Sometimes it feels like I'm drowning in rules - rules of my own creation, put there to save my sanity but then warped and twisted by my children in an effort to drive me mad. I'm forever having to create new ones as well. Only this week, I said to Fraser, "If I have to wait for you to catch up before crossing a road one more time, there'll be no dessert for a day. Don't dawdle along twenty feet behind, leave it until the rest of us are standing at the kerb and then sprint towards traffic."
On another occasion, I had to say to Lewis, "If you're going to carry a stick around with you, don't make it such a large one. You keep poking people in the face by accident."
"No, I don't," said Lewis, turning round to look at me and accidentally poking his sister in the face with three-and-a-half feet of shrubbery.
"What?" said Lewis, turning to look the other way in an effort to find out what I was talking about and accidentally forcing his brother to eat twigs. Then he turned back to look at me again and shoved leaves up my nose. "What?" he repeated as I mumbled retribution at him nasally. "I didn't do anything."
A rule or two every now and then wouldn't be so bad but each rule quickly develops its own legal small print. How short does a stick have to be before it's an acceptable length to carry around, for instance? Does proximity to other people make a difference? Does it matter whether those people are friends, relatives or strangers? What if it's Grandad's walking stick and he's asked for it? What if it's a yellow stick? What if it's pointy? What if it's pretend?
I have to have answers for all these questions. That isn't so hard - the hard part is remembering my often arbitrary responses for next time so I can remain consistent.
Then, of course, there's the issue of rule interaction. What if it's bedtime but there hasn't been a chance for homework? What if getting shoes on quickly involves shoving a brother out the way? What if two separate misdemeanours both result in no dessert for a day?
In the last case, adding the days together drags the punishment out too long. Allowing the sentences to be served concurrently, however, introduces too many opportunities for abuse of the system. ('Right. Since I'm not getting dessert already, I'm going to dawdle as much as I like... then I'm going to take my shoes off and use them to shove my brother out of the way...')
I had to introduce Fraser to the concept of probation last week. This is all getting too complicated.
The problem is made more obvious when visitors come round.
My nephew Ned has started turning up after school on a fairly regular basis. He lurks about playing computer games, doesn't say much and then slopes off home. Since he could go home straight off and lurk about there playing computer games while not saying much, I'm not sure what's going on, but he doesn't get in the way, so I don't mind.
Yesterday, I caught him loading up The Darkness on my Xbox, though.
"That's 18-rated - you can't play that," I said as I stuck my head in the study.
"Why not?" he grunted.
"You're not eighteen. You're fourteen."
"I'm nearly fifteen. My parents don't mind," he said, genuinely confused what I was talking about.
"They probably should," I replied. The Darkness is not a game about a glam rock band from Lowestoft - you play a mafia hitman possessed by an ancient evil. Even as you attempt to resist its influence, you must use its abilities to complete a bloody quest for vengeance through the grotty underbelly of New York. This involves a good deal of shooting, swearing and ripping out opponents' hearts and eating them. Not much worse than a Saturday night in Lowestoft, admittedly, but it's clearly not suitable for a fourteen-year-old. "This isn't your parents' house, Xbox, rules or electricity. You can't play it here."
"Can I borrow it then?"
"Oh," he put the game back in its case and rifled through my collection. "Can I play this?" He held up BioShock.
Whereas The Darkness lacks restraint, subtlety or beauty, Bioshock is a mature adventure set in a magnificent but crumbling underwater city. There's an examination of the corrupting nature of power and a struggle for self-knowledge and redemption. There's exploration, philosophy and difficult moral choices. Truth to be told, though, there's also a great deal of whacking psycho junkies in the face with a wrench.
"Sorry," I said. "That's an 18 as well."
"All these other games are boring," he said sulkily.
"Well, come upstairs and talk to your cousins for a while then. Once they've told you in endless detail how to complete the first fifteen levels of Super Mario Galaxy, I'm sure everything else will seem far more exciting."
Ned shrugged and followed me to the lounge.
"Take your shoes off," I said as we reached the stairs.
"Do I have to?"
Technically, he didn't. The rule about taking shoes off was originally aimed at my children. I know where they've been - I don't want them traipsing remnants of those locations round the house. Nonetheless, they've long since taken to applying the rule to everyone else and then policing it vociferously.
"No, but the kids will have a go at you until you do. You'd be better off doing it now. Just be pleased you don't have a time limit."
As always seems to happen, the rule has become more complicated through use. The boys kept entering the building and then sitting in the hall on the bottom step for ten minutes while squabbling and wiping their dirty shoes on every surface and object within reach. 'Take your shoes off when you come in' became 'Take your shoes off quickly when you come in'. Before long, 'quickly' needed defined. It was 'the time taken for Daddy to take his shoes and coat off, take Marie's shoes and coat off, check the answering machine and make a cup of coffee'. Unfortunately, this time-frame varied too much depending on when in the sequence I switched on the kettle. Worse, Marie learnt to take her own shoes and coat off. She joined in with the squabbling and the definition became circular - she had until she'd taken her shoes off to take her shoes off. I had to decide on an actual time limit. After some negotiation and plenty of trial-and-error, we've settled on forty-seven and a half seconds. Failure to have shoes off and put away in this amount of time results in loss of dessert... unless they've already lost dessert, in which case a number of factors have to be taken into consideration, oracles consulted and - oh, never mind, you get the idea...
Ned pulled off his shoes without unlacing them. I resisted the urge to criticise this and we went upstairs.
In the lounge, Lewis was playing a Sonic the Hedgehog game on the Wii, Fraser was reading the final Harry Potter book and Marie was kicking a ball round the room. They all ignored us.
"How come he gets to play that?" said Ned. He picked up the box of the Sonic game and pointed to the 7+ age-rating on the cover. Lewis is six.
I took a closer look. The reason given for the rating was the element of violence in the game. I was bemused. True, there is plenty of fighting in the game but it's the kind of fighting that involves a blue hedgehog breaking a robot by jumping on its head. It's nothing compared to an episode of Tom & Jerry. Heck, The Little Mermaid contains more anger and aggression. Both of these are rated as suitable for all.
Aware of all this, I was happy to let Lewis continue playing but I didn't fancy my chances of explaining the nuances of the argument to Ned. "He's nearly seven," I said. This was something of a stretch - he's only recently turned six. Besides, Marie was in the room and occasionally watching the action. She's only three.
"Can I play a 15 on the Xbox then?" said Ned, detecting a loop-hole in the local by-laws and exploiting it.
"I suppose," I said reluctantly.
"Can I watch him?" asked Fraser, looking up from the book he probably shouldn't have been reading for another two or three years. (When we gave him the first in the series we really didn't count on him obsessively working his way through the lot without reading anything else in between.)
"No. You're not old enough," I said, somewhat disturbed that neither of them was overly concerned what the game was, as long as it was inappropriate.
"But Marie's watching Lewis," whined Fraser.
"You still can't watch Ned," I said firmly.
The whole legal framework of my parental control was crashing down around me. Reasoned argument was failing and logic was being used against me. I was back to the bottom line. "Because I said so," I sighed.
I needed to take control of events and move away from controversy before I spent the rest of the afternoon in wrangling. "Ned, any chance you could play Risk with Fraser just now?"
"What?" he said. "That's like, I dunno, the board game of world domination and dictatorship and, erm, you know, ruthlessness conquest and stuff. How's he allowed to play that?"
I glared at him. He'd picked a particularly annoying moment to discover multi-syllable words. I was about to lose it with him when I detected the faintest glimmer of a grin underneath his teenage scowl. He was having me on. That boy is definitely smarter than he smells.
I cut off Fraser's shrill protestations that he was allowed to play Risk and he really liked it and he was old enough and that Marie played it sometimes. "It's OK, Fraser," I said. "You're allowed to play. I'll play too. Go through to your room and set the game up."
Fraser complied and Ned went with him. Lewis, meanwhile, put his controller down and started kicking Marie's ball around.
"You're too big to kick a ball around inside," I said.
"Can I bounce it then?"
I pointed to a smaller ball in amongst a pile of toys. "You can roll that other one."
"Can I throw that one?" Lewis asked.
"You can't throw either of them," I said, unearthing a foam ball from behind the sofa. "You can throw this soft one if you do it carefully, under-arm, and you don't throw it in the direction of the telly. Break anything and you won't get dessert."
"For how many days?" he said, not taking the ball.
There were any number of variables to be analysed. These included the value of the destroyed object, degree of culpability, previous convictions, extenuating circumstances, involvement of siblings and my own state of mind. I decided not to get bogged down in a definitive list of punitive tariffs. Life is too short and it would have involved a spreadsheet. "Just be careful, OK?" I said. "You could always go outside."
"Nah," he said. Then, without touching any of the balls, he returned to Sonic.
I went through to Fraser's room. He was busy explaining the rules of Risk to Ned. They seemed refreshingly simple. We played the game and I made the mistake of starting a land war in Asia. Ned won. Fraser asked him what a dictatorship is.
"It's bad," said Ned. "It's kinda like when Bowser takes over the Mushroom Kingdom and he, erm, you know, puts Mario in prison and makes Princess Peach clean the floors or something."
My respect for him grew. Fraser seemed to get the idea.
It was time for Ned to go. "Thanks for that," I said when we were downstairs again and he was putting his shoes on. (He still didn't unlace them - I had to bite my tongue.)
"S'OK," he muttered. "Can I come back tomorrow?"
"Yeah. If you like."
"Uh-huh," he said and headed out the door. Then, over his shoulder, he added "You're not as crazy as Mum and Dad."
This was sort of reassuring but difficult to reply to. "OK," I said.
He was gone and I was left to consider improvements to my current censorship system. In the end, I gave up and decided to fill out my tax return. It was simpler.
I suppose I'm hoping that through making the household rules clear and well-defined, the children will come to understand the reasoning behind them. I'm hoping that one day they'll develop some sense and I won't need the rules. I'm hoping that they'll be able to work it out for themselves and it won't always come down to, 'Because I say so.' It will be like a glorious move from the Old Testament into the New.
On the other hand, there's a possibility I'm just raising my own pack of lawyers and I've got decades of legalistic nit-picking to go.
Ho hum. They'd better put me in a good nursing home when the time comes, that's all I can say. In fact, I may even make that a rule...
Yours in a woman's world,