Limits! This claim, heard everywhere, resonates in school and in the family, among parents and teachers. Limits, more limits! Does the lack of limits derive from the decline of the paternal function? There is no doubt that the father has been losing value throughout the past century. He is no longer venerated but is rather criticized, pilloried: limits are demanded of him, and then he is labeled as authoritarian or violent, perfection is demanded of him and also to assume his own imperfections… Yesterday, all our culture sustained him; today, many are against him. Being a father has become difficult.
All this is true, but putting it in these terms does not allow us to deduce ways of solving the problem. Let us explore another way.
When the child does not follow the order of the adult, saying that the latter does not know how to earn respect and that the former is disobedient may seem plausible. But this is as sterile as attributing the narcotic power of opium to its “dormitive virtue”. It offends both without a practical yield to compensate for the offense.
We might consider the possibility that the problem is not in the adult or the child, but rather in the relation between them. To establish why things are not working out, a simile might help. A rider rides their horse; the reins that link their hand with the restraint are fragile and are broken at the first pull; pulling on them is then useless; the horse does not follow his orders because nothing unites them. Saying that the rider is clumsy or that the horse is rebellious would be unfair and ridiculous. Locating the difficulty in the reins, in addition to being correct, allows the problem to be solved: they have to be made stronger.
When the adult says, “Don’t do that”, and the child disobeys them, what is the instrument that should bind them and that has been broken like the reins? To answer this question, we will appeal to another analogy.
If some pedestrians hear, “Hit the deck!”, they will keep on walking or look to see who is shouting, while if they are in a war, when the voice they hear is that of the captain, they will drop to the ground without thinking twice. Both the people and the shout are the same, but in one case the order is effective and in the other case not. What rein exists or is missing respectively? Only a weave of rules, conventions, symbols and, ultimately, words, creates the bond through which the order will take effect. While the order is made of words, it does not create any ties, just as the rider’s maneuvers do not replace the missing reins.
What is it made of, that which should bind the adult with the child and has vanished like the reins? It is made of words, and not the imperatives used to order or prohibit. Whoever bemoans the child’s rebellion is as ridiculous as the rider without reins who curses the horse’s indocility; punishing the disobedient is absurd in both cases. Should the horse forge stronger reins? Should the child create firmer discursive ties? When limits and orders are not respected, who should weave the link?
Perhaps the weakening of ties, which are made of words, explains the decline of the paternal function and not vice versa. The truth is that the effects will only be reversed if adults learn to talk with children. The responsibility is theirs. Otherwise, they will act as riders without reins on runaway horses that they will unfairly punish… until the horses manage to throw them off and give them, if they can, some deserved kicks.