‘Do you think that children need boundaries, Bob?’
‘Perhaps you’re asking the wrong question.’
Private conversation with Bob Hughes, 2012
I’ve been troubled by the idea of ‘control’ for quite a while. It doesn’t sit easily. There was a time, a way back, when I first worked with children and I admit — though the heart was in the right place — there was a lot of adult need in the practice. It could be said that, in some or even many who work with children, there’s still an adult need (though that’s a story for another time). The need I’m looking to investigate further here is the control need.
This is a recurring theme in my thinking and writing, I realise. What is it that troubles me so much? After all, in our adult lives we often try to impose requirements on others: pay me my dues, abide by the laws we tend to all subscribe to, treat me as you’d expect to be treated yourself, etc. Is this a form of attempting soft control?
We have in-built interpretations of ‘what is fair’. That is, we’re settled if we (the centre of our own universes) are roughly in balance. When someone or some organisation or some situation unsettles that equilibrium, we are ‘unfairly’ treated. Is attempting such soft control on other adults justifiable because of ‘fairness’? On the other hand, what right have any of us to impose upon another? Perhaps the ‘right’ can be activated after others have unfairly treated us. I don’t know for sure.
When it comes to the idea of ‘boundaries’, I find myself tying in these concepts of ‘fair’, ‘rights’ and ‘control’. If a child plays in a certain way (expressing themselves loudly, say, or throwing things around to see what will happen), causing the adult’s system to be imposed upon, is it justifiable that the adult then impose upon that child? If we look at it carefully, the playing child is unsettling the ‘centre of the universe’ that is the attendant adult; the adult feels out of control; the adult imposes some (let’s call it) ‘boundary’ in order to regain the feeling that ‘fairness’ to him or her has been restored.
Is it right to impose a boundary on a playing child just because the adult feels unsettled?
This word ‘boundary’ has troubled me for a long time: it’s the idea of trying to fix someone else into our way of things that bothers me. You can read here and agree or disagree with whatever’s said, but I can’t make you do things ‘my way’ if we don’t see eye to eye. I write this blog to open a window onto the things I’ve experienced and continue to experience. I can be opinionated or subtle, but you choose your own way.
Do children need adults’ boundaries? Perhaps I’m asking the wrong question. If we are to use the ‘boundary’ word, what boundaries do children need? I’ve had these conversations many times. Often, top of the replies list is ‘boundaries for their own safety’; or ‘for learning how to get by in the world’; or ‘to respect others’.
Regarding safety, there are many times when children can work things out for themselves, though there are many other times when they’re just blind to what’s going on around them. Tagging along with Gack (you have to read back in the archives here too!), who’s three, as he peddles along down the gradual slope on his bike with stabilisers but no brakes, he stops at each road, like we talk about. We come to the crossroads next to the bus stop. ‘Anything coming?’ I ask. ‘Nope,’ he says without looking, attempting to push out into the road. ‘Yeh right,’ I say. ‘You haven’t even looked.’ He can hear a wood pigeon on a roof from fifty yards, and he can see an ant on a black surface from six feet away, but he doesn’t see or hear the bus walloping around the corner towards us.
I’m more comfortable with the word ‘guidance’ here. Maybe it’s just a word, but it feels more positive than ‘boundary’ and ‘control’. Am I controlling this road safety scenario?
At the park, Gack talks loudly about the man who’s just come in to the ‘outdoor fitness area’ (they rip up the children’s play area to slot in a series of gym devices which hardly get used, but that again is another story). Gack likes to come in here, I guess, because it’s a smooth surface to ride his bike on. He uses the equipment in unusual ways too. The man comes in and Gack talks about him as if he, the adult, can’t hear: ‘Why is that man here? What’s he doing now?’ The man soon leaves and we go on flicking elastic bands around. I have no intention of imposing a ‘boundary’ on Gack so he can ‘learn how to treat others’, ‘respect them’, or generally just not unsettle them. There’s no ‘guidance’ I can, or want, to offer here either.
In the garden, another day, Gack’s cousin (who’s two) pokes around the pond, which is a deep green ooze. He can’t get in easily, though I wouldn’t put it past him to try. He bides his time before playing in other ways: an ornamental duck is dropped into the murk. Later, he finds another duck and I know what he’s going to do only at about the time he gets just far enough ahead of me not to be able to reach him. He runs across the patio, duck by the neck. Plop. He watches it sink. I stand there and just consider the fact that what has been done has been done. The duck is already sunk.
What would be the point of imposing a ‘no’ or any other rebuke? The duck has already been dunked. There are other ornaments that might like to go for a swim. What do you do when you have such trouble with the concept of ‘control because the adult doesn’t like the action’? It’s time to put money where the mouth is: I try to make play of the situation. I don’t know if I get it right, though no more ducks are harmed in the course of the afternoon. What would be the problem if they were though?
So, what ‘boundaries’ do children ‘need’? It’s been my contention for quite a while now that it’s not children who need boundaries, but adults. Adults need ways of balancing their own systems, comfort levels, sense of being central; children need other things. If a ‘play need’ is essentially gaining access to some play opportunity that their environment (including the human environment) doesn’t provide them, then maybe children’s other needs are a result of other deficiencies. So, for example, maybe they have a need (as opposed to a preference) for guidance in road awareness, sometimes (because of a current deficiency in understanding about the impact of buses, say); maybe they have a need for initial ‘assistance’ in tools use in their play; maybe they have a need for adult understanding. Maybe these aren’t children’s needs at all . . .
There’s a difference between what a child needs and what an adult wants of them. In the latter, it’s the adult who’s at the centre of things and it’s the adult who then becomes settled because of the ‘boundary setting’. If we’re imposing ‘boundaries’, instead of attempting to understand what and how the child is playing, are we really thinking of the child at all?