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?