This is a ramble I’ve been meaning to post for a long while. I am posting it now, not in response to anything IRL, but because I’ve finally found the time to write it!
It is often said by parenting gurus, and indeed anyone who likes to bemoan the state of modern youth, that kids need boundaries. It is one of those throw away phrases that is directed at parents like a boot up the backside. The message is clear:
“You’re the boss. Be the boss.”
I have to confess to watching rubbish on the TV where this message is repeated, mantra like, into the ears of distressed adults. It sounds so simple. Boundaries are needed and you, as the adult, must set them and police them.
Whenever I hear that phrase little alarm bells start to ring in my head. It is not that I am a laissez faire parent. I’m not of the wild, free and innocent school when it comes to children. I don’t coo at the little darlings’ self expression when they clunk each other over the head, or casually destroy things. But, the exhorting of adults to ‘set boundaries’ seems to me a doomed exercise –one that will lead, inevitably, to conflict and often to stalemate. Some people are more compliant than others - some will submit to authority almost without a thought. Many more will weigh things up and decide that compliance is the easiest option, even if inside them is a seething mass of non-compliance. (Yes, that one’s often me!) And some people just won’t submit. Some people will look at the boundary with a beady eye and then run screaming at it. For those people, the consequence will often be punishment. But, in my experience, children who respond to externally set boundaries in this way will usually be the least bothered by punishment. The punishment is all part of the boundary and they will keep on fighting. And that’s where it gets dangerous. That is where the boundary setters run out of options. That is where techniques like nose distraction start to be employed.
When I hear that children need boundaries a single image always pops into my head. I can see that guy sitting astride the Berlin wall, pounding on it with a hammer. If you were old enough to watch TV at the time of the falling wall, you’ll remember him. Pounding and pounding, head down, focussed. Some people are those who pound on the wall. There’s nothing intrinsically noble about that. They may be as likely to be breaking their ASBO and lobbing bottles around as they are to be fighting an unjust state. But what seems to be pretty clear is that there are always people who will resist the boundary – and resist it to the point of death.
Thankfully, here and now, death is not usually the outcome. But it still can be. When I hear ‘Kids Need Boundaries’ I know that actually there always have been, and always will be, some who will never accept them. And, you know what? I wonder if that is not necessary for human development and growth. I wonder if that is, perhaps, the only hope we have. If the Suffragettes had accepted the boundaries, would I have the life I do today? I doubt it. Maybe the boundary breakers are our hope. But that doesn’t mean that I want to live a home life like a Stalinist regime just to keep the kids in training!
So, in everyday parenting terms, what does it mean to dislike boundaries? If I don’t choose to set myself up as the state, with dictated hours for this and that, with punishment for non-compliance, then what is my role? Well, it is something a bit more complex than the role promoted on ‘Nanny 911’ or ‘Honey We’re Killing the Kids’. This complexity means that I fully expect to make a myriad of mistakes in my interactions with my children. And that is as it should be. And when I make those mistakes I acknowledge them – and apologise.
Rather than the setting of boundaries I hope to create a safe framework of expectation on which my children can depend. This framework is not a list of rules – and most crucially, it has no punishment. I was raised in a family home without punishment, so that just seems natural to me. I could say a lot more about the futile and damaging notion of punishment but that’s a whole other blog post!
One thing that perhaps I should say is that an absence of punishment is not the same as ‘turning a blind eye’. I don’t think vicious or destructive or cruel behaviour is something that kids ‘have to get out of their systems’. Saying that we don’t punish our children is by no means the same as saying that we don’t care what they do.
Our framework is probably best described as ‘the way we do things’. We don’t live in a free for all and we do make agreements over things like bedtimes and housework. Any aspect of our family life is open to negotiation, but not to constant change. Probably one of the things that I do have in common with the ‘set boundaries’ school of parenting is that I think children do need a home environment which is predictable. This doesn’t mean a ‘to the minute’ schedule and a chore chart but it does mean adults who are there for them, personal space and possessions that are respected - and promises kept. I know that some of the happiest memories of my own childhood are of the day to day sameness and safety.
My children know things about our family life that hold true today, tomorrow, wherever and whenever. Some of these things are practical (we’ll give them meals and clean clothes to the best of our ability) and some are emotional (we won’t stand by and see them hurt others or be hurt themselves). But I can’t kid them into thinking that I (or anyone) can give them a list of acceptable behaviour every minute of the day – can show them the boundaries. I want them to know that they have to look to their intellect and to their heart to tell them the right choices to make. Human beings are amazing – they have such an incredible capacity to learn. If you ‘set boundaries’ then they’ll learn all about the boundaries – all about the harsh and unforgiving side of human nature, all about the pride and gall of the powerful. But if you nurture them, help them in their struggles and respect their own natures they will learn that you believe them to be good people. That belief will take them far. How do I know that? I know it because that was how I was raised. That belief in me, when was young, has helped me through the hardest and darkest places in my life.