Boundaries

Brigid Fox | Brevard, NC

When working with the Acorn age group (6-9 years old), their need to find their boundaries is clear. They are, once again, newly awakening to the world around them. Yes, they have seen it and been a part of it for quite a while by this time. However, they are coming to a new understanding: becoming aware of being a part of the whole rather than the reason for the whole. As you can imagine (or remember), this can be both exhilarating and frightening at the same time. Identifying, and for some, testing, the boundaries is a crucial piece of a young human’s way to find safety, comfort, and capability in this world.

What that means for the adults is we must know our boundaries and be clear as they get pushed aside, stepped on, or otherwise disregarded. Most of us realize the potential for unsafe choices, for example, running in a parking lot, jumping out of windows, full body tackling another. However, where it gets a little blurred for us may be with language (both spoken and unspoken).

One illustration is a child expressing a need when they ask for a snack. Their tone, their word choice, and their body language all make a difference in how that request lands. The child may not yet be aware that they are taking their baggage of toddler years, like whining or demanding, or dramatic slumping, unnecessarily into this new world of independence. That is when we (the adults, guides, teachers, etc.) can reflect back to them how their simple request came across.  Such as “Your question makes me think you are very hungry. It sounded angry. Did you mean for it to sound so angry?” The conversation can move on from there, depending on how receptive the child is. Ideally, the child will come around “sans baggage” asking for their snack, or the adult will be able to model a more pleasant way to ask for a need to be met. This child is learning social boundaries, how to speak to an adult they trust, how to speak to someone who they need help from, how to speak to someone they love. By holding our boundaries, we are giving the children the opportunity to practice their new awareness in the world.

Another example of needing clear boundaries can be found in word and topic choice. What was once ok to say or ask about, maybe it was even rewarded or considered “cute”, may now be inappropriate. The author Dave Pilkey makes a good point in one of his Captain Underpants books when he says “Most adults spend the first few years of a child’s life cheerfully discussing pee and poopies, and how important it is to learn to put your pee-pee and poo-poo in the potty like big people do. But once children have mastered the art of toilet training, they are immediately forbidden to ever talk about poop, pee, toilets, and other bathroom-related subjects again. Such things are now considered rude and vulgar, and are no longer rewarded with praise and cookies and juice boxes.”

 

As a child is quickly (some move more quickly than others) gaining awareness of social cues and subtleties of time and/or place, it is important for everyone to have clear boundaries with some understanding of why the boundary exists. For example, a “no potty talk at school” expectation may seem difficult for a child who’s humor and family enjoys a level of silliness here.  Being told at school that “Potty words stay in the restroom.” may come across as another silly joke, and then it can be fun to push that boundary around. The expectation is clear, yes, but the reason for that expectation is missing for the child. It is much harder to get buy-in when we don’t know why.

One way of helping a child understand the importance of such a boundary is sharing that everyone is growing, and as we grow, sometimes things begin to feel uncomfortable – like you outgrow shoes or a pair of pants. People sometimes outgrow words or things they find funny.  Choosing better what we say is an easy way we can help support other people’s growing.

It is an even more wonderful “teachable moment” if one child asks another child to stop saying a word or phrase. This gives both children some practice with feeling discomfort with a friend, and saying or hearing “no”. With so much in the news about “consent” and “no means no,” what an excellent way to begin awareness of the need to listen and react appropriately to the needs of your friends.

This age group keeps me on my toes. I am often checking myself to be sure I know why I have an expectation and how I can support a child’s growth. Sometimes that means tightening up, sometimes giving specific feedback, and sometimes it means a whole group conversation. It definitely takes patience as I know these young humans are working very hard to have safety, comfort, and capability in this wonderful world.

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