Boys behaving badly: boundaries and idle threats

Flickr: mdanys

Every parent knows that boundaries are the bedrock of family life.

But knowing something in theory is not the same thing as applying it well to daily life. I could do with a little more wisdom on maintaining boundaries.

I understand that boundaries matter and more than that, I’ve witnessed t how helpful they can be. In our house, the kids aren’t allowed to watch TV in the mornings before school – it just distracts and slows them down exponentially and I end up harassed, spending the whole time haranguing them through the morning routine. That’s just too high a price to pay for the few moments of quiet that TV might buy.

What’s more, my children have their best play time of the day in the morning, without the TV to distract them. The 90 minutes between waking up and leaving for school  is a riotous mix of getting ready and executing elaborate rescue missions or galactic battles. I sincerely believe they’ve learned how to co-operate by spending school mornings playing like this. There’s something about the brevity of the time that quickens their capacity to problem-solve, and lately they’ve begun plotting to continue their morning game at school with all their friends. There’s one particular game they play a lot at the moment, based around a TV programme on CBeebies, funnily enough, and this morning my four year old announced that he had ‘converted’ half of his class into playing it too, instructing them in great detail on the plot and characters, and that an epic game was planned for break time at school today.

So I know that this boundary is a good one. Instead of passively watching a TV programme, they’ve made it come alive, and learned a raft of valuable things about real life interactions along the way. They never even ask to watch TV on school mornings anymore. In fact, I don’t think it even occurs to them to think about it, and if I suggested ten minutes of telly time I’d wager that they’d howl with protest and argue that they’d rather play.

A similar boundary about the Wii being a Fridays and weekend-only treat works just as well. The thing I like most about boundaries is that they eliminate any element of uncertainty, which has the knock-on effect of vastly reducing the amount of time they spend whinging, pleading or pressing my buttons just to see what happens, and what it takes to make me crack. I’ve no doubt that they’d change these rules if they were in charge. Obviously their preference would be unrestricted access to the Wii and TV, but with that boundary firmly in place I find they just accept it, and I’m a calmer and more confident parent, even under pressure. Those simmering conflicts over things like screen time that can be so repetitive just dissipate entirely.

But what do you when the boundary you’d like to build relates specifically to something your child says or does?

In the interests of keeping some things sacred I’m going to invent a fictitious scenario instead of telling you my exact dilemma. But imagine for a moment that your child picks up a certain word or phrase, something of which you disapprove, and starts using it at home, usually only when he’s fizzing with frustration. You don’t want him to say it. Not least because it doesn’t fit with the family vibe or the agreed house rule that we should all use kind words and gentle hands, but also because of how it might make him appear to others. You know he’s a deeply compassionate, empathetic kid – he won the school prize for citizenship in P1, for Pete’s sake – but those qualities tend to come with big feelings, and they can be hard to contain when you’re a little person.

We’ve tried a variety of techniques to help him curb this habit of verbally lashing out. He understands that the words he uses are hurtful, and that while they’re expressive of a momentary surge of anger, they’re not truthful.

I’ve been reading a book which puts the emphasis in parenting on creating freedom rather than seeking compliance and control. Aspects of that approach resonate with me – but I know boundaries matter – and while I don’t want to control him or the words he uses as if he were an automaton, I would like him to use his freedom to better advantage.

And we’ve all seen parents get boundaries really wrong – they threaten A, B or C if the child doesn’t do X, Y or Z, but invariably end up backing down. I know no-one parents like that on purpose and that maintaining boundaries can be exhausting. Sometimes it’s easier to let things slide but I know it’s best not to let boundaries blur into idle threats.

So we’ve ignored the behaviour we don’t like, issued time-outs for it, removed treats and privileges and even bent over backwards encouraging the ‘good’ behaviour. We’ve shouted, we’ve appealed to his better nature, we’ve dished out the same medicine to drive home that it’s not pleasant, and, to my own shame, I’ve probably used a few choice words intended to shame him into seeing the error of his ways. None of which is effective.

This morning I erupted, and spent the school run explaining in no uncertain times (and at rather an assertive volume) that this particular blend of unkind words will not be tolerated anymore.

But where do you go from there? I hate that feeling, mid-sentence, of knowing you’ve got nowhere else to go, no more tricks or strategies to apply. Just a desperate, exasperated sense that this has got to stop. He apologised, sincerely, and I think he understands – but lately I am increasingly realising that what I say and what my children hear is not always one and the same. (Case in point, they know the ‘truth’ about Santa but this week I overheard them describing in great, imaginative detail precisely how Santa gets back up the chimney…)

So my question is, what would you do in a situation like this?


11 thoughts on “Boys behaving badly: boundaries and idle threats

  1. krystle says:

    you are not alone, i feel exactly the same….why do they continue to do it! I have even tried a parenting course to see if i could get any tips and i ended up being told i was brilliant influence on other parents on the course, and that i didnt have a problem, that i was doing all the right things. Yet my child continues to press buttons. I have noticed that certain children around my own provokes a reaction sometimes, and when he does not play with them his temperement is fantastic! perhaps it all about attention and testing to see what happens. Not everyone gets on and i guess that applies to parents and their children.

  2. Leanne says:

    This is ideal world advice, as a children’s counsellor and mummy. I say ideal, because there’s more to it than ‘behaviour management’ Stay neutral about whatever it is. It’s a big deal ‘word’ or ‘phrase’ and so is always at the forefront of his mind & yours. Pouncing on it projects a very complicated gets attention, which he craves, but the wrong kind. When he uses it, reflect his emotion, without using the word. Use other terminology to reflect how he’s feeling. In that sense, you’re modeling appropriate language and not distracted from his feelings. As with everything, if he understands your values, then this phase will pass if you stay calm and don’t make it into a big deal.
    Hope this helps x

  3. Ernie Fraser says:

    I’ve read the post a few times and frankly you handled the situation really well. The boundaries you have establised for TV and other things makes a lot of sense. The issue of language is a bit of a different challenge as I expect this is reinforced every day by his school mates. This just seems to be one of those situations where setting the boundary via a normal process didn’t work as hoped for. All of us who are parents encounter this at some point (likely more than once) and a certain boundary issue may simply be one of those things that cannot be resolved except through an eruption of some type. When eruptions are rarely used, there is a message being sent to the child that this is something really important. For most of us, I think we are racked with guilt afterwards, but your boys know you love them and that this is not your normal approach. You needed respect and weren’t getting it.

    • Feisty Mama says:

      Ah, thanks man. This was such a well-timed comment as I read it literally moments after an ‘eruption’. Such a good word. And SO good to know other parents know them! We patched things up pretty bloody well and your comment reminded me to focus on the good of that, and not the guilt attached to the eruption.

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  5. Nicola says:

    Hello there! I savour your posts, they are soul-food! I have a little one, too young for this inevitable stuff yet, but I’ve worked with lots of parents and families and know lots of ‘theories’, usually trying to use the best of all of them, finding a healthy balance, not easy at all. If its any help, one gem that I like is about just how long it takes for kids (or even us as adults) to learn something new… I think it was about 200 repetitions of the same thing. And who knows if it is even more for complex, emotionally based behaviours like this. For instance, we start teaching our children how to cross the road many years before we would expect them to be able to do it alone (explaining whilst they are in the pram press the button, wait for the green man to appear, look left, look right etc.) and this is for something that does not involve powerful feelings of anger, frustration etc.. So if the ‘200 repetitions’ thing is true, then it will take not only time and practice to learn the new skill, but also time to develop the maturity needed to self regulate and manage the powerful emotion too. I guess it makes it harder for them too because with this stuff, often the only time they get to ‘practice’ the new skill is at the exact time that they are least able to practice it – when they are really mad!
    Please keep posting! I have an 11 month old, have left a challenging job in children’s social work to look after my little baby boy and it has been a roller coaster adjustment! I miss the opportunity to reflect and share thoughtfully and honestly, to process the challenges, which was an everyday norm in my job. Your posts give me a chance to do this, so thank you!

  6. Feisty Mama says:

    Ah, what a lovely comment, Nicola. Thanks SO much.

    I love your point about the idea that it takes 200 repetitions for a child to learn something new – that makes perfect sense and it’s such a timely comment as I’ve been thinking about how a lot of the conflict in my experience of parenting stems from my expectations – I think I expect too much from little boys, and end up exasperated or short of patience because I’m having to go over things I think they should know by now! Or things I *know* they know because they don’t lash out or misbehave at school. But like you said, they’re not encountering the intensity of emotions / sibling issues at school, so home is their learning-ground for those things.

    It helps enormously to see those exchanges as simply being part of the process of teaching them. And I do recognise that when they grasp something, like get much better at resolving conflict peacefully, I don’t often pause to celebrate the milestone. I have a plan to change this in 2012…. blog post coming on it soon!

    Thanks again for your lovely comment and for reading – you’ve proper made my morning!

    • Nicola says:

      Hello there,

      My pleasure! Sadly, I felt frustration this morning at my little one not doing inset toys yet!!! Can you believe it?! He’s just grinning away, so proud as he bangs his shapes and I’m sitting there feeling frustrated! Bless him. Lord knows how I’ll be with the ‘proper stuff’ that you’re talking about later on! What I do hope and try really try hard to do is to contain my own frustrations and unfair expectations, whether its about night wakings (again), or whatever, so that hopefully he is ‘protected’ as much as possible from my less savoury emotional responses that really are mine rather than his.

      What this does mean though is that I often ‘hold’ a lot of conflict – trying to process and manage it internally rather than have it play out with my little one. So hopefully he’s protected but the frustration and disappointment ends up being with myself for lacking patience etc rather than on my little one for just doing what babies do. But that’s a very uncomfortable place to be, painfully aware of my own imperfections and how un-mother-earth I am turning out to be! That’s where your link to the TED talk about vulnerability is good! See?! Your posts are clearly doing me good! Also, I’m 36 years old and still not finding the ‘managing difficult emotions’ easy… only marginally better than your little boys!

      And all this thinking and processing is exhausting!

      But keep up the good work!

      • Feisty Mama says:

        Gah! Cannot believe it has taken me almost a month to reply to your amazing comment! So sorry. I fear I’m not cut out for blogging after all.

        I SO love your sentiments about containing your own frustrations in order to be a safe place for your boy. That right there is the crux of parenthood, I think. Such a strong intention, and such a hard thing to realise! Sounds to me like you’re winning, though. And I hear that it leaves you with a lot of vulnerability but it’s a precious thing to be able to put your kid’s needs ahead of your own. I want to get better at that!


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