The Electric Fence

Someone much wiser than me once told me that throughout our parenting our children will constantly test the boundaries that we have put in place just to make sure that they are still there, to see if they can get around or breach them. She referred to it as “testing the electric fence to ensure it is still switched on”. Even our far more limited experience of being parents tells us this is true, no more so than the last few weeks.

The analogy holds true in multiple ways, not only is it a boundary that maintains the area that our children are allowed to exist in, but when tested it always responds with a consistent reaction. That is what we try to do, when our boundaries are tested we react in a consistent and controlled manner, delivering the same voltage response every time*.

We have become accustomed to the occasional testing of our rules or boundaries and we have pretty much got a standard response for most things. Consistently delivered it means our children know exactly where they are at any time, they know what will happen if they break the rules or attempt to cross the boundaries. They also know that they can do so without fear of an over-the-top reaction, that the discipline (which isn’t the same as punishment) they receive will be measured, controlled and relevant. Knowing this does not stop them testing.

Our boundaries aren’t rigid, but they do have their limits. It’s a fine balancing act to allow a rule to be bent or a boundary to be pushed without allowing all sorts of ill-discipline and bad behaviour through, so we do our best to create that balance. We don’t want to be too rigid as that can lead to problems of its own, we don’t always get it right but we try our best.

Recently the occasional testing seems to have turned into a total onslaught, not just from one child but both at the same time. They don’t seem to just be testing the electric fence but they are grasping hold of it with both hands and riding out the reaction; refusing to let go.


Our generators are beginning to falter. Our patience and even-temperedness are running low. More than once I have had to step out of the room to prevent overload, away from the children to let the capacitors recharge ready for the next testing. More than once I have heard my, usually very level-headed, husband raise his voice that little bit too much with the children.

Our usually consistent responses have become varied, occasionally out of proportion, and the children are noticing. They’ve spotted a weakness and are trying to exploit it. We are doing our best to hold fast, to support each other’s discipline even if it is disproportionate in the other’s opinion, never showing a crack between us. The boundaries might be faltering but they will not fail if we stick together.

The generators that power our parenting are not renewable, the electric generators powering our fence need to be refueled, and that is what we are going to do. We are taking an evening off this week, a bit of time for ourselves. It won’t fully refuel them, but it will go a long way to helping.

For one evening our fence will be switched off and replaced with someone else’s. Nanny to the rescue, her fence is different, more flexible but based on our own. We are thankful for the chance to relax, not everyone gets them, not everyone has the same level of support that we do. In that we are lucky, and in that we can find our strength and re-energise our fence, ready for the next onslaught of parenting.

* – No children have actually been electrocuted or harmed in any way by us.

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