Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Friday, August 13, 2010

Strengthening weak fences

Cow know weak fence to jump over. (Jamaica)

Dear Zayda,

As little as you are, you have a right to protect yourself. You do that by crying out when your needs are not met, when you are hurt or when you are angry.

When you are around two years old, you will learn an important word: “No.” You might say “no” even when others think you should say “yes”, but you are exercising an important right. Grown-ups sometimes allow their fences to be so weak, that they forget how to say “no”.

Cows will know the weak fence and jump over it. One weakness in the fence is when we need other people to approve of us. We will then leave room for people to come into our space and treat it as if it was theirs.

Let us imagine you are old enough to be playing with a ball. Along comes a child who wants to take the ball from you. You can say “no”.

The other child might say “You are mean!” or “Last time I let you play with my marbles, or “I won’t play with you again if you won’t let me have the ball,” or “I am going to tell you dad and he will make you share the ball with me.”

If people can’t just jump over the fence, they will beg, plead, promise, or threaten so as to weaken the fence. No matter what, you still have the right to say “no” if you consider that is the best way to protect yourself.

I am not talking about being mean – that is another issue we will discuss at another time. This is about not doing something that will make you feel angry at yourself, or angry at whoever forced their way over your fence.

Moms and dad need to be very wise to help children to protect themselves so they don’t put themselves in the way of harm. Sometimes “no” is just the child’s way of testing how serious the adults are about discipline. For example,

“Do you want to eat your vegetables?”


“Do you want to do your homework?”

Sometimes “no” is not an option, because adults have a responsibility to train children so they become healthy and responsible adults. Still, adults can try to persuade rather than force. So vegetables can be look more attractive and taste better, and children can be invited to share homework problems. Adults need to help children understand that “no” can lead to deeper understanding.

Mostly, however, “no” leads to conflict that the child is almost sure to lose. The child therefore learns, as an adult, not to risk saying “no”. At least, not directly.

So we may learn unhealthy ways of keeping people from jumping over our fences. We may lie or try to get someone else in trouble. We may ignore our feelings, or we may stay away from any kind of contact that could weaken our fences. We may build walls so high and so thick that no one can get in, and we certainly cannot get out.

If we want to be happy, Zayda, we will have boundaries that protect us and yet leave space so others can be close to us. We won’t need to blame others for jumping our fences, because we will make it clear to them where the fences are. If they can't or won't respect our space, we will stay away from them. So we won’t allow anyone to weaken our fences, and we will not feel offended when others say “no” to protect their boundaries.

We will then be free to be ourselves, and to live life to the fullest.


Your shangazi

No comments:


When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at