My grandpa used to drive my grandmother crazy during the kitchen parties that were held on a regular basis in their rural Ontario home. As the night grew long and the bottom of the whiskey bottles drew nearer, he’d call her to his side. away from the stove where she’d been fussing over keeping a steady flow of food coming in order to feed the tribe that had gathered.
He’d make much ado about his personal dedication of the next song to her, and then as the sweet music flowed from his lap steel guitar, he’d grin, keep a steady gaze on her eyes and sing Cole Porter’s Don’t Fence Me In just for her.
She’d grimace back, and fume silently while the rest of us would just smile at his cheekiness, knowing full well who really held the power in the house when the company was gone. In that day and age, men were considered the sole head of the household and particularly in a patriarchal French-Canadian family such as ours, my grandfather felt the need to socially restate the boundaries in front of his friends for ego’s sake.
Boundaries are prevalent everywhere in our world, and I would venture to say most of them are man made. We have limits and expectations set by various governmental bureaucracies, by our families, our employers and even those ever so indiscreet societal norms. And as much as there are these invisible lines everywhere in our lives, at any given moment someone is crossing them to test the limits.
As much as we like the securities that boundaries provide when they serve to protect our own best interests, we are constantly complaining about the restrictions they impose on our freedoms. Succinctly put, we want it both ways. Children are no different.
As far back as the womb, children have been demanding expanded boundaries, kicking their way out from the warmth and comfort inside of their mothers, to fighting the receiving blankets they are wrapped in. How many times have you dressed your child, only to find them mere moments later, peeling off every piece of clothing? When we try and confine their meals to a regular pattern, they want snacks. Give them water, they want juice. Tell them no sugar, and they trade their apple at school for someone else’s peanut butter cookie.
Kids push for boundary expansions all the time; and one of the toughest jobs of a parent’s is determining how much and when. Most of the time the kids will be putting up strong resistance -- but is it really what they want?
I recall being part of an experiment as a child, that offered me unconditional freedom, albeit borne out of the depth of parental frustration. It was summer vacation, and my father was home from his diamond drilling job for a few weeks. He took on the parenting role while my mother was at work, a role that he really wasn’t particularly accustomed to doing on account of being away at drilling camps for long periods of time. I don’t recall my sisters and I demonstrating anything but typical grade school behavior, but he had been used to barking orders at crews of men on the job that asked how high when he yelled “Jump!”
One day, after hearing us tell him for the hundredth time, “In a minute....” when he asked us to do something, he lost it. He lost it big time. He stood up from the kitchen table, slammed his fist down, and announced with an authoritative growl "I quit!"
My sisters and I stared at each other slack-jawed. "You can’t quit!"
"I can and I do! No one listens to me anyway. From now on you can do what you’d like. Make your own rules. Make your own meals. I won’t say a word."
We looked at each other again. Was he really serious? All of a sudden we had what any child would give their eye teeth for -- complete freedom -- but the responsibility that seemed to loom along with it was rather daunting. Still, the prospect of choosing our own bedtime and eating at will had its appeal, so we shrugged our shoulders and carried on with our day.
My father appeared to be very serious. That night there was no announcement about it being bedtime. We had fresh bread dipped in corn syrup for dinner and played outside in the yard well past dark. This wasn’t so bad.
However, it was obviously eating away at our father, and when we attempted to make Kraft dinner for breakfast the next morning, he announced he was taking back the reins. Cereal instead, it was and we now had our boundaries back. I can’t recall being too upset -- I had kind of missed his interference, because quite honestly it made me feel as if he cared.
I’ve watched my grandson while he’s been visiting here, and as much as he wants to spread his tiny wings and fly and constantly asks whether he’s gotten any taller or grown any new muscles, he finds security in familiar boundaries.
He notoriously likes to test his bedtime limits. In fact, when he first came here he really didn’t have a bedtime. Months later, he is now used to a new routine that is more suitable for a young child soon to enter Kindergarten. It wasn’t without a whole lot of work. At one point, because of his tendency to get out of bed and play, or turn on the television set, I resorted to sitting in a pink swivel rocker that gave me a full view of his bed so I could interject admonishment if I saw his feet swing over the side of the mattress.
Eventually I felt confident he’d gotten the routine down pat, and I decided I could give up my pink chair vigil for the comfort of the sofa. I put him to bed as usual and he settled right in and I went about my nightly routine sans the chair.
A few minutes later he wandered out, tears streaming down his cheek.
"Why aren’t you on the pink chair? I can’t sleep without you there!"
For all the freedom that he’d earned, he preferred the comfort of me sitting there while he ended each day. Go figure. We eventually weened him from needing to be watched until he slept, and by the time he went back home, people were amazed at how easy it was to tuck him into bed at night at a decent time.
Even though its only been a few months since we saw him last, he's grown by leaps and bounds; inwardly and outwardly. He's taller, some of his favorite clothes no longer fit and he needs new shoes. His vocabulary and his curiosity have both expanded astronomically. He's a big boy now -- a fact he readily reminds me of.
I made the mistake of using an ill-thought out response to some misbehavior in the local grocery store. I pulled him aside at the checkout counter and told him he needed to behave. An overtired four year old growled back at me, "Why!?"
"Because I'm the adult and your the child!" I knew it was a poor choice of words. It wasn't the response of an enlightened woman, but akin to something my mother would have said. His reaction was as predictable, as it was strong.
"I am not a child! I am a big boy now!" he asserted, holding his hand a good six inches above his head to show me how tall he thought he was.
This big boy now insists on big boy burgers when we eat out, and frequently gets out of bed to show me he still remembers how to count to ten and therefore is ready for school.
He's also proudly learned how to make sun tea, but initially balked at the thought of a tea party with my flower shaped cups and teapot. He used to love doing that, and as recently as a couple of months ago we had a tea party while watching Alice in Wonderland. Now, apparently, he's too big for that and worries that people will think he's a baby.
I reassured him boys drink tea too, and even resorted to calling my male friend on the phone to confirm this.
He eventually conceded, and he, Felix the cat, Bunny-cat, Froggy and I had a tea party - although I was admonished that no photographs were allowed to be taken lest they make their way to Facebook. He had set his own boundaries for me in this instance and I reluctantly complied.
Fast forward to this week, when I’ve allowed him the next huge step in his journey to independence -- he has been allowed to play outside in the backyard by himself, something I am sure I’d catch heck for, if his mother knew.
I didn’t just send him out without another thought. He’s been carefully primed about the physical boundaries, and the consequences of breaking the rules. The fenced area where is allowed to play is viewable from my living room window and it doesn't front onto any road way or back alley. I open the blinds and the window so he can have free access to me if needed and I can keep one eye on at him at all times.
He loves playing out there, and has adapted to well to the granting of this new freedom, but he still needs the comfort of knowing I am within reach.
Every so often I call his name and he runs to the window to let me know he’s okay. In return every few minutes I hear him shout “Yoo-hoo” as he peeks his head into through the window and presents me with a fistful of dandelions. I suppose this is a big step for both of us.
He’s going to be making a lot of those boundary stretches steps over the next few years, but hopefully, if everything goes as it should, they’ll be made of elastic so this growing young man can come back for reassurance anytime he feels the need.