Setting Boundaries with Children

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“Do no harm, take no sh*t.” — my new parenting philosophy, via Kay Bruner

I get stressed over hearing my baby cry or seeing a student upset after I enforce a limit. Am I being cruel and unresponsive, I fret, or am I being the calm, confident leader children need to feel secure?

One way I’ve been processing that question is by thinking in terms of boundaries. In an interview on Parenting Forward with Cindy Wang Brandt, Kay Bruner describes boundaries as “what’s me and what’s not me.”

I personally struggle with taking responsibility for children’s emotions. If my baby cries, I feel guilty. I feel like a failure. I feel like I need to stop his crying since, somehow, I caused the crying. I feel like I need to make the crying stop at any cost, including my sanity. Parenting success means my baby is tear-free as much as possible.

This is an impossible parenting goal. It’s impossible precisely because I am not responsible for my baby’s emotions. 

It’s important that we meet our children’s needs and hear their desires. Not hearing desires or not meeting needs disrespects children. But meeting every desire leads to child-centric homes and frazzled parents. In order to avoid any of those parenting pitfalls, we must distinguish between needs and desires, and even further, identify their specific need.

Take the age-old situation of moms being unable to use the bathroom alone.

When your two-year-old is pounding on the bathroom door screaming for you to let her in, you might determine that her real need has nothing to do with you in the first place; she may be hungry, tired, bored, or upset from you telling her she couldn’t eat pennies.

But maybe she really does need time with Mommy. Nevertheless, her legitimate need for quality time with Mom does not mean you need to fulfill her desire to be with Mom right then in the bathroom in violation of your legitimate desire for privacy.

In this situation, nobody’s desire is “wrong.” It’s okay for you to want to go to the bathroom by yourself. It’s okay for her to want to be in the bathroom with you right then. It’s okay for her to express extreme frustration that she’s not getting what she wants. It’s okay for you to feel annoyed at her for feeling that way.

“What’s me”: holding the limit of using the bathroom by yourself, expressing your emotions in a healthy way, acknowledging and legitimizing her needs and desires, and meeting the correctly identified need once you’re done in the restroom.

“What’s not me”: preventing her from feeling upset, preventing her from expressing that upset, or being responsible for stopping her emotions.

“I’m not letting you come into the bathroom with me. I want privacy,” you tell her through the locked door. “I hear that that makes you upset. It makes you feel like crying and yelling. It’s okay to feel upset. I will come be with you when I am done using the bathroom.”

Maybe she stops crying and tearfully says, “Okay.” Great! Maybe you find her sitting quietly outside the door waiting for you. Awesome.

Or maybe she continues to scream. Maybe she even starts kicking the door in response to your calmly set limit. That’s okay too. All outcomes are parenting successes, because you set the boundary and held to it. You did what you were supposed to do. You were never responsible for making her emotions stop in the first place. 

Janet Lansbury reiterates that our responsibility is usually just listening, accepting, and acknowledging our children’s emotions without fixing them:

Instead of feeling responsible for preventing or fixing crying, we first accept it so that we can understand and accurately address what is being communicated.

Instead of perceiving feelings as a call to action, we work on staying calm and listening so our child can share and feel truly heard. …

Instead of acting out of fear, we lead with trust in our child’s basic competency.

This is why it’s important to set boundaries with our children: without boundaries, we disrespect their basic competency to navigate respectful relationships.

Without boundaries, we model an anxious, exhausting, unsustainable relationship.

Without boundaries, we teach them that it’s other people’s job to prevent their emotions and solve their problems, a textbook lesson in co-dependency.

Without boundaries, we imply that having emotions is undesirable, that a good life involves no tears, no inconveniences, and no disappointments.

It’s not about being a “tough” parent. It’s not even about putting on your own proverbial oxygen mask in order to help your child strap on his. It’s about supporting your child through the hard and necessary process of developing healthy relationships with others and with his own emotions.

In order to teach him respect for others, he needs to respect your needs and desires. In order to teach him respect for himself, he needs to see you respecting your needs and desires.

Of course, relationships are give and take, even parent/child relationships. Sometimes you say, “I’m not reading the Peppa Pig book again tonight because if I read it one more time, I will literally go insane.” And sometimes you read that Peppa Pig book again even though you will literally go insane.

Obviously, children require our support, especially the younger they are. They are more immature and less self-regulated, easily overwhelmed by their needs, desires, and the emotions accompanying them. If we ignore their bids for attention and support, we cripple them emotionally. But children are not helpless, and they rarely need our help in the form of fixing or eliminating their problems.

Yesterday, a student was building a spinner exclusively out of black Brain Flakes. He needed just a few more to complete his spinner, but another friend had the last three black Brain Flakes. She declined to part with them.

“Ugh, I want the black ones!” he cried.

“You could use different colors,” another friend suggested.

“No, I wanted it all black!” He looked to me, hoping I’d use my Magical Teacher Powers to force his friend into sharing the black ones.

I really wanted to. I knew how frustrating and disappointing it was to spend so much time creating something only to have it fall through. I could easily demand that his friend hand over the pieces, getting rid of the problem and his negative emotions in one fell swoop. It might spare me the annoyance of defusing a tantrum, too. But it’s important to me that children share willingly (another type of boundary) and that students not use my authority to coerce their friends into giving them what they want.

Trying to support him through this problem, I said, “That’s too bad that she won’t share with you. You could either use different colors like your friend suggested, or if you want your spinner to be all one color, you could start over with a new color.”

He sighed, visibly upset. Then he perked up and said, “I’m going to make an orange spinner!”

And he did.

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2 thoughts on “Setting Boundaries with Children

  1. villemezbrown

    I agree with some of the practical advice and suggestions in this, but I disagree with the underlying premise at a fundamental level. I don’t feel an urge to “fix” my child’s problems when she is sad and upset because I feel guilty or responsible. I desperately want to do that precisely because the boundaries between a parent and her child are not as clear-cut as Bruner seems to think. There is a quote by Elizabeth Stone I love: “Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,” One of the proudest moments I have ever experienced was when I was standing in the crowd after a play and overheard an adult praise my daughter’s performance. I wasn’t the one being praised and neither the speaker nor my daughter even knew I heard, but my heart swelled. I am very intentional about not living through my child. My child’s accomplishments and choices are her own, as are her failures and sadness, but I have to be intentional and conscious about making sure my actions reflect that, because emotionally, I am never going to really believe it in my heart. When my child is hurting I hurt too, simply because she is my child. This goes beyond empathy or anything I feel for anyone else, even other people I love. I have to be willing to let my child go so she can have her own life and be her own person, but I personally don’t find it helpful to envision a clear boundary between “me” and “not me” when deep down inside where I am not constrained by rationality – where I feel things – I’m not sure that boundary is really there.
    Adele

    Like

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