The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it — namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. —Samuel ClemensThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer

I recently mentioned playing “The Obedience Game” instead of watching TV. Mike Arnzen asked for the rules.

The game itself isn’t all that complex. It’s like Simon Says, without the potentially confusing part about having to say “Simon Says” first.

So, a typical session of The Obedience Game involves commands such as “sing a song,” “go stand against the wall,” “recite a poem,” “hug your sister,” “jump up and down five times,” and “say three nice things about Mommy.”

I might occasionally slip in some tasks such as “Practice your recital piece” or “Put away three pink toys,” and healthy routines and good behavior become part of an enjoyable communal activity, not a terrible chore. (Hence the quotation from Tom Sawyer).

What really makes it fun for the kids, however, is that they get a turn to order Daddy around, too. Carolyn, who turned three this month, particularly enjoys the sense of power.

Peter is also starting to experiment with practical requests, such as last night, when it was his turn, but he was tired of the game, so his command to me was “Play hide and seek.”

The game developed when Peter was a toddler out on the playground. I learned that, if I periodically called him over for no reason other than to give him a hug and tell him he was good, he was far more likely to listen to me when I needed to redirect his behavior.

When we’re waiting in line in the grocery store or at the DMV, invoking The Obedience Game is usually good for about ten or fifteen minutes. Sometimes Carolyn will request it herself. I try not gloat at the expressions of strangers who marvel at how much my kids enjoy taking orders.

On the other hand, when he’s feeling particularly obstreperous (a word he’s known since he was three), the boy has gotten pretty good at passive resistance, minimal compliance, and various forms of psychological warfare (“I wish Mommy were in charge today.”) (And yes, he actually did use the subjunctive “were” instead of “was.”)