By Mary Louise VanNatta


We’ve all heard the phrase “Rules are meant to be broken,” an expression from 5-star Army General Douglass MacArthur. The rest of the saying goes, “and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.”

At any rate, it’s a rule, not a law (which we are required to keep), and rules can bring out your rebellious side.  Doesn’t that mean you don’t “really” have to follow them?

Rules dominate our daily lives, whether we’re getting them from school or setting them for our families. Making, understanding, and following rules takes a lot of energy. Rules are designed to help society function and keep us safe. Often, the rules we follow are relatively straightforward, for example, “Don’t step on the newly-planted grass at the park.”  However, because we all come from different backgrounds, rules can be unclear, and people can interpret them differently.

If your local park has a sign that says “no dogs allowed,” would you get in trouble if you brought your cat there for a walk?  While cats are certainly not dogs, does bringing cats violate the “spirit of the rule?” This is just one picture of how rules are sometimes hard to follow and easy to bend.

So, what is the best way to interpret and follow the world of rules? You can use a text-based approach. This means analyzing the rule based on the exact words the rule uses.

Going back to our park example, a dictionary provides a clear definition of “dog.” Therefore, any animal that doesn’t meet that definition should be permitted in the park. Cats, horses, llamas, and other four-legged animals should be allowed if properly supervised.

This, of course, doesn’t seem right. Excluding one thing does not make other things permissible. To interpret this rule, you may want to take a purpose approach. You ask yourself, “what were the circumstances that led to the creation of this rule?” Going through old meeting minutes, you find that the parks board banned dogs because residents complained about animal waste and damage to flower beds. Another neighbor complained that an unleashed dog bit a child. In response to these concerns, the authorities made the rule to keep the park clean and safe. Knowing this purpose, it appears that no pets of any kind should be allowed in the park to uphold the “spirit” of the rule.

Still, knowing the purpose doesn’t answer every question. Would a person get in trouble for bringing their service dog to the park? Would a police officer get in trouble for bringing their K9 in to search for a suspect? Could the city make an exception for a special charity event? It’s unrealistic for rule-makers to imagine every possible scenario. That is why courts and other regulatory bodies often intervene with additional interpretations.

Making sense of rules is often difficult. However, by adopting various interpretation approaches, you can come to a reasonable conclusion about what to do. When a rule is confusing or seems unfair, don’t let your rebellious side come out and try to bend it; reach out to your local political representatives or agencies.

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