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Principal's Blog

2011 TERM 1


Boundaries and Parental Authority

I have noticed in my time a shift in some family lifestyles away from “reality” parenting – which I will re-phrase simply as parenting.  It is after all the fundamental role of parents to ready their offspring for the world they will inherit.  Parenting involves creating boundaries that the child does not pass.  I put this in contrast to padded-cell parenting: the creation of an artificial environment in which, whatever the child does, he or she does not encounter barriers.

Over the 2009 winter holidays, Clotilde, Charlotte (15 months) and I spent 16 days in the bush.  Food and cups of tea were prepared on a fire.  This wonderful family adventure was at risk of coming unstuck because of the fatal attraction the fire had for Charlotte.

On her first attempt to touch the coals, we, Clotilde and I, both reacted with a loud, stern “no” which caused her to hesitate.  After a short pause, she smiled at us charmingly and began to stick her hand into the fire again.  I grabbed her, pulled her back and smacked her on the hand.  There were a few tears.

The next day, she again moved toward the fire – this time ignoring the “no” entirely.  I was forced to smack her on the hand again.  She cried again, but looked more frustrated than hurt.  She did not try and put her hand in the fire for a while after this.  I would like to say that I had won this battle there and then, but it took another round.

In my life as a parent, I hope to share many adventures and social outings with my children – and for them to have adventures and outings of their own.  This requires not only that they are both confident and competent, but also that they know that there are some absolute boundaries, be they physical or social. 

My mother, commenting on her parenting style while comparing it to her own children’s struggles as parents, has made the very clear pronouncement a number of times that her children had to be well-enough behaved that she did not lose her friends and social life due to her children’s behaviour.  Watching my friends become parents over the last few years, what she meant by this has become clear.  I have some friends who I do not see as often as I would like to because I find their children’s behaviour a bit much.  My mission, like my mother’s, is that I – and my children – do not become socially isolated due to my children’s behaviour.  My children will have to be charming, considerate and self-managing.

So, social boundaries are a necessity.  Physical ones too, as I love camping and other adventures, and really do not want to give up either due to my children being unparented.

My observation is that children who have not been set boundaries are a vexation to others, and less likely to be invited or included.  This is a tragedy.  I have heard it said by parents that they do not wish to crush the spirit of their vulnerable little one and so have not imposed their will, their boundaries.  I call this the Ritalin Approach to parenting: give the child a few years, and that may be the recommendation of their school's psychologist.  And in terms of spirit, when they are incapable of making or keeping friends due to their just not knowing the boundaries – well, that is a way to depress their spirit.  Ironically, the method aimed at avoiding a crushed spirit achieves the opposite result.

Children are not crushed by boundaries.  They are disturbed if there are none.  Another dilemma I have heard stated by parents is along the lines of whether my boundaries are the right ones.  This is not important.  Some aspects of what is socially acceptable change over time.  What is important is that they realise there are boundaries, and that they develop the emotional discipline to deal with them.

Do my boundaries vary depending on my mood and energy levels?  The answer is yes.  But this is an important lesson too: when people are more stressed, they are less tolerant than usual.   Children need to learn this fact of life.

There are no universal boundaries – again, each person, group or culture will draw the line differently, but draw the line they will.  Pity help the child that has not learnt to live with boundaries.  I have not yet experienced a place where they do not exist, and generally most of the world has a more rigid idea of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour than we do here in Australia.

I guess my message here is about confidence and reality.  Many current parents were brought up in a way that we now consider too strict.  There were, for some, elements of the traditional style of parenting that were experienced as bordering on brutal, either physically or emotionally.  Modern parenting has rejected this, and rightly so, but an overreaction has left many parents floundering as to what is appropriate and feeling powerless to act. 

My view of parenting is for parents, to choose a set of behaviours that you like and enjoy.  Do not accept poor behaviour from your child just because he or she is your child.  Respond positively to engaging, charming and caring actions.  This is how the world will respond to your child.  And demand this in your child's behaviour when it is lacking.  Mostly the world will not explicitly demand this, but will simply avoid engaging with a child that is poorly behaved – relegating them to a lonely life.

And remember, there is no universal set of expected behaviours.  Clotilde (my wife) and I expect different standards of behaviour in particular areas.  Do not try to convince the child that there is only one right set of expectations.  What matters is that children realise that wherever they are, there are expectations.  Despite personal and cultural variations, there are behaviours that are valued everywhere: for example, charm, consideration and kindness. 

No, my children are not perfect.  Occasionally, parents seem to give birth to a child who has already signed the social contract!  They don’t all put up as much of a fight as Charlotte! All I can claim is that our children are, like most, works in progress.

People evolve, even parents.  There is no harm done when you change your views and tell your child (usually some years later) that you have altered certain expectations.  This is also a fact of life.  The only necessary component is that children realise there ARE expectations and requirements, which become more detailed as the child grows older.

I mentioned being confident and reflecting reality.  I mean be confident that setting boundaries is doing the right thing by your child.  Children will grow socially and emotionally through the experience of limits on their behaviour.  The reality factor is that, in your setting boundaries and expectations, you are realistically representing the wider world outside of home.

Children who work with clear boundaries are on the whole more confident in their interactions with the world than those who experience laissez-faire parenting with no clear guidelines.  My analysis of this is that children all know in their heart of hearts that the world has expectations and boundaries, and that their parents are failing them when they do not enforce these. They are in general more anxious because they are not sure how to behave.

Don’t be afraid to parent.  Prepare your child so that he or she may prosper in the world.

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