I want to talk about teaching and affirming our children's rights to boundaries in their own lives and in others.
Kids thrive on boundaries (though it may not seem like it at times). Those kids that you see misbehaving to the extreme, up into their teenage years, are often the children who have not been given boundaries to meet in the first place. Boundaries provide stability; they are an indication of care. Saying that your teenager no longer has a curfew seems like a good way to make you a cool parent, but it's also a great way to subtly tell your teenager that you don't care about when they're home...which often translates into, I don't care. It's from this translation that we derive the instability of a lack of boundary.
That being said, absolute authority shouldn't be confused with boundary setting, and this is a topic over which I believe there is significant conflict, particularly in community settings. Raising your child to believe that you have set boundaries that show your care for them is one circumstance. There's another, where we raise our children to believe that we alone may set boundaries for them, and that they have no right to set them for themselves. We often forget to teach the transition: I am setting boundaries to show you how to create stability in your life so that one day you can set boundaries for yourself. We teach them that there is an absolute authority in their life above their own, which is a dangerous condition.
I want to talk about the effect that a community had on me when the model of absolute authority was put into place. I didn't absorb this model from my parents, I absorbed it from the church community. I originally attended University at a small school in Kansas of religious affiliation. The confusion for me started in having been encouraged towards this college for many years of my life; it was well known for its fairly liberal stance, for its focus on music, for its small student base, and for its academics. All of these factors, and the fact that this University was backed by my church community, made it an incredibly appealing choice.
See I wanted to be a part of a close knit community. I was considering entering the ministry at the time, and I believed that being in a community where people knew each other and took care of each other would be a positive part of my development.
This of course is not to discredit the extraordinary people and experiences that I had at this University. Many of my favourite professors hail from there, and many of my life long friends were also from this University.
The issue that I had was when one of the women that I was living with developed a drinking problem. I was having my own issues myself, but found that I could not escape affiliation in this case. Every move that I made seemed to come back to this particular relationship. Upon discussing the situation with my parents, I was told to “just ignore it and focus on your studies”, which is sage enough advice if the school will let you ignore the situation.
But the student life at this university dragged me into the loop over and over again. I was called in to reconcile a relationship that I knew was destructive. Then, I was called in again to discuss the situation, and every time that I would refuse, I'd be told that as a part of this community, it was my responsibility. And that if I didn't come down, I'd face greater consequences, such as a phone call to my parents.
This particular appeal always bothered me. I could call my parents if I wanted to discuss an issue. They should not be called, however, to shame me. Particularly and specifically not when I was an adult, dealing with adult issues. It was an obtuse and inappropriate appeal to authority, and at the time, it made me feel isolated. I believed that I was becoming a disappointment, to the community and to my parents, because my self-set boundaries were somehow incorrect.
My boundaries were being pushed. And the way that I felt about this school and community made me believe that I was a broken person for trying to establish distance from the problem. Instead of encouraging young people to think through and protect themselves, I was shown that my boundaries and struggles were incorrect and at odds with the church. I felt a great deal of shame.
There's no doubt in my mind that the experience of the other young woman was also affected by this process. The university didn't provide an easy resource for people struggling with any issue that sat outside of the no drugs/no alcohol/ no sex moto of the school. And particularly, it seemed, for people with mental health issues. I also had a friend who was told she wouldn't be allowed to move off campus because she wasn't stable enough. She was 25; only a doctor and their patient, not a school and their student, should be making that decision.
Encouraged by friends back home, who were outside of this community and at a different University, I decided on a transfer. Transferring brought on its own set of issues, but I experienced something I never had before. Students were treated appropriately for their age. I could make my own choices and voice my own opinions without feeling a threat of administrative repercussions.
Importantly, mental health issues that I had not been able to address were suddenly easier to negotiate in this environment. Through observing the actions of others at the new University, I learned that I had certain rights, which we all have:
The right to remove myself from triggering situations.
The right to make a mistake and handle the consequences myself.
The right to believe differently than others.
The right to call out discrimination against myself and others.
And it has taken me years to establish myself as a self-protective person, without shame for getting rid of negative people in my life. There is a part of me that still believes that I must seek to reconcile every relationship that goes sour.
This isn't the most eloquently written piece I've done to date, but the idea is to get us thinking. I want us to notice this issue which plagues many of our tight knit communities. It is an issue that has pushed me away from a community that in my younger years nurtured me. We need to allow each other to set boundaries. And we need to teach our kids that threats are not the same thing as stable boundaries; that they should be setting boundaries for themselves and questioning those that push them.