In the last month I have told this analogy 5 times now…. I’ve used it since my first child was born. It’s been one of my reminders when I think things are crazy.
I have translated it into my classrooms and since a great conversation over sandwiches with friends, I now know that it is very useful in relationships as well.
So here it goes. PS, if your cows don’t do this, it’s ok, the ones I saw did, my analogy comes from the ones I saw. Cows are different; kids are different. Analogy still works.
Kids are like cows.
Everyday when the rancher puts his cows out to pasture, the first thing they do is to walk the perimeter of the fence. They push against the fencing to make sure the fence is stable. They walk all the way around to make sure everything is in the same place. Once they feel secure within their boundaries, they happily graze in the middle of the pasture. Or wherever makes them happy to graze that day, I don’t know, maybe they like the southeast side, not the middle.
But it’s the same every day. They walk the fence every day because everyday they need the sense of security, the “today we will be safe, because yesterday all the boundaries were just like this and yesterday we were safe” feeling. And they are content and happy to graze along once that has been established.
If there is a weak spot in the fence, they will push on it. The fear of what can come in worries them. A rancher can tell if there’s a weak spot because a group of cows will be mooing away and pushing on it. The rancher needs to shore up the spot; give it a little extra strength because those cows are going to remember for a while, that spot was weak, and they’ll push a little harder there until they are sure it is strong and safe.
If a cow gets out of a weak spot; if a cow gets loose, that’s bad. We like to think, being the freedom loving adults we are, that there’s a happy little cow, all free and full of “let’s get out of here”. But the truth is the rancher knows that a loose cow is one of the most dangerous. They spook easily. They’ll charge. They are in fright or flight because they don’t where they are, where home is, what is out there to get them. Nothing is familiar and they are scared not happy. The rancher has to be very careful until the cow is caught and tethered and led back to the corral.
Kids are the same. They require boundaries. Rules and stability are necessary for happy children. Boundaries are security. The stability that boundaries give creates a sense of safety that children need in order to do all the other growing and learning they need to do. Their minds can focus on learning instead of what might happen next. And every day they are going to walk the fence to make sure that it’s stable; that it remains the same strong perimeter within which they can thrive. Every day they are going to test that the boundaries remain the same and remain strong.
Kids who don’t have that safety are constantly testing, constantly pushing on the weak spots. It’s a fear of the unknown that causes that pushing. They are trying to figure out at what point the boundary is stable. When there are no rules, or the rules change, or the consequences change, or it’s not followed through with, those are weak spots. Those things aren’t built right. That’s the ranchers/ adults problem, not the cows/kids.
Kids that get out of a weak spot aren’t happy out there. They spook easily. They don’t even realize they are in fright or flight, they just know that there is a lot of unknown happening.
The children aren’t bad children for testing, we are not doing a good job of adult-ing if there is excessive testing happening. That means we’ve created a weak spot. It doesn’t matter if you “tell” a child something 50 times today. If you aren’t following through, if you aren’t leading by example, if you haven’t done the adult part, the child can’t learn it because it isn’t safe to learn it.
They learn by what they observe, not by what they are told. Any teacher can tell you that they can explain what to do very, very carefully, with explicit detail and instruction- but if they don’t demonstrate before giving out the materials, at least 2/3 of the class will do it wrong. Every time. Boundaries and consequences have to be demonstrated and adhered to in order to work and stop any pushing.
My daughter got upset with me one night. She wanted to stay out later than her 10pm curfew. I wasn’t backing down. She told me, “all the kids will think I’m lame.” “So,” I told her, “blame it on me. They all know I’m strict. I can take the hit on this one. It’s ok.”
They don’t want to look like they are happy in their pasture, that’s ok. They still appreciate the safety more than they like to bellyache about the confines of it. They’ll be happier adults. And frankly, that’s our job – to help them become good, happy, productive, thinking, self-motivated, honest adults.
Does that mean more work for us? You better freaking believe it. We took on the job of raising these guys, we don’t get to half ass it. I never left the house without the knowledge that I may not complete the task I left for. If one of them misbehaved, we went home, period. Not after I finished the errand, right then. I didn’t get to finish a movie or two. They had to eat leftovers, again, because we didn’t get to finish our shopping. Did I have to miss my TV shows once in a while, before dvr even? Yep. And I knew I had to do it without being angry. I can’t be angry that I am keeping my boundaries strong. I can’t be angry that they are testing. That’s their world we’re shaping, all of us. What their personal pasture looks like when they are adults comes as much from what they choose to test as how strong I’ve kept their safety net.
Am I a perfect mom? No. I’ve screwed up lots of stuff, but as I meander through my life and try to sort out what I could have done differently, what lessons I didn’t learn the way I should have; I also have to see the things I did right. Perfect mom, no. Great mom?
I did far more good than bad, and very literally because I reminded myself all the time that kids are like cows.
And through the wonderful sandwich conversation, adults are also like cows. But that is for another post. I will give you the new theme that came from it though:
Boundaries: the NICE thing to do
UPDATE KAZAKHSTAN: We should know more in the next week. That is the best I have for now.