Staying within the Lines vs. The Safe Zone
Conditioning, Conditioning, Conditioning.
Knowingly or unknowingly, we have managed to develop a system in most cultures to condition kids to stay within the lines, either through innocuous methods such as coloring books or through strict discipline. While it is crucial in certain contexts for children to stay within the boundaries set for them, giving them the freedom to explore and play is essential for them to take chances when they grow up.
Our two children have very different preferences. Our son could barely keep his coloring within the lines and ends up getting poor grades in art, while our daughter is very particular and likes to play by the rules as you can see in the drawing on the right. Though her artwork in later years became very creative and original, it was because she felt safe with her art teacher. Even today, she implicitly follows what any teacher tells her to the last word, lest she should get into trouble.
As parents and teachers, we need to become more aware of the long-term impact of everything we do and what we ask our children to do, as they are amazing observers and little human VCRs. They are learning machines, recording patterns and scenarios that they will consult either consciously or unconsciously in their lives.
As adults, we have all heard the phrase “Drawing a Line in the Sand.” In certain situations, it is very necessary. For example, traffic rules are clear and convey a specific set of expectations to drivers with lines and colors marking the lanes. In many life situations, however, we don’t have such clear lines of demarcation, nor are they necessary. Drawing too many lines in the sand for children only constrains and restricts their creativity and limits even the safe risks that the child is willing to take in the future. They tend to become great followers and question their courage to challenge the status quo.
Solving problems and addressing issues that haven’t yet been solved usually needs a different kind of approach. It typically needs someone to take a chance, take a risk and see what happens. It requires them to be comfortable with the traditional definition of failure, being open to mistakes and seeing them purely as opportunities for learning.
It is my contention that we can convey the idea of a “Safe Zone” within which they can operate and still be in good standing. Depending on the context, the breadth or tolerance of the zone may vary. For example, we were working on some math problems yesterday and our daughter was not being open to consider other approaches to solving them.
Gone are the days where a parent can tell a child, do it my way because I said so. So, I struggled to get creative and come up with a scenario that could help her see things from a different perspective. I asked her, “Is there a specific line that you cannot cross when you are at the beach?”
She thought about it for a bit and said, “The water line.” I continued, “Does that line ever change?” She replied, “Oh, yeah! All the time.” So, I asked her, “What determines how far you can go into the water? Does it depend on how tall you are?” She added, “It also depends on the tide and whether you can swim.”
On this occasion, I was able to engage her in a conversation and help her realize that it is almost impossible to “draw a permanent line in the sand,” especially on a beach and tell a child not to cross it if the goal is to get your feet wet and play in the water. It needs to be more of a range to accommodate the various dynamic elements.
Given her desire to either be a researcher or a scientist, I needed to encourage her to go beyond the lines that we may have drawn for her or other authority figures may have drawn for her, while making sure she understands that there are situations where the lines cannot be moved or seen as a range such as traffic and laws.
Love to hear your ideas and experiences.