Life with a Smile: Kids test boundaries to be sure they’re still there

Published 9:46 am Monday, September 26, 2016

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I heard somewhere that Great Pyrenees dogs cannot be allowed to roam free – they need fenced yards. The idea is that they’re guard dogs and if you don’t clearly delineate their perimeter, they’ll just keep looking for it, ranging further and further afield.

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Kids are a lot like that. They desperately need to know what their boundaries are, and if they’re not sure, they’ll go hunting for them.

My son, in particular, periodically needs to check the limits of his domain. A couple weeks ago, he mounted an expedition to discover the outer limits of my patience. It was a Sunday morning —  of course! Why? Why always Sunday mornings? — and he went rogue regarding appropriate church apparel. Ten minutes before Sunday school was due to start and he was sitting in the bedroom in track shorts, emphatically declaring that no other clothing was acceptable to him. He was going to church in gym shorts or else.

Clothing is always something of a struggle with my golden boy, but I just didn’t have the time or bandwidth to deal with his wardrobe hang-ups on that particular Lord’s day. We had planned an afternoon trip to the movie theater and I laid down an ultimatum — be dressed and at the door in five minutes or forgo the trip.

It wasn’t really his fault. Well, the raging disobedience was, but I can understand why he sometimes loses sight of his boundaries. I don’t always set them clearly. Setting boundaries is exhausting. Or rather, setting boundaries is easy. Maintaining them is really, really hard. Despite my best intentions, all my kids know perfectly well that I don’t always mean what I say and that I won’t always carry through on my harried threats, tossed out in an attempt to coerce compliance.

So my firebrand doubled down. If he couldn’t wear gym shorts to church, then he wasn’t going to church — at all. Uh oh. Escalation. I called his bluff. We piled into the car, drove to the church and dropped his sisters off for Sunday school.

We returned home and I banished him to his room for 20 minutes. When it was time to go pick up the girls, he appeared in his doorway, neatly dressed, ready for church. He meekly asked if he could still go to the movie and flashed me a winsome smile.

And there he was, with his nose pressed against the fence, wondering if it would hold up when he prodded it. Could he get away with throwing such an epic fit, but still go to the movie in the afternoon?  How far was too far? I could see the calculation in his eyes, weighing whether his adorableness might counterbalance his earlier misbehavior.

My kids sometimes surprise me. I held the line and braced for the emotional tsunami that was sure to follow, but it didn’t come. After a few dramatic wails that were largely for effect, my son accepted his exclusion from the theatrical outing with something boarding on relief. He’d found the boundary and the world made sense to him again.

Of course that isn’t the final word on the subject. Kids have to test their boundaries regularly (daily) to be sure they’re still there. He will probably pick the same fight again or search for another weak link in the fence.

And that’s OK. It’s his job to test the limits and my job to reassure him that they’re still there.