Laine Colley encourages parents to toss out old patterns of setting limits and choose better pathways in today’s progressive world of new boundaries.
On any given weekend you can sit in our living room and listen as our 13-year-old son plays video games in the loft above. Occasionally, if you’re sensitive to such things, you’ll also hear him let fly a string of four-letter-words. Only rarely do we holler up for him to cut it out, and when we do, he does.
When I was a child some swearing was normal. We lived on a hobby farm and as long as a word was used to describe a “thing” all was well. We never used the f-bomb, but sh*t was sh*t and even at the age of six I could describe it with the best of them. Our son was offered similar guidance, but I changed the rules a bit.
Instead of just letting it go when he finally had the courage to swear in front of us, we created milestones for him to reach in order to use a certain word. When he turned ten, we granted him the right to use ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ with discrimination. When he turned thirteen, he was granted permission to say ‘shit’.
His responsibility with cursing has always been to understand when the words are welcome and when using them would get him into trouble. If he misused his privilege and used language to slur or attack someone, he lost the right to use those terms. It has always been important for him to learn the impact of taboo words so they can be tools for articulate expression rather than ways to be naughty. So far the process has been successful and he is able to express his frustrations better because he can vent the explosiveness behind them and get to the message more efficiently. I know the idea of a blustery tweenager isn’t very pretty, but it really does help.
Rituals like these are disappearing in the technological age. The process of earning new rank by learning how to navigate language has become less about socialization of young people and rites of passage. Instead they’ve been replaced with practicing for employment obedience tests and the procurement of gadgets, which leads to mentally isolated and disassociated children who identify more with their entertainers than with real people – who are likely the product of the same system. Their progress into adulthood is punctuated with threats; a blur of fantasy, escapism, and indulgence without relevant and rewarding hurdles to prove they can temper their own mirth.
In these instances parents need to change. Rather than using money and stuff as rewards for doing chores they should be doing anyway, reward them with new rights. Proving children can be trusted to use the riding lawn mower is a big deal, and if we make a fuss it leads to more care, both for the task at hand and later when they learn how to drive. Being careful to limit scarcity in those areas of life where more attention is needed draws out their care. Money is a fine reward for work well done and placing emphasis on quality work adds an understanding of the value of things. By creating ordeals we teach children to raise the bar on their own.
This same method was used to get our son to care about cleaning his room. He was allowed to live in a mess with a few very disruptive cleaning sessions that taxed us all emotionally and physically. Eventually he realized that not putting things away made more work and chaos than it was worth and has found his appreciation for tidiness.
He doesn’t get paid for doing it. Unless you’re training them to be a housekeeper, having a clean room is about self-care, not money. The reward is having a nice place to reside, not the ability to pile in more stuff. Rather than ‘commodifying’ the act as if they are employed, we put a value on his ability to raise his own standards and to accomplish the task better than last time. Living in his own mess taught him to value paying attention to details.
Consider the Pinewood derby. When the Boy Scouts first started the event, the boys carved their own cars and did all the work on improvements. Now, it is almost unheard of for the child to do the work because parents jump in and do it for them. The winner of the derby isn’t the child anymore and it’s obvious by how little they care about the reward. And of course they wouldn’t because they didn’t win. It was handed to them, they act like it was handed to them, they know it’ll happen again, and they learn to expect it.
Children need rites of passage, even if it is taking their favorite app and turning it into a backyard project. Such ordeals teach them the middle steps to the ideals they are already familiar with, and it shows them that although their mind may have the knowledge, their body must also live the process. It helps them discover their physical limits and, in the case of doing the real thing instead of playing a game, introduces them to real living skills. Whether it’s a tweenage Sufferfest to make the most enthusiastic Boy Scout blanch or having them create their own clothing, children need to know what they can accomplish and introducing limits does just that.
My husband and I may not have done everything perfectly for our son, but we have managed to bring out his industriousness. He understands that work done well is its own reward and he has learned the value of respecting other peoples’ boundaries. Most importantly, he isn’t afraid to fail or get hurt trying to make his dent in our reality. Knowing he is welcome to use the many tools at his disposal he is his own empowered (and occasionally blustery) co-creator, and I think he’s going to turn out just fine.
Photo: Bart Everson/Flickr