Ainsley comes charging in while I'm, ahem, in the bathroom.
"Close the door," I say. "Mama needs her privacy."
Ainsley immediately steps inside and closes the door. She runs to the map of the world shower curtain and asks, "Where I live, Mama?"
Instead of ordering her little caboose right out of the bathroom, I point to southeastern North America. She says, "That's my 'Gusta, Georgia. Where Timmy live?"
We go through Daddy, Kolbe, John, and Mama. She nods and says, "That's my 'Gusta, Georgia. Can I fwush the toilet?'
If you follow the Wall Street Journal, you may be aware that a year ago, Chinese mothers were declared superior. They set the bar high, demanding straight A's, excellence in music, and beautifully appointed homemade birthday cards. We sorry, western mothers hung our heads in collective shame. This year the Journal says top marks go to the French.
If I had to summarize the Chinese approach it would be high standards. The French approach seems to to rest on clear boundaries. The incident with Ainsley in the bathroom made me stop and ponder the issue of boundaries. What boundaries have we set for our children? Where, besides the restroom, do we lack clear boundaries?
The Journal article discussed the French tendency to have set meal times with little or no snacking in between. The author cited an example of a young child (maybe four?) who made pastries with his mother but knew there was no tasting until it was snack time.
Where's the fun in that, I'd like to know. But, I have to say, reading this heightened my awareness of how much grazing we do as a family, of how few boundaries we have in the area of food. My older children attend school, so they have set meal times, but my younger ones seem to nibble all day long. They are hunter-gatherers of the highest order. Food, glorious food -- whatever, whenever, wherever! Yesterday, as I was visiting with a friend, John pushed a step stool across the kitchen, climbed on the counter, and helped himself to a few cookies. I intervened and was met with an epic fit.
John and the kitchen? Clear boundaries needed.
I delved into a little deep cleaning the other day and reflected on how so much of the mess in our house is related to boundaries. I should not need to clean up cereal in the living room. Popcorn after a movie night? Not a problem. But cereal, empty drink boxes, and Valentines candy? No.
I have a friend who is so diligent about enforcing a one toy at a time rule. The kids have free access to all their toys, but the key is that they clean up one item before moving to another. They have boundaries. The children have boundaries because the mom is self-disciplined.
Children are entitled to certain things without conditions or limitations -- love, protection, respect, clothing, adequate food. But in other areas -- principally in the material realm -- our generosity, our largess, can send a message we really never intended to send: You are entitled to this, we seem to say even when we don't intend to say that. Kids grow up thinking: I am entitled to a cell phone, a ticket to every new release, clothes at least as nice as the neighbor's, a college education, highlights, fill in the blank.
I love to buy books for my kids. Snacks, toys, anything electronic, more plastic c-r-a-p that will all too soon be abandoned -- in these departments, my kids know their mother is nothing but miserly. But bring home that Scholastic book order? I pull out the checkbook. Do they appreciate this or expect this? Can they both expect this and appreciate this?
At the moment Dave and I feel we have just run a marathon -- Dave's 50th birthday, my visit to Florida, demands at work, the Pinewood Derby, the Boy Scout camping trip, the diorama, and -- my personal favorite -- the Science Fair -- good gravy, we are ready to crack. Is it the stress or the lack of sleep that's making all us hack and ache and sneeze? In a few moments I'm heading to the doctor with high hopes of evicting the little man with the sledge hammer who has taken up residence in my left sinus cavity.
What does this have to do with entitlement? Oh yeah . . . I collapsed into bed late, late, late and woke up around 7:00 to find my sweet Ainsey curled up next to me, and John cozily ensconced in his favorite spot at the foot of our bed. I have a vague memory from about 4:00 a.m. of John telling me, "Mama, I'm wet."
He got out of his soggy clothes, and we found him a drier spot. As I settled him back in, He said, "Mama, your breath is on my face. Can you please move it?"
Okay, whose bed is this anyway, buster? Free free to mosey on back to your own bed and leave me and my morning breath alone!
A friend shared struggles she has with a particularly trying child. The child's father told her something, and the girl -- a ten-year-old -- told him to shut up. Shut up, Daddy! Truly I cannot conceive of telling my father to shut up when I was ten or sixteen or forty-seven. And it wasn't because my father was mean. But we had boundaries. We were on one side of the boundaries and, believe me, the words Shut Up were clearly on the other side.
Few of us consciously choose to raise kids without boundaries. We don't shout, "Smorgasbord, kids! The fridge is all yours!" We don't suggest the pre-schoolers trash the house. We don't encourage our teenagers to set their father straight.
But we (or me) can be inconsistent or distracted or blind or just plain lazy. When I'm helping Tim and Kolbe get out the door for school, it's both easy and lazy to hand John and Ainsley something to nibble on and not insist that they eat at the table. When I find the remnants on the piano bench or in my bed or in the fish tank, should I really be surprised?
We will continue to bake lots of cookies around here, and we'll continue to gobble up lots of batter as we go. But I am taking a fresh look at some of the boundaries we have set . . . and some of the ones we clearly haven't.