Everything’s well regulated  Bureaucracy

Confusing traffic lights in front of a tower
Bureaucracy: It started with a straightforward, clear rule Photo (detail): © mauritius images / STOCK4B / Felbert+Eickenberg

What’s the most effective way for a family to manage the children’s screentime? By enforcing rules – simple ones initially. Some observations on bureaucracy by Maximilian Buddenbohm.

I remember the time around ten years ago, when the kids were smaller and we thought we needed to regulate a lot of things for them as parents. For instance screentime, the amount of time they were allowed to spend consuming media each day. That’s not a pleasant memory, after all it was the archetypal source of conflict, and not just in our family. Fast-forward a few years and I can say that I have rarely been so sick to death of anything in life as of these never-ending discussions about screentime back then. Few words seem so unappealing, screentime, even today the mere mention of the word has an effect on me. It was a subject that couldn’t be ignored because the children wanted to spend 24 hours a day messing about on their devices, while we parents wanted something different: considerably less. And as parents our remit was to take the side of common sense, as an adult that’s the appropriate position to adopt.

So at the time we made rules, what else were we supposed to do.

Sometimes we did it quasi-democratically by convening a family council – after all we had pedagogical ambition and wanted to get it all right, in other words by doing things like involving the children and teaching them about voting and compromises in passing, about rulebooks and cooperation. That was the plan, anyway.

It started with a straightforward, clear rule

It always started with a straightforward, clear rule in the family council, a simple command such as: “You’re allowed an hour and a half per day”. It was something everyone could remember, it was applicable and quickly decided. A brief moment of clarity. But this rule had to be differentiated further for good reasons. For example between our two sons, after all one is two years older than the other, that made a difference, it had to have consequences where the rulebook was concerned. There also had to be differences between schooldays on the one hand, and weekends and bank holidays with far more free time on the other hand. Also taking into special consideration the various holidays, which were to be treated differently, that was something else we had to cope with. And with four of us, we had a lot to cope with in general. There were special behaviour-oriented rules too, because when you’re bringing up children you’re prone to more or less dodgy deals. If you do, or don’t do, such-and-such, you’re allowed to play on your phone a bit longer or shorter, and agreements like that, which seem like a good idea at the time. Essentially it was unthinkable right from the start that one simple rule would ever be enough.

I’ve suppressed most of the harrowing discussions we had during this time, but I still clearly remember one particularly successful family council. Maybe it was the last one of its kind before our sons finally became teenagers and we gave up hope of raising them successfully anyway. It was a family council in which we discussed everything thoroughly once more and defined it all precisely. It was a good day, we were more structured than usual, and more peaceful, we had a constructive conversation.

Additional useful definitions, variants and idiosyncrasies

Once again we had started out with a simple basic rule, which had long ago become increasingly generous as the years passed by. As usual, additional definitions, variants and idiosyncrasies occurred to every member of the family in relation to this rule, all of which sounded good and useful. Until in the end the number of rules reached double figures and my wife said: “We need to start writing these down now.” And up she stood to fetch a pen and a piece of paper.

I remember this piece of paper. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, it was a torn-out A5 sheet of squared paper. With asterisks drawn on for each bullet point. I remember that we never breathed life into these rules, which took up 18 paragraphs in the end, some of which included several sub-clauses. Not for one single day. We bureaucratised the basic rules to a point where they were completely inapplicable. You’re familiar with this from other contexts, I assume.

It was too complicated. Even though we had derived all the provisions, exceptions and special cases logically and mutually from the basic rules through discussion. It was probably, as far as discussion is concerned, our most sensible family council ever. But in terms of outcome it was also the most useless. Which figuratively speaking might mean, it’s just occurred to me, that even the best government … but no, that’s taking things too far.

Bureaucratised to a point of complete inapplicability

In any case, no one has even come close to being able to spot what was right when, and how it was applicable. On that particular day we did not find that one single correct, functional and rationally underpinned model that would have authoritatively regulated our family life and screentime, no. Instead, as the process of media education continued, we quarrelled afresh each day, quite normally and just like all the other families do.

From this scenario we can deduce something that’s relevant to society: at every stage of bureaucratisation, at every rule step that is incorporated into a process, every sub-paragraph to which someone thinks they need to add, at every twelfth exceptional rule tacked onto the main rule by someone – there’s always somebody who, at least for a moment, thinks what they’re doing is genuinely meaningful.

Sometimes I read a letter, maybe from the tax office, that draws my attention to a special rule about an exception when applying the sub-paragraph of a law, and then I just realise, once I’ve successfully overcome the spontaneous irritation about the excesses of the burgeoning regulation mania in this country, in a flash of sudden clarity, that I have understood for some time how this proliferation could have come about.

We are the ones who would reintroduce bureaucracy at a moment’s notice

I do understand that it’s not the system’s fault – we are the ones, so even me, even my family, who would reintroduce bureaucracy at a moment’s notice, if it were to suddenly cease to exist. After all I understood years ago that I needed to view the person who wrote this letter to me not as the perpetrator of an ominous system, but as a brother or sister in spirit, as someone like me. Really, I know that very well. But I admit, I have never managed to see it like this when things get serious. And after I’ve typed the final line in a minute, I’ll immediately forget it again, that much is certain.

That’s a straightforward, clear rule.

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