Saturday, April 24, 2010

on boundaries

In discussions on homeschooling, i am often told that children need boundaries (this usually arises when my conversation partner realizes that i am an insane wacko who is not providing her children with any), and that it is the parents' role to set them. When asked why such boundaries are required, people tend to give one of three answers:

a) because.
b) because it makes the child feel safe.
c) because it makes the parents feel safe.
(note that i have taken the liberty of grading these in increasing order of self-awareness on the part of the speaker)

My response to any of the above has traditionally been 'hhhmmm' (which is code for 'this is not quite right, but since i can't explain how or why i better leave it').

Until today, that is, when in the midst of a heated discussion on this very topic, the truth suddenly spat out of my mouth (it does that sometimes), and i heard myself say

'Actually, boundaries are just a poor substitute for being there'.

I didn't really know what i meant, only that it was true. But i've had the rest of the day to figure it out, and this is what i have come up with. Boundaries are indeed there to guarantee that both the parents and the child feel safe. But this safety is only required in the absence of the parents themselves. After all, if your mama is right there with you, by your side and engaged with whatever you're doing, even the oft-quoted 'playing with matches' feels (and is) very safe. What these boundaries do then, is send the following message:

'listen, honey, for reasons that i cannot go into at present, i cannot actually be there with you, to make you safe in the world, to guide you through life with my knowledge and wisdom, to learn together with you, to watch you explore and explore with you, to answer your questions and to have fun together, so... here is a plan B that i have come up with: i am going to build you a cage, made of seemingly random rules, restrictions, regulations and prohibitions, and you will just have to trust me that if you stay in that cage, you will be safe. and you have to promise me, promise me for real, that you will stay in there, because otherwise the big bad things might come to get you, and i will be terribly worried'

And so it really is true: children living in boundaries do feel safe inside their little compounds. Until the day (usually referred to as 'puberty') when they rebel and run off into the big bad scary world, in which they feel pretty much the way escaped zoo animals must feel. Alone and very very unsafe. Forever and ever (or until they find another cage).

Somehow, the alternative of exploring the world hand in hand with one or more loving adults, until the day when you yourself turn into a loving adult, sounds like more fun. So next time someone tells me that their children need boundaries, i know what to answer : 'Actually, they don't need boundaries, they just need you'.

1 comment:

Josh said...

thank you for a very good answer to this question!