I’ve had a handful of great therapists over the years. (I’m in the market for a new one, so hit me up if you’ve got a recommendation.) I try to keep a toe in the therapy waters, if for no other reason than I believe high quality counseling may be the only thing that sees my children into adulthood.
This morning I was reminded of a conversation I had a couple years ago with my latest therapist, (I really suck at finding help – hence the blog shout out for recommendations. If you want to read the funny story of how I came by this one, just click here.)
My daughter wants to have a sleepover at a friend’s house. I really like this friend. She’s super sweet and funny and witty and just the tiniest bit of a smart-ass, which is a trait I secretly admire in kids. Other people’s kids, that is.
And the friend’s parents? I don’t know them well, but they seem nice enough. They strike me as loving, responsible, adult-type folks. They are divorced, as many of my own friends, and my kids’ friends’ parents are. This adds a little layer of complexity to the sleepover situation, because you aren’t sure where exactly you’ll be staying until the date is decided.
I assumed that Zoë would want to stay over on a weekend at the mom’s house. After all, the mom is way cool. She lets the girls do pretty much whatever they want (they are both 12 years old and still good girls, so throwing a kegger is not really a concern), stay up as late as they want, watch whatever they want, eat whatever they’d like. She often has friends over and the kids are welcome to sit in on the adult get-together if they’d like. A tween’s dream, right?
Zoë wants to go to the dad’s house.
She says he’s “more like you guys,” which I believe is a nice way of saying he’s a hard ass. He gets the girls ice cream but they aren’t allowed to eat the entire container. They stay up watching movies, but no R rated movies, and they have to be at least in bed by 11.
When I asked Zoë why she prefers having those limits, when she has the choice to have none at all, she said, and I quote, y’all:
“I just feel more comfortable. Sometimes, when there’s no limits, I get kinda nervous thinking, ‘Should I really be doing this? Is this really ok for me?’ I don’t have to worry about that when there are rules.”
So, it’s true. Holy crap. All those parenting gurus who tell you that children really prefer to live with rules and boundaries – well, they aren’t on crack after all.
That last therapist of mine put it this way:
Kids need boxes. They crave limits and boundaries, because those “walls” keep them feeling safe. The trick is making sure that you’ve got your kid in the right sized box.
When babies are first born, we put them in very very small boxes. We swaddle them up so that they don’t flail around and startle themselves. We hold them against our bodies in slings, right within sniffing distance.
When they get a little bigger, we put them in a slightly larger box. We sit them on a blanket on the floor to explore a handful of toys. They ride in strollers – too far to smell, but locked in and within arm’s reach.
A little bigger still, and the box grows to include the whole downstairs – minus the refrigerator – and eventually even the upstairs as well.
Most of us are pretty good about finding right-sized boxes for our very young children. But it gets trickier as they inch towards adolescence and then adulthood.
At this point, some of us just assume that boxes are no longer necessary or desirable and so we do away with them all together. This is the “whatever goes” style of boxlessness.
Others of us are just too tired and overwhelmed to pay much attention to building boxes around kids who are no longer in danger of wandering into the fire. This is the “safe enough” approach to boxlessness.
Of course, some of us go the other way, terrified of the dangers of “out there” and keep the boxes uncomfortably small. Everything is fully vetted, even seemingly harmless activities like birthday slumber parties – Who is going to be there? What will they be eating? What movie will they watch and what does Common Sense Media say about it? What time will they be going to sleep? Will a parent be staying with them in the sleeping quarters? Is there an alarm system? Here’s a hint: If you find yourself saying “yes” to reasonable freedoms, things that the rest of your child’s peer group is allowed to do, and then, like King Triton in The Little Mermaid, you send out spies (oh Sebastian!) to give a full report, you probably need to build a bigger box.
I really like this analogy. Maybe it’s because I have a background in boxes. For a while I ran an Etsy shop online, selling vintage items that I’d collected – mostly glassware from the 40’s – 60’s, and other smalls like Great Depression era linens and knickknacks. Aside from the photography, the shipping was definitely the most laborious part of the whole endeavor. The hardest part of shipping was finding a box of the right size. Too small and forget it – the item just wouldn’t fit; too large, and no matter how much newspaper I stuffed in that box, the item arrived damaged or destroyed.
It’s easy for me to visualize my children as fragile and priceless heirlooms. I can imagine them crammed into a too small box, bursting at the seams, protected at the ripped spots by only a thin layer of packing tape. I can also imagine them rattling around in a box too large; hurtling through space, slamming against the sides when the ride gets bumpy. But a perfectly sized box… oh that’s a beautiful thing. There’s just enough room to breathe, to stretch, to explore a little. But the box is not big enough to leave any scary distant corners, no shadowy places where disaster, or even the threat of disaster, could be hiding.
A box of the right size doesn’t teach children to be afraid of the larger world – on the contrary, it allows them a space to explore and experiment with pushing the boundaries. It teaches them that it’s safe to be brave, to go just as far as they want to go, without the fear that they will suddenly be in over their heads. One of the surest ways to create anxiety and small-mindedness in a child is not to put them in a box that’s too constricting, but to put them in a box that’s too vacuous – a space where anything could happen, where anything could be lurking. In a space like that, self-preservation tells you to hunker down, stay little, try not to be noticed.
At least that what’s my therapist said.
But man, they don’t send home any box blueprints in that care package from the newborn nursery. It’s pretty much like, “Here’s a snot sucker and a striped hat… you’re on your own.”
Thank God for 12 year-old daughters who (every once in a blue moon) stop telling you what you’re doing wrong just long enough to imply that maybe, possibly, perhaps, you might be doing just one thing okayish.
And thank God for therapists, who will be able to help those daughters sort through all the other things, after you are no longer in the box building business.