Borders and Boundaries: Don’t Fence Me In

On a walk through my neighborhood, which contains a sizable number of kids, something seemed amiss. As we wandered along, I could not quite put my finger on it, but way in the back of my mind the voices were chattering.

They weren’t a chorus of alarm, panic, or fear, but they noticed something. Some incongruity reverberated in my mind.

Then it bubbled to the surface. They were no kids anywhere playing outside.

School was out.

The weather was a perfect summer day of 75 degrees, bright sun, no humidity, and not a thundercloud in sight.

Yet the streets were empty of kids being kids.

I then noticed the fences. Artificial borders and boundaries restricting what for us growing up in Cumberland, Rhode Island, in the 1960s was the main inter-yard highway, backyards.

The street was for bikes, pickup baseball games, and games of kick-the-can, but the backyards were our byways to adventure, to the homes of friends, and the path home when necessary.

The only border I knew of during my youth was the limitation of how far my legs could take me between the first light of morning—as my neighborhood friends gathered to enjoy, not plan, the day by just following our whim and fancy—and when we had to return by sundown.

We faced no serious fence boundaries. Perhaps the occasional split-rail fence, more for sitting on then keeping us out, but no real impediment to our wanderings. During school, I could walk from my house and never touch the road until I got almost the whole way to the bus stop.

The borders and boundaries we faced were through learned behavior—understanding that some, usually without children, preferred us to detour around their yards, which we easily did by heading off into the boundless woods surrounding us.

As I continued on our walk, seeing almost every yard fenced in with no evidence of well-worn paths between them, I could not help but think we’ve lost some great opportunity for kids to learn boundaries and borders of behavior by substituting more forced restrictions out of some sense of protecting them.

We owe kids more than the safety of the moment. We have an obligation to teach them to navigate life — with all its risks — by recognizing borders and boundaries not by the fences we build around them but by inculcating the sense of right and wrong.

Some say that good fences make good neighbors. I have my doubts. I think they prevent adults who’ve lost the lessons of life, or never learned them, from acting like fools. Such fences serve the same purpose as a cage in a zoo. They don’t promote friendly behavior, they merely prevent any interaction at all.

The best fences are something we sense intuitively and through learning. Let kids be kids. The paths they make in growing up will serve them better as they navigate their way.

Otherwise, all they experience are borders and boundaries to life.

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