and not question them (after a bit of testing), but young adults should be pushing boundaries — and, regrettably, they are. Charged with academic misconduct and with throwing parties, they are getting in trouble for ignoring mundane instruction, with negative consequences they may not fathom for months or years. Through our screens, I hear my students imagining a winter without restrictions and still struggling to focus on the relative permanence of this new way of life. Among some it seems their aversion to limits is just expanding with a pandemic that’s telling them not to socialize when that’s what they’re built to do, or not to check their textbooks or google answers or look in spreadsheets created by their friends when their professors are silly enough to give them online exams. “Well, what did you expect we would do?” I imagine them asking. When all the rules seem made to be broken, it’s harder to recognize the ones that should be. It’s that source of constant and exhausting confusion that concerns me for the generation hitting adulthood right now.
The virus has pushed us down and said, “Everyone, do as I say.” A new survey by the Innovative Research Group, in Toronto, suggests the experience has made us more interested in the opinions of experts, so perhaps it will usher in a more trusting era. My hope is that, having lived through this human health crisis, we will tackle the planet’s next, by listening to and following its ageless rules. I have to hope this, because my dreams have all been supplanted by wishes for my children, which include now, I realize, the hope that they grow up as rule followers, and that others around them will too. Rule number two is to break rules you’re sure are wrong or stupid. But rule number one is to just pay attention to the rules and try to understand them, so you know which ones to follow, and if someone smarter and more knowledgeable than you, whose morals you have cause to respect, tells you to stand over here and put this mask on your face, you do, and quickly.