Friday, February 10, 2012

Wrinkle, Wrinkle, Little Scar

Look, Tio Luke!” E exclaimed with enthusiasm as he pulled up his trouser leg to show me the many scars (and fresh, bleeding sores) which cover his legs and lower body. I rolled my eyes and told him to stop-itching-them!

I have wanted to post for some time about E. At once an odyssey: one of the most frustrating but also most endearing boys in our care. I sometimes feel like a hapless father watching his son play football from the sidelines - except that in this match the son makes an endless succession of own-goals. 

Well meaning (for the most part), and wholly incapable of taming his tongue (and most of his actions, if the truth be told), it is difficult to get the street out of this most rough-and-ready of street kids. He cries easily, but not with crocodile tears. Real, heart-felt sobs. I sent him to his room recently for a 5 minute Time-Out for saying a bad word and he would not stop crying. It is through these episodic tearful moments that I have come to reflect – again – on the nature of accountability and culpability. In other words, to what extent are some of these boys accountable for their actions in and around the rescue house? I am not talking here of empathy (reflecting why the boys might act as they do (see my previous note here)), but how – somehow – some of the boys don’t appear to realize that some of their actions are actually wrong; as if certain actions or attitudes don’t even register on their moral gauge.

In criminal law, the notion is commonly known as mens rea (latin for ‘guilty mind’). To be held responsible for a crime (with some exceptions) an individual is required to have some intention and/or knowledge of the potential consequences of their actions.  E is someone who in many cases demonstrates neither of such requirements. In such instances – and they are frequent – he doesn’t even bother to proffer an excuse or justification (as a guilty child might). Consequentially, this frequent inability to connect an action with its ill consequence leaves me with a conundrum: to discipline is to leave the child feeling unduly wronged (hence the tears). 

without a care, but now with Limits

This kind of behaviour is simply off the scale in terms of the advice that most parenting books prescribe. I found it helpful to revert to brass tacks with E – encouraged by what I read in a book by Cloud and Townsend called Boundaries with Kids. Soon after his arrival, I began by simply saying “Know Your Limits” in response to wrongful actions. No flash-disciplines, no shouting. Just three words. Words which soon became like a mantra.
Children Are Not Born with Boundaries

A boundary is a “property line” that defines a person; it defines where one person ends and someone else begins. If we know where a person’s boundaries are, we know what we can expect this person to take control of: himself or herself. We can require responsibility in regard to feelings, behaviors, and attitudes. We have all seen couples, for example, arguing with each other about “who’s to blame,” each avoiding responsibility for oneself. In a relationship with someone, we can define what we expect of each other, and then we can require each other to take responsibility for our respective part. When we each take ownership for our part of a relationship, the relationship works, and we all accomplish our goals.

A child is no different. A child needs to know where she begins, what she needs to take responsibility for, and what she does not need to take responsibility for. If she knows that the world requires her to take responsibility for her own personhood and life, then she can learn to live up to those requirements and get along in life.

But if she grows up in relationships where she is confused about her own boundaries (what she is responsible for) and about others’ boundaries (what they are responsible for), she does not develop the self-control that will enable her to steer through life successfully. She will grow up with confused boundaries that lead to the opposite: trying to control others and being out of control herself.
By helping E establish boundaries of acceptable behaviour (boundaries he clearly didn’t have before – not ones which were established by his parents but broken in his rebellion as a street child) he began – slowly, reluctantly at first – to give me a knowing glance whenever he would begin to say something vaguely risqué or act aggressively with another boy. I’d merely have to say “Know...” (saber) and he’d reply with “Your Limits” (seus limites) and then he’d back-away from the behaviour.

Now all I have to resolve is the itching.


Anonymous said...

Hi Luke, so beautifully written.......try reading theory of attachment (you probably already have)...another good read is "When love is not enough"

Luke said...

Thanks, Anon. I have read the second (a while back), and I see various books been written on AT. Any particular one you'd recommend?

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