Swing for the Fences, but Reach for the Stars

By Michal Lloyd

“Don’t Fence Me In,” It goes, “Land. Lots of land and the starry skies above, don’t fence me in.” You can almost hear the horse trotting in the song. As Westerners, we crave big expanses and define ourselves by the majesty of our craggy mountains, wild rivers, and rugged terrain. But all too often, we do just what the song warns against. We fence in our kids either because of our fears – we are scared the world is too big and scary for them to explore, or we don’t trust them.

When my daughter walked out the door each morning, I worried. I imagined the dangers, “will she look both ways when she crosses the street? Will she make friends?” We can’t help that we love our children so much we want to hold them tight. The tendency is to put them in a pumpkin shell and keep them there. But children are like those raging rivers. They are curious, dipping and rolling along. A child’s job is to push against the fences. It is a complicated task to set limits and still allow kids to grow from their own experience, which is of course the only way we really learn. How do we do it without snuffing their flame? 

We all seem to have anxieties about what the future holds and sometimes we hand that anxiety off to our children–unknowingly or knowingly. My husband’s great-grandfather fled Switzerland because of famine. In Switzerland they resorted to eating the bark of the tree trunks for lack of food. His grandfather’s hunger drove him across the ocean, over the Panama Canal, and then to California where he became a great success, but as my husband will tell you, his father drove his kids out of that same fear – fear they wouldn’t have enough.

Don’t get me wrong, there are valuable lessons learned from our ancestors, but our children need to create their own story. We have these built-in stories that we use against our kids like, “I was hurt, so you will be hurt too.” It is true kids will get hurt and knees will be skinned- their hearts will be broken at some point in their lives, but it may not be the same wound you got. Just like sickness defines health, Day says something about Night. Kids need a variety of experiences and play to develop resilience. If you plan to craft your child like building a house instead of planting a tree, it can result in creating anxiety in both you and your kids.

In either case, we sometimes put our insecurities on our kids. From the moment of their birth, we start to develop a concept about who they are. Small things can limit what your kids try. For example, in an experiment (1) I learned about on the podcast Hidden Brain, two researchers, Elizabeth Bonawitz and Laura Schulz, asked children to play with a complicated toy. The researchers found that by having the child simply demonstrate a specific task instead of letting them play with a toy and discover for themselves limited what the child learned. Specifically, when the child was shown the squeaker, the child squeezed it. They didn’t keep looking for other parts of the toy, like the mirror and the light. Somehow, the very wise adult had fenced them in, limiting their view.

There are times when we want to show kids the way – we want to model behavior for our children, so like ducklings, they will follow our lead similar to wearing a seat belt or not drinking and driving, but modeling is different than doing things for your children. Motivation is a tricky thing. It is not something a parent can give a child. Did the adult in the previous experiment take the desire for the child to keep exploring by showing them what to do? To instill a desire to learn, a parent can’t always make every choice for a child. For a child to be self-operating, they need their motivation.

When my husband was in 4H, he had two calves he needed to start on grass after they were weaned. So, he wired together a makeshift corral and put it in the pasture so the calves could start eating grass, but not wander too far. Since the corral was portable, he could move it to various places in the pasture. The funny thing is that once the corral was removed the calves still didn’t leave the boundaries of the fence.

I think it is interesting to see how our brains construct things out of past- learned behavior. Whether you are a cow or a kid, cowpoke or parent, what we construct physically or through our words and actions translates into changing our kid’s behavior. This is not an argument to abandon rules for your children. In fact, they need clear expectations along with boundaries that make them feel safe, loved, and nurtured. Research shows that children without these structures don’t feel as safe to explore. 

We aren’t just Westerners; we are Americans, which in my mind makes me think of innovation. We have been so innovative because we have more freedom to explore. We don’t fence our people in; we encourage them to discover new places and push boundaries, finding new, better places for us all by providing kids with a smorgasbord of opportunities. Then, like Goldilocks, kids can taste and decide what is too soft or too hard, and maybe they will find something just right.

Read these tips from Partnership to End Addiction on how to balance the need for control and your teen’s independence: Setting Limits and Monitoring Behavior to Prevent Substance Use.

 1. The Double-edged Sword of Pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery