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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Boundaries

(from the 6/21/11 edition of the Review Atlas as a part of my weekly Practical Parenting column)
Boundaries; everybody has them but not all of us deal well with them. Some of us are natural rule followers, others fuss and buck the system at every opportunity. Regardless of how you feel about rules and limits they surround our every move. Everywhere you turn you've got laws; the Ten Commandments, government statutes, rules of the road, curfews, school and house rules. There is just no getting out from underneath them. While society generally needs rules to keep anarchy at bay, most early childhood experts agree that it's children who thrive the most when rules are present.

I was raised by a set of parents who were firm believers that children should not only know the rules but should be punished well if the rules were broken. Turns out I'm parenting my children along those same lines (although much less legalistically). However if you ask them, I'm pretty sure my kids will tell you that we are still some of the strictest parents in town.
Good.
Regardless, it's important for all parents, myself included, to remember that rules are most beneficial when applied appropriately. Parents who understand how their children are growing and developing can set the boundaries that children need but leave room for developing a child's independence.

image: childrentopics.com
For example, it would be ridiculous for me to have expected my three year old child to tie his own shoes before we leave the house. It would however, be absolutely appropriate for me to expect him to dilly-dally and need constant prompting just to keep him moving in the right direction. Knowing this, I choose not to waste my energy complaining about his incredibly slow motion. I avoid saying, "You are so slow!" or "I'm sick of you always making me late! Why can't you hurry?" Not only are such statements counterproductive to the goal of getting out the door in a timely matter, it tears down any self esteem I am trying to build up in my child.

I remember one summer when I took my sons (then four and three years of age) to the local pool. Typically when the lifeguards go on their hourly break my boys would meander over to our towels and wait the agonizing fifteen minutes. But this day was different. On this day they asked if they could take a walk around the deck of the pool. By the look on their faces I could see they were asking half heartedly. Their mouths were asking but their faces looked skeptical. They never expected me to give them permission. I surprised them and granted their request. They were shocked as I had spent the entire summer shouting, "Boys!! Mommy can't see you!"
That hot summer day they tasted freedom! Off they went glancing over their shoulder expecting me to call them back at any moment. Thankfully, the pool was not crowded that day and I had complete confidence they would be safe as I could see them walk the entire perimeter of the pool.
My eyes were locked in on their adventure. About twenty feet away from me they stopped and approached the fence. They looked like two mini prisoners as they pressed their noses and wrapped their little fingers around the cold metal that kept them locked safe inside. They stood there for a good five minutes reaching through the links as if they were trying to grasp more freedom. Eventually they moved on trekking around the pool deck. They continued further and further away from me looking over their shoulders ever few feet. I gave them a nod or wave letting them know they were still within my line of sight. 
They got almost half way around the pool when they stopped and surveyed the possibilities. I watched them as they looked on and back. It's as if they were weighing the their options. I watched them holding hands, looking around deciding what to do. 
 My boys turned tail. They made a beeline back to our towels and what I learned that day was monumental. It is my job as a parent to provide a safe and loving environment for my children. It's my responsibility to establish a world where they will be safe from harm and where my supervisory eye is not far off.
But I also learned it is their job to move around in the world that I create for them. They will explore, push up against the boundaries, test the limit and even go up to the deep waters edge in an effort to learn about their environment. On that hot summer day my two little preschool age sons found the diameter of the pool to be too much. They decided on their own that they would remain satisfied with only exploring half the pool deck. And I was ok with that. As long as I do my part, they will be safe to do their part ... in their own time.

image: made-in-china.com
Boundaries are not bad things. Boundaries are the guardrails of life. If you as a parent experience the pain and discomfort of having your child crash into the boundaries you've established for them fear not! That means you're doing your job well. Just like the guardrails along the highway keep our cars from crashing over into a ditch, your age appropriate boundaries will keep your child safe as well. If your child challenges the limitations you've set do not move the boundaries. They are there for bumping into. They guardrails keep your child safe. It means you're doing your job well.
Rules and limitations can be so disheartening at times but remember they also have the purpose of keeping us safe. Don't be afraid to set up boundaries for your child. In the end it will help develop them into the adults you want them to grow up and be! Why? Because I'm the Mom and I said so! That's why!

2 comments:

  1. My 3 year old daughter is always pushing those boundries! Today, on a walk, she took off running a whole block. I am sitting in the middle of the street yelling, realizing she is just enjoying the freedom, but worried that she won't stop at the intersection as I have been teaching her forever! She did stop, turned around promptly, and pushed her stroller back to me along the path she had choosen for herself.

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  2. Were you surprised when she stopped? I remember that feeling of anxiety. It's terrible isn't it? Knowing our kids crave freedom and balancing that with the fact that we have to keep them safe. Who said Motherhood was easy?!?

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