I have no book review for you today. I haven’t finished a single book this week. I debated going and getting something off the shelf just for the sake of writing one. I only have a few thousand books collecting dust against the day I read them again. But I don’t feel like it. My mind is cluttered and my heart is sore.
I’m thinking about what happens when I draw clear, firm boundaries and insist that they be respected. There isn’t much I consider truly non-negotiable. I eat anything. I can sleep anywhere. There are a lot of things that just don’t matter to me. But there are a few boundaries which are absolutely, positively not up for debate. One is that I have a notoriously short patience for angry outbursts and temper tantrums. I get that we all get mad and that everyone has bad days but I quickly tire of grownups who blow up. Another is that I dislike controlling or manipulative behaviors. It’s not love if it isn’t freely given. Just ask me for what you want, chances are good I’ll say yes but I have my right to say no. I’ll do the same for you.
The boundary that seems to cause me difficulties over and over is that I refuse to allow my children to be drawn into or used as pawns in disagreements between adults. It’s my job to stand up for my kids. They can sort it out between themselves and with other kids. They are expected to be polite to authority. But I also think they have every right to their own boundaries and to possess their own bodies. I think there’s something really sick about adults who tease kids or put them down or draw them into fights or fight about them. For one thing I’ve never seen my children as my possessions. They are God’s children and it’s my job to love them and train them, to protect them and guide them.
I’ve now lost two husbands and, it appears, one close friend over this. The sad part is that in all three instances I had made this boundary clear at least three time before deciding enough is enough. I’m not cruel and random and out to punish people. But I cannot tolerate behavior that hurts children. The most recent time PB was picked at, I made it clear that wasn’t OK, and he agreed he had been wrong (not wrong for having picked on the kid, but proven wrong by the kid…) and I had already let it go and then it was used as fodder for an argument. And so I made it clear that until kindness and appreciation can be shown I, and they, need to be left alone. And I’ve heard nothing.
Kids have a remarkable way of picking up on and reflecting back the attitudes people have about them and direct toward them. Teasing a child quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as they internalize the criticism and become the negative. A child over-hearing grown-ups discuss his short comings will be crushed. A child used as a pawn between fighting adults is forced to pick sides, to divide himself, to be either a mediator or be torn in two. Thus this is the one boundary I defend to the bitter end.
I may be an imperfect, guilty, bad mom but I will die before allowing harm to come to children. No one understands guilt like a mother. We’re guilty of a million mistakes before the baby’s even born. We know we have flaws and problems, moments we really failed and a thousand things we wish we could do better. And we know just how imperfect our offspring are. We live with them after all. The last thing any mother needs is judgement heaped on her or her children. Oh, do I know how hard that kid can be to deal with. He’s my kid. He’s MY kid. He’s my KID. Don’t call me a bad mother. Even if you think it’s funny. And don’t even imply my kid’s a bad kid. Even if he is. It’s just cruel.
I am not talking about gentle correction, about loving redirection, about kind guidance. I am happy to see people help provide these things for my kids. It does take a village and hearing the things I say repeated and reinforced from other sources is good for them. I am not the slightest bit offended if another adult gets down on kid level and coaches and teaches. And if they are doing something truly threatening to life or limb, please, jump right in there and discipline my kids. I’ll do the same for yours. (By the way, I think of discipline as making disciples, not smacking them or screaming at them.)
How people respond to both this boundary and to kids reveals an awful lot about them. Most people, especially other parents, totally get it. My kids may be little stinkers but they’re my little stinkers and I love them. And yet a surprising number of people really don’t get it. Not only will they tease kids but they are then shocked that I have a problem with it. So I make clear that it’s not cool. And they do it again. Just to test me? Because I might change my mind and not love my kids anymore if I hear enough bad things about them? Because a ten year old is so threatening that he needs picked on? I don’t know.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t laugh and joke and even tease with my kids. WITH. Not at. This is one of the great things about middle childhood, those quirky, cute senses of humor they develop. We have a good time joking and teasing. Most nights I pretend I’ve gone dumb and the teddy bears are going to get the good night kisses. We’re all in on the joke and there’s no abuse or misuse of authority in it. The cardinal rule of joking and teasing with anyone is that it isn’t funny if it isn’t fun for everyone. There’s nothing fun about games of one-up-man-ship or mean put-downs. There’s nothing fun about being a powerless child and having a powerful adult pick at you. Kids learn joy and compassion through how they are treated. Treating them as a cause for joy shows them how to find joy in relationships. Showing compassion for their little (but big for them!) struggles teaches them to extend the same to others. And standing up for them teaches them both that they are worth standing up for and that they can stand up for people smaller than they are.
I’ve been known to make jokes about eating the cats for dinner or to call a cat a little poop. PB doesn’t hesitate to stick up for the little fur balls if he thinks they are in danger or have been misrepresented. Someday he will make a fine human being who doesn’t tolerate cruelty or injustice. He’s a ten year old boy who will defend a toddler who’s been irritating him. What mother could ask for more? So what if he’s often shy and serious, if his grades are only middle of the class and he doesn’t like washing his hair? He goes out of his way to help a two-year-old reach the cookie plate or to help his sister download an app.
So I decided I didn’t need to listen to someone point out every single instance of his failing to smile. Decided I wasn’t going to let him be a pawn in a fight. Decided I wasn’t going to put up with him being abused by an older kid. And every single time that boundary has been too much to ask. Don’t abuse my kids. Don’t use my kids. Don’t taunt my kids. It’s just flat out uncool. Yes, I grieve the broken marriages and lost friend. It sucks to lose people I love(d). But it doesn’t suck nearly as bad as putting up with the intolerable. Or even worse, forcing powerless kids to put up with the intolerable. If you want to compliment my kids, yes please. If you want to be another ally in their reaching adulthood healthy and happy, yes please. If you want to help protect them and build a kinder, saner world for them to inherit, yes please.