"Most parents I have the pleasure of working with tell me that they are confused when it comes to setting boundaries and limits.
I think there are three main reasons for confusion:
1. Our parents did it differently
I’m a child of the 1980’s and back then parents and kids were much more free range. I came home from hospital in a basket on the back seat of our car. I slept on my tummy as a baby. I rode around the neighbourhood on my bike for hours and days at a time. The punishment for mucking up was a smack. It was different back then.
In the 1990s and early 2000’s – when many parents who are having babies right now were being raised – smacking was recognised as ineffective and possibly damaging. In place of smacking many parents opted for a “naughty step” or “time out”. This seemed kinder, gentle and made more sense than “stop hitting your brother, or I’ll hit you to show you what I mean.”
Now, evidence shows that the time out can be as damaging as a smack. Because we are a social species wired for connection when we threaten our child with social isolation it can feel the same as the threat of being unlovable.
Psychiatrist and bestselling authour of ‘The Whole Brain Child’ Dan Segal writes “Isolating people from others important to them causes ‘relational pain’. Relational pain travels the same neural paths in our brain as physical pain or illness”.
With evidence available that popular discipline strategies like smacking and time outs do not teach social and emotional life skills, parents are left seeking out external advice from a variety of places - Facebook, friends, parenting websites - which is often overwhelming and confusing.
2. Conflicting advice
If parents accept that the stick, (smacking and time outs), are out it is tempting for parents to conclude that all they have left in their parenting bag of tricks is the carrot. Cue in rewards charts, bribery, praise, distraction, threats and good old-fashioned begging.
The amount of times I have heard the phrase; “I just need to work out what his currency is” confirms how prolific this tendency is. Parents are hoping their child has a favourite show, snack, activity or toy so they can use it to get from A to B. “If you do your swimming lesson you can have an ice-cream” or “If you don’t hit your sister again, we can go to the park today”.
At the same time lots of parents are aware of the advice to focus on connection and attachment. Raising children in a way that is respectful is important but forming a truly secure attachment requires boundaries and there are very few places and educators who equip parents with the know-how to actually set boundaries.
Given it wasn’t necessarily modelled by our parents – we are stuck.
Janet Lansbury is a parenting educator whom I adore, and she describes a child without boundaries as being like having them them riding a bike on a narrow bridge at night with no guardrails…. pretty scary.
But even if we know boundaries are important and have an idea of how they might work, there is another factor that holds many of us back from setting them: they might cry.
3. WE don’t want to upset our kids
This is at the crux of the issue for lots of parents. When I am working with families who have just had their first baby they are usually already feeling rattled by crying. Somehow society has delivered them a clear message along the lines of: “Here is your brand new baby. Take it home and when it cries work out what’s wrong and fix it”.
Sometimes this will work; a newborn cries when it is hungry or tired, so if we meet the need calm may descend.But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes babies just cry. And cry. And cry.
We know that crying is communication. We know that healthy babies will sometimes cry but the problem is we have been fed a message that it is our job to fix the crying, so when we can’t we feel we are failing right from the start.
Then, when our babies become toddlers, we don’t want to say no because no will lead to tears. Or - worse - public tantrums. Our job is to make our kids happy and not cry so we don’t say ‘no’.
There is more to this of course. As a society we don’t like sadness. When little kids fall over, we say “Dust it off, you’re ok!” When a woman has a traumatic birth we say, “At least you have a healthy baby!” Parents have internalised the message that discomfort and crying and public displays of emotion are not welcome, or indicate bad parenting.
So is it any wonder that when we need to leave the beach with a toddler who is having a good time, parents bribe them with a treat rather than set a clear boundary? “If we leave the beach now without any fuss you can have an ice cream”. (And this is an ok thing, as long as some of the time, we are able to just say ‘no’. No bribe, no distractions – just ‘no’.)
When we can say no, and do it with calm, loving confidence, our kids feel more safe and secure than when we bribe or attempt to distract them. In fact, because kids need these boundaries to feel safe, they push us more when we don’t set them, which leads to a spiral of unhappy parents and worried kids.
We need to embrace boundaries as one of the highest forms of love - because they are!
We need to learn how to say with confidence and love, my answer is ‘no’.
Next week I’ll be sharing more on why parents need to embrace the word no and three steps to effective modern boundary setting.