Sunday, 30 December 2018

Boundary setting and self-regulation.

This is an *extended article first published in the York Press on Tuesday, December 4th, 2018.

A friend’s nine-month old baby is crawling and climbing, causing her parents some concern, as she has no awareness of danger. There has been chat about the merits of playpens and stair gates are in position. Another friend, who lives in West London, is concerned about her fifteen-year old son. The boy is determined to live a more adventurous life than his parents feel comfortable in allowing. Compromises are negotiated. These are illustrations of boundaries. Boundaries set by caring people, who are concerned as to the safety of their children. Boundaries set and moved by adults, as the child grows and learns how to set their own. Except some adults lack that ability. 

*It concerns me when I meet adults unable to use public transport because they were ferried around in cars all their childhood. They  have grown up with a lack of knowledge of how to use a train or bus timetable and sometimes with a fear transferred by a parent. Another immature response is when an adult says "I wasn't told" to a challenge that some behaviour has caused a problem. Some adults  do not have the capacity to think for themselves, to self-regulate, because they have always been regulated by others. This type of behaviour is at the opposite end of the spectrum to children who are sadly called 'feral', with no boundaries and also with an inability to self-regulate. The imagined background of such children is perhaps at the poorer end of society, but that is not always the case.

*I recall a period in education in the 1980s and the promotion of 'free expression' or 'letting children behave as they want to'. I ran a Toddler Group for twenty-two two year olds, no mums and two helpers. There was a routine ninety minutes of playtime, story, playtime and the children thrived. Social Services visited. They disliked the routine and I was sent on a course, where free expression was promoted. In an immature way, I mildly rebelled in one of the exercises, but was so frustrated. Social Services kept up the impromptu visits, but never found anything less than a room full of happy children and were unable to shut down the group. 

A healthy baby always kept in a playpen for months and years, would amount to child neglect. Teenagers think they are aware of all the dangers outside their front door, but adults, remembering their own near escapes from challenging situations, have different ideas. Initial boundaries are slowly widened to allow for healthy physical and psychological growth. Not giving boundaries can lead to wild behaviour, but films of wild animals kept in captivity, in too small a space for their needs, will show increasingly disturbed behaviour. Humans kept within boundaries that do not take their development into account, can develop mental health problems. Is too much ‘helicopter parenting’ leading to an increase in some of these problems?

A teaching tale: A king and queen had a precious son, but were told by a mystic, that he would be killed by a wild animal. They decided never to allow him outside the castle walls. They gave the child everything he could want inside the walls. This included a magnificent room where jungle scenes were painted on the walls. At the top of one wall, artists painted lions and tigers. One day a workman left the room with a tall ladder in position against a wall. The boy, wandering around the castle, came across the room and intrigued by the animals, wanted to get nearer them. He climbed the ladder, reached out to touch a tiger, fell off the ladder and died.

We learn how to set our own boundaries of behaviour. If we always relied on others for setting our boundaries, our emotional growth will remain stunted. 


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