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Sunday, Nov 23, 2014
The Sun

Setting boundaries is a necessary thing

Published:

A boundary indicates or fixes a limit, and we live with many of them in our lives. Some are national, like the boundary between Florida and Georgia. Some are international, like the boundary between Mexico and the United States. And some are legal, like the laws governing behavior that's permitted or forbidden.

It was a conversation with my son Paul, a history professor, that set me on a mind-search about the concept of a boundary. Paul was explaining the longtime controversy between the United States and Mexico over the border between the two countries. An 1848 agreement between them set the boundary as the middle of the Rio Grande River.

The problem was that over time the river continually shifted south, moving approximately 600 acres of land into the United States. The dispute was finally settled in 1963 when, by international agreement, Mexico was awarded 366 acres and the United States received 193. A man-made channel was built to stabilize the Rio Grande and prevent the river from blurring the international boundary in the future.

The idea of a boundary is personal to me because as a parent I had to set many of them for my children. And as with the two countries mentioned above, I had to decide whether a boundary was permanent or negotiable. Like the Rio Grande unchecked, many of my boundaries changed with time. My 4-year-old child had to be in bed by 7:30 p.m. My 14-year-old had more flexibility. And my 20-year-old dug his or her own channel to delineate bedtime boundaries.

Behavioral boundaries tended to be more permanent. Don't hit your brother or sister. Tell the truth. Be kind whenever you can and defend yourself when you have to. Work hard at whatever you're trying to accomplish.

But children have a proclivity to test boundaries whenever they can. And just as President Kennedy and President Adolfo Lopez Mateos had that man-made channel dug between Mexico and the United States in 1963, beginning in 1966 I had to dig a Mom-made channel to set the limits for the three children who would be arriving.

I have written before about my friend George who helped Oscar and me understand how to negotiate this challenge. As the principal of an elementary school for most of his work-life, he explained to us that parents need to be the walls that help our children make their way down the road of life. They will bang against those walls from the moment they are born until they launch themselves into their adult lives, he said, and as parents we must fix the limits, be the boundaries and recognize when it's time for the kids to set their own.

I think that's why my conversation with Paul about the trench that was dug to keep the Rio Grande within fixed limits appealed to me. I could relate to President Kennedy. I had been there. I had done that. The difference was that many childhood boundaries disappear with age and maturity. The river had to be held in place. The children had to be set free. And Oscar and I had to recognize when to do this with each of them.

Judy Kramer can be reached by email at JudyandOz@tampabay.rr.com. She is author of "Changing Places: A Journey with My Parents into Their Old Age."

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