Monday, September 17, 2007

Children need boundaries ?

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.


Helen said...

Great post as usual! I'm a psychologist by trade & I do spend time helping parents who come saying they need to "set boundaries" but, when I reflect on what I'm trying to help them do, its much more about trying to help them achieve the level of consistency over basic things that you talked about in your post. The families I see that are struggling are usually those who are so inconsistent (for a variety of reasons we end up discussing) that their children don't know if they're coming or going; where 1 day you can get a smile & a cuddle for coming to talk to mum & another you get yelled at & smacked. They tend to be families who have ended up punishing in the absence of anything else. Not because they are "bad parents" or anything so straight forward but for a variety of reasons relating to their lives now & in the past.
The families I see all have a child with a learning disability and aren't sure what expectations they should have for their child as compared to typically developing children. As a result they are either getting on at the child for something he isn't yet capable of or are doing everything for them. Either way the child is reacting to that. The solution is usually to help them adjust their expectations to the same place as they would be for another child at the developmental level; not too high & not too low. So, don't expect your LD 7 year old to be able to entertain himself for 30 mins without getting up to mischief but do expect him to be able to learn to put on his own jumper.
So, (after all that waffle!), I think boundaries is the wrong word & doesn't work for all the reasons you've outlined but consistency & predictability is essential, as are appropriate expectations.

Nic said...

Excellent post. I have been musing about such things the last week or so (as you know) and had an interesting conversation with D and S just last week about 'naughty steps' and why I don't agree with them along with reward charts.
I think children need strong positive models of acceptable behaviour and to maybe be guided in their own behaviour and formation of ideas of what is and isn't ok to do but I don't think threat of punishments is what makes someone toe the line - it's holding a belief that the line is there for a good reason in the first place.

Wobblymoo said...

Excellent article. I have sat this week with a mum with atwo week old baby that told me she doesn't pick him up straight away when he cries but leaves him for 5 minutes so he doesn't get 'used' to it and he 'has' to learn that he can't have it all his own way ffs. I've also seen a friend of my daughters use the naughty corner on her two year old, when he accidently knocked his brother over, he turned and went and stood in the corner automatically. It was so sad and just felt to wrong to me. Yet, I guess I set boundaries, I tell one son he needs to be in once his friends have gone in and preferably before dark and he does it. I do yell sometimes and feel really guilty afterwards. I do 'ground' them occasionally when they push the boundaries but everything I do is done because it feels right and not because some stupid tv program makes me feel I have to keep up with the current trend. I was really interested this week to read about Tanya Bryant, who used to do these programs say we need to get back to parental instinct and how dangerous these programs are

Allie said...

I guess you mean Tanya Byron? I once wrote a letter in to the Radio Times about one of her shows that advocated wrestling children in to their bedrooms for 'time out'. I've just googled and read an article where she explains giving up the parenting programmes. Interesting.

Gill said...

Well said Allie - my thinking and practice on this issue is pretty much identical to yours. Works well for us too! Now the older children are teens I'm especially glad we did it this way - they're not constantly rebelling to push boundaries. The 'normal teenage issues' just aren't there.

Lisa G said...

What a thought provoking post! I've found that over the years as my parenting style has changed and adapted, I've moved away from the traditional methods of parenting influence by my parents and having 'boundaries' is no longer an issue. In a house with mutual respect amongst the occupants, my kids 'absorb' for want of a better word, my principles, morals and expectations. For example, I have never told my teenage daughter she is not allowed to smoke, that is a choice only she can make and forbidding it would surely only make it more attractive, but she knows what I think of smoking and why I don't like it and we discuss this. Happily, as far as I know, she still finds smoking 'yucky' and has no desire to try despite attending a large comprehensive school where it seems to be mandatory for a large number of kids!

Anonymous said...

This post really resonated with me. Our middle child is a boundrey breaker.
I followed the theory that children need boundaries all through their school years and into our home ed time.
I see now that when ever we set a boundary, one way or another she put her head down and ran head long into it. We battled constantly. This has been a long heard journey for this child and us but since home educating when we feel like we started to look at the education system outside of the box, we began to look at all things in a questioning way, where we would previously accepted the norms.
Slowly slowly we have let go-and we are all happier for it.
We literally parent now, "Without Boundaries" In everything we try for a sort of mutual consensus. Mutual respect is one of our mantra's in our household now-there are five of us living here and the actions of one has impact on everyone else.
We find that striving for this mutual respect and consensual living has strengthened our relationships and all the arguments have lessened and almost gone.
We have a lovely life with so much stress and happy people supporting and getting on with each other.

I can see that the our middle child will always be a boundary breaker throughout her life-she would have made a great and passionate suffragette!

Allie said...

Isn't it a shame that the parenting books and progs don't encourage people to think and feel and find their own solutions through that process? It seems that that is the only way people do find a more respectful path. I suppose a 'quick fix' makes for good tv.

Beth said...

Very interesting and well-written. My brain is fairly mush these days, so I have little of articulate value to share but wanted to say that so much of what you've written here resonates with me. :-)

Ruth said...

Great post :) Those programmes like Supernanny and Who Rules the Roost make me cringe.