Does being child-centered mean the little darlings can do whatever they want? What are boundaries and why do we need them? ‘For their own good,’ of course. Safety aside, for their ‘good’ or ours?
This challenge of setting boundaries is pervasive. Digging deeper, ‘setting boundaries’ in the parent-child relationship surface when what I call the ‘natural modeled-boundaries’ break down. This is when natural attunement, the feeling of surfing together, what David Bohm might call shared meaning, stumbles is impaired, broken or betrayed.
A passage in Joe Pearce’s early works comes to mind, describing young African mothers waiting for hours to see the white doctor, holding their tiny infants close with no diapers. Pausing for a moment, the doctor mused, how strange this was, do diaper - and even stranger, not one mother was soiled. So she asked, "how do you know when your baby needs to go,” she asked? The mother replied, “how do you know when you need to go?” Who needs boundaries when natural attunement guides the way?
No question, we need to intervene if a child is in danger. The majority of time however, the child is not in danger. Adults often set boundaries for their, the adult’s security and comfort, justified, as Alice Miller notes, ‘for their own good’ (projecting the adult need onto the child). Providing physical boundaries is necessary. Creating psychological boundaries is completely different.
Joe noted; “a child never restrained never needs restraining.” Such a radical proposal, but consistent with what he called the model imperative. We set boundaries naturally by the models we exhibit. This golden rule does not require praise, punishments or rewards. When the adult model is consistent, coherent and appropriate, and the relationship with the child is grounded in play-based learning with its implicit and reciprocal trust and respect, what most people call ‘setting boundaries’ isn’t on the radar. The play-based bond is the safe place, both physically and psychologically, and that safety implies appropriate boundaries are expressed and shared moment by moment.
Boundaries naturally modeled and appropriate with the environment are compulsively followed and adopted by the child as naturally as they learn to walk and speak. Natural boundaries are the interplay of the child’s absorbent mind and the model imperative dancing together.
This core message was expressed in dramatic ways by Jean Leadoff in her Continuum Concept. Tribal adults did not hover. Infants crawled up to extremely hazardous places while the adults sat by assuming that the natural intelligence of the infant will keep them safe. And it did. I call this ‘assuming competence.’ Joe’s mother was afraid of water. They lived next to a river. The mother’s anxiety filled the air and anxiety-field made the children far more nervous than the river. That too is the model imperative in action, with neurotic being the model. Alas, neurotic is all too often the norm.
Our peril and therefore the felt-need to ‘set psychological boundaries’ is grounded in the adults lack of clarity, consistency, and most importantly a constantly up-dating of the play-based relationship with the child. The child attunes moment-by-moment to the state of the relationship they share with a present, attentive, bonded-attached parent. When the conditioning-intellect intervenes, with its authority, this attuned-reciprocal dynamic is lost, pushed aside by threats-rewards. In the absence of this trust-respect reciprocal attunement, what else is there except ‘setting boundaries.’
As a present example; Carly, dashing close to age-four and I are alone. I just said to her, “Carly, I need you to play by yourself for a few minutes while I write a note to a friend.” “Ok, she said, “I will listen to some music and fly around the room with Bear” (on the cardboard we brought in this morning for just that purpose). She knows, whenever possible, that I respect her feelings and needs and she does the same for me (most of the time). These are natural boundaries. Not boundaries imposed by the intellect-ego, what society calls ‘setting boundaries.’ In this way, Carly experiences what mutual respect means. She knows when people respect her and when they don’t. This deep knowing addresses the concern some have: without boundaries our children are vulnerable to others taking advantage. Carly, at near four-years-old, knows who she is. She has no trouble declaring what she wants. Appropriate boundaries are redefined every day and in new and appropriate ways, naturally, without making a big deal about ‘setting boundaries.’ My sharing that I needed some time to write a note could be seen as setting boundaries. It feels more like respectful communication.
Supporting Carly’s need for cardboard so she and Bear can fly, is not spoiling, rather it is empowering. As Joe would describe, her play is taking an inner image (expressed as a play-need) and changing her environment in creative ways to meet that need, exactly what our high creative potential is designed to do. And it is my job to support this. Stunting that drive evokes the child’s ego-intellect, as a coping strategy, to overcome the implicit limitations and constraints being imposed. Once the ego is established the adult-culture imposes boundaries to keep the child’s effort to overcome culture’s constraints in check. What Jean and Joe are describing is the natural order established by the bonded model imperative. What we call ‘setting boundaries’ is a function of the intellect, with its ego, demanding that its abstractions rule the moment – or else. When natural boundaries fail, that’s all we have left.
When we understand that the ego as we know it, micro-personal and macro-collective, is nothing but a coping pattern, and that the whole structure disappears when true bonded trust and respect are active, then we realize that the whole show about ‘setting boundaries’ represents, as Joe notes, a symptom that the natural order has broken down. ‘A child never restrained never needs restraining.’