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In My Family, Self-Preservation Comes First. And it’s For Our Good!

When I was young and single, I enjoyed visiting my sister’s family, which included seven nieces and nephews. They loved Uncle Bill, his magic tricks and, of course, his gifts. During one visit, I gathered this gaggle on the front lawn in a rugby scrum, our heads together in a circle, arms entwined. “What are the rules?” I yelled. After a few moments of silence, I shouted, “There are no rules!” and collapsed the circle, pulling them to the ground, all howling with laughter.

Looking back, I certainly was not helping my sister. I wonder how many times she had to live with the cry, “There are no rules!” when asking the kids to do a chore.

Later, as my wife and I raised our own preteens, they never heard, “There are no rules.”

Instead, I introduced them to the family concept of Rule #1.

The rule is simple: self-preservation comes first.

Over the years, we were able to give them examples from the abundance of situations life presents every day. If we were driving and saw a hitchhiker, invariably one of our children would yell, “Pick em up!” This presented an opportunity to drive home Rule #1.

What could be worse, I would ask, than allowing someone into your car who could rob you—or much worse—when you could have protected yourself by continuing to drive happily on to your destination? I explained the difference between a hitchhiker and a driver in roadside distress.

“Why,” I would ask, “would you put yourself in danger when it wasn’t necessary?” It seemed to have an impact in their preteen years. I continued the mantra as they grew. A graphic reminder, applied in varying ways to illustrate Rule #1, seemed to make a much stronger impression on them than, for example, merely nagging a teenager to wear a skateboard helmet.

They really started to think about the consequences of their actions.

Depending on the circumstances in their lives, I would ask questions such as, “What would Rule #1 suggest if you’re out and someone is drinking and wants to drive you somewhere?” Of course, they would admit, “I’d better not be in that car because Rule #1 is about self-preservation.”

When texting became the craze for communication, there was always a horrific, heartbreaking story of young lives lost as an example of someone’s failure to live by Rule #1.

Set in place early in their preteen years, self-preservation became engineered into the brain, a conditioned response.

My daughter has told us while she was away at college, whenever potentially negative situations developed, Rule #1 instantly popped into her mind, and she knew how to prepare herself and to react appropriately. When she enters a new place for the first time, she now subconsciously looks for the available exits. Our kids not only learned from those early lessons but continue to teach themselves to have a plan for avoiding trouble in the first place.

My teenage son Michael told a story that made me very glad I planted the idea of Rule #1. He had been on board a houseboat with his girlfriend and her entire family, enjoying a weekend of fishing, water skiing, playing board games, and just enjoying life. They towed a small powerboat behind for quick runs to the marina or fishing the lake banks. Michael and his girlfriend were exploring the lake in the powerboat when they saw two men on an island waving frantically for help. Michael pulled close to the island. The two men explained their plight of a dead engine and asked for a ride to the marina.

He didn’t have a good gut feeling about the twosome. As his boat was small, Michael explained he would take his girlfriend back to the houseboat and return shortly to help, even though the men insisted they could all fit in the small powerboat. Michael dropped his girlfriend off. Then he returned to the stranded fishermen and threw them a line to tow them back to the marina. Michael told us later that he sensed their agitation, as opposed to any gratitude. They had even asked to board the houseboat, but Michael politely ignored that request.

A few weeks later, my son learned that the very next day, those two rescued men had been allowed to board another family’s houseboat.

That family had been robbed by these pirates. When he had pulled close to the shore where they appeared to be stranded, Michael told us that Rule #1 calmly flashed into his mind. He took the necessary steps to protect his girlfriend and himself, while still fulfilling the role of a helpful person.

So what does Rule #1 do? If introduced early, like any family tradition, it stays with us for life. It teaches common sense and a sense of caution. It makes us subconsciously think of safety. Rule #1 is not a magic cloak; it is simply another tool in the arsenal of self-preservation skills. Hopefully, it protects us from those who say, “Rules? There are no rules!”

Bill Gilreath enjoys a Broadcast Management career including working with CBS and Time Warner Cable. He hosted a radio show, The Safety Advocate,and helped raise three children to young adulthood with his wife, Cheryl. They now live in Pacific Grove, CA.

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