"Good fences make good neighbors" is not Robert Frost's opinion. He just reported the robotically repeated words that his neighbor had heard from his father.
"He will not go behind his father's saying, and he likes having thought of it so well."
In our relationships with our closest neighbors and our family, we — like Frost — should be suspicious when we start stacking stones one atop of another making a wall between ourselves and others.
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall."
Humans have been building divides for a long time. The Great Wall of China, before it was so great, was started around 700 B.C. They were trying to keep out bad neighbors of warring armies and invading Mongols. But, what are we trying to restrict when we rear the ramparts around us? One could even wonder about our desires of individual bedrooms for our children. It is a luxury of the American homeowners' dream. It is their own territory, their walled space before MySpace. Is the drywall a symbol of the emotional barriers between parents and children?
There are a lot of us who move "in darkness as it seems to me" fearfully and defensively building fences around ourselves, "walling in or walling out."
There is a classic psychological experiment where a parent is separated from a son or daughter who is about 18 months of age.
Between the adult and child there is a simple wooden gate, the kind one would buy to keep a toddler from crawling up the stairs or falling down the steps. When children are separated from their protector and attachment figure they become distressed. First, they make pleadings to the parent; then, they start to become agitated.
A boy will begin to become increasingly angry and eventually will become so upset he will try to climb over the fence or tear it down. If the toddler is a girl, nine times out of 10 she will start to cry instead of attempting to use brute force.
President Reagan was just putting to voice what every young child wants in his or her family when there is despair from separation: "Tear down this wall."
Parents hear the crying and see the anger without understanding that the fence between them and their children may be the cause. Parents often fail to understand that some anger is not rebellion or meanness but only the cry of a child who is insecure or frightened. The noise is not because the child is spoiled, but it is a call of desperation to be made safe. Protesting going to day care or school or getting angry at tasks may be signs of insecurity, not insubordination.
Adults are the general contractors of the walls in our homes. We construct the obstacles that prevent our children from being close. We don't do it consciously, but we may place a barrier by our own preoccupation or busyness. We surround ourselves with mounds of protection because we are overwhelmed or solitary by training or experience, uncomfortable mixing with children. We may have a parapet of distress or an ill levee of depression.
We also construct not-so-great walls of America, not by bricks and mortar but by separating our family by time and distance. If no one is home for dinner seated at the same table at the same time, who needs a wall? Or if everyone is scattered to the winds hanging out, going out or just being out of touch, who needs a fence?
Look for the fences in your family and home. "Fences between farms keep out cows, but there were no cows."
There are typically no cows in our living rooms, unless you are on the "Far Side." So tear them down "... not one stone on a stone." And "make gaps even two can pass abreast."
Good fences don't always make good neighbors. And they sure don't make good parents.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.