They never change. Ever.

Boundaries: Understanding what works for each child

When Noah was not yet two, I found him hanging by one hand from the outside railing of a two story stairwell over a concrete patio below. He had swung his way to the top with casual ease, while I, like a game hunter, slowly, carefully, inched toward him from our upstairs apartment, until thwack, my hands clapped onto his shirt collar and my super-maternal strength hauled his dangling body to the safe side of the rails.

I’ve found Noah in trees; on top of brick walls; on the roof; outside the window of his bedroom, three stories up; two streets over; in the middle of the street; in a neighbor’s apartment; on top of a cliff (while my back was turned) and down in a ditch. To stop his risky inquisitiveness, I had to haul my usually pregnant, bulging body at lightening speed without pee dripping down my legs to get below, beyond, next to or on top of Noah before he broke bones, was kidnapped or cracked open his skull.

When I was pregnant with Johannah and Noah had just turned two, I lived in missionary housing. We all shared a quad with play equipment and spent every morning and afternoon with other families gossiping and supervising children. Our favorite topic: the poor parenting techniques of the mothers not currently present.

Being endowed with a brain at birth, it didn’t take me long to figure out what happened when I wasn’t there. I asked my friend Kris: “So it occurred to me that if I have opinions about everyone else’s right to spank or not, their scheduled breast feedings and swings, versus slings and the perennial baby-on-the-boob tactic of my preference, there must be a few opinions about how I’m wrecking my child forever. Would you mind telling me what it is I need to do to be a better mother?”

Kris, being classy, offered to think and pray about it for 24 hours. When we reconvened, she shared the following idea with me: “Julie,” she said, “I’ve noticed that your body is Noah’s boundary. You run in every direction to stop him from doing what he shouldn’t do. Look at you! You’ve lost weight, you’re sick. He needs to learn to respect your words. And he needs to learn that now.”


The words dropped into place and I felt so thankful for that guidance. Her vision launched me on a path to create a relationship with Noah dependent on words, not my physical acts of obstruction.

So the next time I said, “Stop!” (meaning: get down, don’t go there, turn back or What the Hell Do You think You’re Doing?), I made sure that I followed it up with some kind of discipline. We started with the venerable Time Out. I told Noah he had to stay in the bathroom until I told him he could come back to the family. As I walked through the door to leave him alone with the toilet, he followed me. I repeated: “No, you have to stay here, until I say you can come out. Understand?” He understood. I walked out. He followed me.

Hmmm. If I sit on him in the bathroom, or if I hold the door shut, isn’t that using my body to get him to do what I say? Yet he isn’t doing what I say. What if I give in and follow the “spank on command” strategies I oppose? But then isn’t that yet another way my body is stopping him and not my words? So I kept talking and Noah kept walking. I talked louder and he just walked faster. There was absolutely no way I could make Noah stay in the bathroom with words.

In fact, the more I tried to make my words stick, the less effective I felt. Worse, we went from the interdependence of my body being Noah’s non-judgmental boundary to Noah’s increased shame as I piled words on top of him (hurtful, resentful, nagging, cajoling, guilt-laden words).

For the next fifteen years, Jon and I used every word in the book to influence Noah’s decisions about his life: his friends, his music, what he read, where he went, his education, how he drives, his values and any other life area we could nag into matching our vision of what it ought to look like.

We’ve had many great conversations. We’ve also had many shameful ones when our words fell flat or scorched his tender heart. The end result: despair, hurt, painful memories; words that required apologies, even years later.

And for all that: what hasn’t changed? Noah. He’s not guided by our words. We can take away a car, we can limit the funds we give him, we can choose not to co-sign apartments (if we want to), but our words don’t stop him. Instead, now we ask ourselves: “What do we need to do to feel right about our relationship with Noah?” We don’t ask ourselves, “What should we tell Noah to do so he’ll make good decisions?” (Though inevitably, as a stupid moth to a bright flame, we often still blunder forward with our Valuable Opinions until we remember again.)

Noah is guided by an inner impulse
that we can limit only as far as we have physical control,
just as it’s always been.

As Jon used to say: “Age and Maturity will be Noah’s best friends.” Noah, from the time he was born, has had an incalculable confidence in his ability to manage his life. Lucky for us, he grew up so he finally can!

It struck me the other day as I thought back to Kris’ well-intended advice. She was right about one thing – I was running myself ragged setting the boundaries with my body, my whole self thrown extravagantly into the abyss that is “limiting Noah.” But in the end, it’s the only thing that ever worked without causing emotional damage. It turns out, this is just who he is and has always been. I have a hunch, it’s who he’ll continue to be as well. And on this side of it, I’m in awe of who Noah is and the sheer genius of his brave embrace of life.

Partnership Writing

3 Responses to “They never change. Ever.”

  1. Rachel says:

    Wow! Excellent. I love this post and the nature vs. nurture theme. I have such a difficult time nurturing the child in my family who goes against my nature. It’s a real challenge to find the strengths and honor them when they are not the strengths I naturally find and want in my child! Your title of “They never change. Ever.” helps me to remember to love and honor each of them for their unique qualities and slow down enough to really listen to who they are and what they are saying rather than quickly add the biting, stinging words which far too often rush out of my lips from a sense of fear I have as a mother. I think I will do some copywork today to post and reflect on from your blog. Thanks.
    ~Rachel in NH

  2. Galen Roll says:

    Wow. What a powerful and honest piece. This post is beautiful in it’s deep reach, an exposure of your journey with your beloved first child.
    What comes up for me in response to this piece?
    We cannot control nature, inner or outer–only interact with it, and the choices of HOW to interact are so personal, and crucial, and evolve. Though some of our choices are informed by deep habit, or sometimes “strategies” we’ve read about to get a behavior to happen, and we can go deeper, using our creativity, thinking and love to learn and choose new ways…I can choose the stance of appreciating and trying to understand my child. This choice might also open a reciprocal path, as I ask for understanding…
    The grandest petri dish for culturing new ways, informed by love…the family.
    Thank you, Julie, for reaching so deep, and offering us this beautiful piece. I can feel and hear all the real experiences, struggles, acceptance and celebration of your son, behind it…and it will stay with me,

  3. Michelle O says:

    I’ll just add my Wow! You said it in an amazing manner.