When our first son was about 18 months old, freshly weaned and newly a big brother, he started testing his autonomy. As a highly verbal child, he’d been counting to 10 and saying ABCs since his first birthday, adding simple sums such as “ one bus and ano’er bus…2 buses!” and knew every kind of construction vehicle by name. His personality was shining through loud and clear, and I loved it, loved him, more than I’d ever thought possible.
Then one day I asked him to pick up his blocks and put them away in his wooden bus. He’d done the task a hundred times, and knew exactly what I meant. But this time, he looked at me, looked at the blocks, and fell silent. Then, in a completely uncharacteristic move, he turned his little back to my face, and continued playing.
Alarms went off. He did NOT just do that.
So I told him again what to do, and he again did the opposite. He didn’t say no, he just kept on moving the bus back and forth, not really playing but rather testing this new experience – clearly his mind was on my directions and his refusal to comply.
This moment is seared in my parenting brain as one of the most pivotal of my career. I can tell you everything about it: how many feet he sat from the front door, what the flowers looked like through the screen, how my husband was gardening just beyond the porch. I can tell you that it was about 4 in the afternoon because I remember the way the light came through the window. I can tell you I was just a few weeks postpartum, reeling in that vortex of not-well-enough-to-be-back-to-normal-but-I’m-a-parent-so-I-have-to-do-All-The-Things-still. I stared at him, child of my womb, flesh of my very flesh.
And I hurt all over. So much anger, so much anger, welled up in me.
You are not me, and I am not you.
This was my very first parenting experience of what I then called defiance. I actually, with all of my silly heart, did not know that my son was capable of it. I really thought that he was pretty close to perfect, and how could a perfect being ever offer anything less than absolute obedience and affection to me, his mother? Had I not worked so hard, so mindfully, to parent every second of his life in the best, most loving way I knew how? This totally benign interaction exposed the shame tucked just beneath my parenting surface. A moment like this calls for healthy parenting reaction such as: “oh! It begins. Let the awesome autonomy come! I’m still your mama, buddy, and you’ll still do what I say, but I like that strength of spirit.”
But instead of confidence, I felt gutted. How could he do this to me? I have done nothing but nurture him. I have loved him and given myself up for him. How could he rebel against me?
Do you see where this is going?
It’s going back to the subject of boundaries.
After last night’s post, I’m still thinking about boundaries. Until this moment I maintained an illusion that I was in control. In control of my life, really. I didn’t feel in control, but I worked very hard for for the sense, because to be in control was to be okay, right?
There is this idea intrinsic to the shame of our souls – we know we are not okay, and we want to be okay. So if the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed, then life will click together like a link of chains, and we’ll hold steady and sure.
If I wife perfectly, we’ll have the perfect marriage. If I parent perfectly, I’ll have the perfect child. If I do the right things, he’ll love me. If I am the right way, she’ll stay. If I just do all the things, then all the things will work out, and I will be okay.
Worse yet: if he or she does all the right things, then I’ll be okay.
Obviously, in religion this gut-motivation takes on a higher and larger context. I will be righteous, and God will approve. You will be righteous, and I will be fine. I will be holy, and no one will expose my shame. You will be holy, and I will be happy. I will do all the right things, and then I will be innocent. You will do all the right things, and if you can’t I will make you do them, because that will keep me safe. Conflict in my life will always be the fault of someone or something else – never my own fault – because conflict, pain, confusion has to be of the devil or somebody else’s sin…I’m doing all the right things, so this pain can’t be rooted in me.
All it took was a firstborn son’s refusal to participate in my plans for a single moment, and the dark side of my parenting philosophy began to bleed through.
Though it would take some time to unravel the meaning of my angry response, what had happened was an exposure of my poor sense of where self ends and where another person begins. I would have to learn what good parental authority is, and how to walk in it – and the strength at the bottom of the lesson would be a gut-level understanding that:
My child and I are two distinct persons, created this way by God.
You cannot control.
Here’s some truth: real life cannot be controlled. You can never, ever control what another person will or will not do (or think in their hearts), and still honor them as a person. If you are trying to control another person, it is because you feel out of control in yourself.
You aren’t in control, you never were, and you never will be. You will practice self-control, but you absolutely cannot practice other-control, because that’s a violation of the image of God.
Yes, we are created to be in spiritual unity: unity with God, unity with our husband or wife. As “new Creations” we are created to be in spiritual unity with the church. But even though we are created for an experience of unity, we are still created with soul-level spiritual autonomy. We live and die before God alone. Unity is something we get to choose to participate in, not something another person can demand. This means there are boundaries, perimeters, surrounding what do and how we act. I can “beat my body” as Paul famously intones (a way of describing his dedication to spiritual discipline and growth) but I absolutely cannot beat yours (literally or figuratively, ahem).
What boundaries mean for parenting.
As parents, this means we walk in the role of father or mother, we learn the beginnings and ends of parental authority, and we flesh out this authority within the context of respect and grace. It means we have to own our stuff, and “work out our own salvation” as Paul also says. We have to likewise work out our own issues and not practice them, or take them out upon, our kids.
We do what we have to do to become whole, and strong, so that we can press through the places of insecurity and shame, refusing to become monsters on the one end, or abdicators of our responsibilities on the other.
Healthy boundaries in parenting – an art I’m still learning – keep us from controlling our children to their detriment, and also require us to step up to our role and do our job well. Boundaries help keep us from paralyzing in our shame.
Be strong, these boundaries say. This is your domain, these boundaries say. This is the area in which you must rise up and do well, even at the risk of failing. Become participators in grace, they say. Don’t be afraid, they say. For you are allies of your children, even as you are their guide.
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