Children are constantly testing their boundaries. We’re told it’s a sign that they’re developing normally. But the problem with this developmental model is that it’s our job as parents to keep those boundaries from being penetrated by their evil wishes. And that takes effort. And sometimes we really can’t be shagged making the necessary effort. Maybe we’re too tired or weak or worn down. So instead of remaining firm, we let them have the lollies just this once, or stay up just a few minutes longer. Surely a bit of leeway here and there can’t do much harm, we reason.
But if you think of a boundary as being like a fence on a farm that keeps the pigs in their pens, then the extra few minutes or lollies just this once become open gates. And through the open gates slip all the little piggies. And pretty soon the piggies are diligently carrying on like pork chops, happy as pigs in sh#t.
In other words your kids behaviour and your ability to control it, has pretty rapidly gone to hell in a hand basket.
I remember when I was a teen, I discovered that as much as I thought I wanted unlimited freedom, I was appalled when I actually got it. It was a Saturday night and I’d gone to my friend Tim’s house to “study”. We began worthily enough, with a bit of calculus and a smattering of Keynesian theory, but then someone suggested we might be thirsty and why not put some vodka in the orange juice and things proceeded to get rapidly out of hand.
Later that night, my dad arrived to pick me up. As I poured myself into the passenger seat in a state of dishevelled debauchery, he took one look at me and knew exactly what was what. “So you’re a bit ‘full’ are you Love?” I didn’t bother denying it, but rather simply braced for the onslaught that I knew was to follow. Except it never did. We drove home, I went to bed, I woke up with an extremely dry mouth and a sore head and proceeded to go to the beach with my friends. No lectures, no groundings, not even a disappointed sigh. Nothing.
Now you might think most kids would be content knowing that they’d dodged a parental bullet and happily go about their lives trying not to get caught again, but not I. I took extreme umbrage at my parents’ lack of parenting skills. Looking back, I think it was because I felt unsafe. I knew I didn’t have the skills to handle every dodgy situation that I might be faced with and I think I wanted my parents to be the ones to save me from myself.
And that’s what your kids want too. They want to know that night follows day and Dad farts in bed and all’s right with the world.
But what do we as grown ups want? We may think we want autonomy over our own decisions and actions but if that’s the case, then why do we value our friends’ and family’s advice so highly? Why do we seek their approval and guidance? And why, if we think we want to be able to do what we want, is the worst response to our questions “I don’t care, do what you want.” It’s because we want to know that someone does care if we stuff up. Because if no one cares, then what’s to stop us doing it again and again? I think we fear being given too much rope lest we do the proverbial and hang ourselves with it.
I know I, almost on a daily basis, rail against the constraints that are placed on my time and freedom as I go about my life as a mother, but when there is the rare occasion that I have a whole day stretched before me with nothing on my to-do list, I often lose direction and feel a mixture of despondence and slight anxiety (not all the time – sometimes I just go and see a movie and relish it), but I can recognise that sometimes too much freedom can be a curse.
The lesson I take from this is that while the actual boundaries that our children are fighting against are different from our grown up ones, the purpose and meaning behind them are the same. They and we want to know that someone loves us enough to care about what we do and help save us from ourselves. We must love our children enough to ‘be mean’ and get cranky and say no, just as we need the people in our adult lives to give us a swift kick up the bum when we overstep our own boundaries.
And we must thank them when they do.