Thursday, May 2, 2013

Teaching Children Healthy Boundaries

One of the biggest challenges I find as a parent is that different families have different ways of parenting.

My goal is to raise my children to get along in the world with all different kinds of people, from all different kinds of homes with all different kinds of ideas.

This can be very challenging.

Some parents feel that to give their child any guidance or suggestions on behavior would be to mold that child into a certain personality.  The parents want to give their child the opportunity to develop their own unique personality.

One mother explained to me that her child will learn what is socially acceptable by the reaction of other children.  If other children react positively, they will learn they did something good and keep doing it.  If other children get upset, they will learn that to keep friends they can't act that way.

What if other children laugh at the inappropriate behavior?  What if they think it's so outrageously inappropriate that it is funny.  Then what?  If we don't believe in instructing kids on what to do, then isn't it counterintuitive to instruct my kids not to laugh at the inappropriate behavior?   Why is one set of kids charged with acting appropriately when the other set gets away with everything?  Why is it up to me and my children to instruct someone else's child?  Not to mention, sometimes it's really hard NOT to laugh when you think something is funny.  Well, at least for me.  And that often happens at the most inopportune times.

Or what about the child who won't apologize and the parents just accept that.  The parent acknowledges that the child should apologize but that they won't, it's just not who their child is. The parent apologizes for their child.  Why does their child get away with this?  Why is this acceptable?  It's hard for me to not change my feelings toward this child and their parent when the parent says that.

Or what about the child who always gets their way and goes up to their room and wails when they don't?  Or goes and sits in their parents' car and sulks?  Or locks them self in a bathroom and screams?

Or the child who won't take turns and their parent asks if they are making good choices, but doesn't tell them to let the child crying on the side have a turn?

Or the child who says they don't want to play, but then calls out criticisms from the sidelines and gets mad when the other children call back?  And the parent defends them that "that is who they are and it's going to upset them more if your kids yell back".  Why doesn't my child have the right to defend herself?

I have a hard time with all of this.  We all love our kids, none of us wants our child to get hurt or have hurt feelings.  And for that reason, we need to guide our children on acceptable and appropriate behavior.

I have a hard time knowing how to instruct my kids in these situations where there is no right and wrong, no acceptable behavior, it's a free for all where certain children are allowed to behave any way they want.  We've tried discussing this with their parents and the parents' philosophy is "that is who they are, we can't change them" or "we look at our children as little individuals and we have to accept them for who they are" or something like that.

I believe that kids need predictability, they need to know their boundaries so they can feel safe and know what is expected of them.    It's a parent's responsibility to change their newborn baby's diapers and feed them.  That responsibility doesn't end when the child is old enough to toilet and feed themselves.  Being a parent is more than taking your child to outside classes and buying them what they need.  Being a parent means guiding your child, helping them navigate the world.

I would imagine that these children who don't need to apologize and whose parents make excuses for them to do whatever they want feel very empowered.  They may feel "above everyone" or that rules don't apply to them.  But they also may not understand why people other than their parents react to them the way that they do.  They may not know how to form friendships.  They may not have the language to express them self when they don't get their way.

I understand that these parents don't want "expectations" on their children.  I agree that some expectations are not healthy.  But some expectations just help us to understand other people and how to interact with them.   From a young age, I have taught my girls to say "please" and "thank you" or to apologize if they are wrong.  I have let them know from a young age that I expected them to share toys with their friends.  I expect them to keep their rooms clean and to help around the house.  I expect that if we have someplace to go, they will get dressed, brush their hair and teeth, etc.  I expect them to listen and compromise.  I expect them not to ridicule, tease or make fun of other people.  I expect them to eat with a fork or spoon.  I expect them to take turns.

But not all of their friends have these same expectations on them and that can be difficult to understand, difficult to get along with and navigate a friendship.

I struggle with creating healthy boundaries.  It is not something I learned as a child.  I am trying to help my girls learn to form healthy boundaries without feeling guilty just as I am learning to do this myself.  If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, you need to put up a boundary.  If children are allowed to do what they want, criticize you without you being allowed to defend yourself and the child never being expected to apologize, healthy boundaries need to be erected.

We have been discussing how to form healthy boundaries lately.

Some people may say to just completely distance yourself and cut the person out of your life.  I think if you enjoy that person's company most of the time and care for or about the person, that should be a last resort.

Last weekend Jason, the girls and I sat down and talked about this and we put a plan in place.

  1. My girls will only interact or play with these children when Jason or I am present, either at our house or a place where one of us is also there.  The girls won't be allowed over the home of these children without me or Jason until we've got a good handle on the situation.  By being present, Allie and Piper can come to Jason or I if something arises that they are confused as to how to handle it and we can give them language or help them navigate the situation.
  2. We discussed the kinds of things that come up with these friends.  Taking turns on the pogo stick or scooter or Wii (these kids don't have any of these things at home and are excited to play them at our house).  Always having to play what this child wants or they leave or threaten to leave or lock themselves in a car or bathroom.  They write scripts and if you deviate or don't do something exactly as they envisioned, they get very angry, sometimes physical or just run away and hide someplace.
  3. Jason was excellent at coming up with suggestions for dialogue on what to say when these things arise.  We came up with words and phrases and sentences that can be used so that the girls are prepared and confident if and when these issues arise.
  4. Ask their friends how they would feel if someone treated them this way.  Discuss it.  
  5. Start putting time limits on the play dates.  Maybe a whole day is too long.  Maybe three hours is better.  Maybe more structured play is better.
  6. If we still have issues, the girls may need to sit down with their friends (with or without adults) and discuss everyone's feelings with an open mind.  
  7. Regroup with our family and discuss the conversation with an open mind.
  8. Figure out if the friendship is worth it and if so, figure out how to set healthy boundaries within the friendship.  Maybe the girls ask their friends to leave at the first sign of trouble.  Maybe they all take a break and discuss.  Maybe they have parents intervene.  Maybe they take a break from each other.  Maybe they shorten the playdates even further.