Gentle Parenting and Boundaries

I really like this quote by Gary Chapman, author of  “The Five Love Languages” and “Love As A Way of Life”.  He writes in the Foreward to Susie Larson’s wonderful book, “Growing Grateful Kids:  Teaching Them to Appreciate An Extraordinary God in Ordinary Places”:

“Children who are indulged by parents, given whatever they request and allowed to do whatever they desire, are likely to have major problems in establishing healthy adult relationships.  The absence of boundaries does not equip children for the real world.  These children will become “takers” rather than “givers”.  Consequently they fail to find the deep satisfaction that comes from genuinely loving others.”

Many times when parents ask me about gentle parenting, they are asking from one of two perspectives.  The first perspective is a perspective of guilt because they think they yell too much or are essentially too hard on their children.  Their household is not peaceful and they are frustrated with that and want things to change, but they are not sure how to change.  The second perspective parents ask me from is where gentle parenting is equated with no boundaries at all, and they are intrigued but  skeptical.

To me gentle parenting and boundaries involves several steps.  The first step is to get clear with yourself as to what the values and rules are for your family.  The second step is to figure out how you will hold this boundary in the moment, in a calm and unflappable way,  and what are the tools you will use to help your child (hint:  yelling is not a tool .  :))  And, what will you  do if you feel as if you cannot hold the boundary anymore but you know you need to for your child’s sake?  What is your plan?  Third, what does your child  learn from pushing against the boundary – what active ways do you have to help your child make restitution?

Let’s look at each step briefly:

First of all, gentle parenting starts with knowing yourself and what you model for your child through your ACTIONS.   You must have thoughts regarding what the most important things are in your life.  What are the values of your family and what are the rules of your house?  After those boundaries and  rules of the house are established in a Family Mission Statement, in your head, discussed with your spouse, then you must think through how to be consistent with those boundaries and what will happen when a child pushes against the boundary.  Will you be a wall that falls when they push against it (and this “falling” could be giving in or just falling apart and yelling or crying yourself!)…. or will you be solid and calm but not moveable?  Can you hold the boundary because of your love for the child and because you know this is what this child needs in order to grow up and be a wonderful adult? 

So, how will you hold the boundary in a calm way?  Many of us have what I call a ” breaking point”. What is yours?  Is it after your child has been on the floor screaming for over an  hour?  Is it your child hitting you?  Is it your child hitting the baby?  Is it running around the house?  How will you deal with your own breaking point?  We are all human, so what is your plan for when the breaking point occurs?

What does the child learn by pushing against the boundary?  In life, every decision has pros and cons and trade-offs and I think we need to with these small teachable moments.

Sometimes in gentle parenting we hear a lot of talk about “natural consequences”.   With children under the age of 5, they cannot think ahead to consequences at all.  I have one friend who told me once that small children who don’t want to brush their teeth are not choosing cavities.  She is correct, and I think we must be careful with the idea of “natural consequences” for very small children.   With a child under the age of 5, it really  is up to you to help your child meet the boundary that you have decided upon  by regulating the environment, the rhythm of eating and sleep, the amount of physical activity, the amount of supervision you are providing.  Even a  four or five-year-old left to their own devices is probably going to get into trouble left on their own for too long!  Remember, a child needs pretty constant checking in and supervision up to the age of 10 according to The Gesell Institute books.  Other tools include singing, fantasy and movement, your gentle hands, distraction and giving the child a job to do.  Perhaps your most important tool for the child is that of restitution.  The child will need your help with this, but it is important for a child to see how they can fix something instead of hearing a lecture about the problem.  Things like yelling and such on your part typically indicate you yourself have either no other tools in your toolbox or that you reached your breaking point and perhaps the behavior needed to change for the sanity of the family before it all got to that point. I have written quite a bit about anger and parenting, and feel those back posts could be of service to you.  The posts regarding self-care may also be helpful.

With a child of six, you have the above tools, plus you can add a few more choice and more pointed sentences about what we do where.  I direct you to the fine book, “You’re Not the Boss of Me! Understanding the Six/Seven Year Transformation” as available through www.waldorfbooks.com  Story-telling can become a fine way to assist your child in seeing the situation from a different persepctive.  I recommend Susan Parrow’s “Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour” as a reference. 

With a chid of seven and eight, now we are moving into even more of the why’s in simple terms.  Logical reasoning is not present, but as children approach nine, they do understand a bit more about what will happen when they do something.  Their responses are immature, often riddled with emotion, but they are learning.  Criticism will tear them down, as they cannot separate your criticism of their behavior from themselves, so do be careful to speak with your child simply when things are calm and to  help the child to make restitution.  Start empowering them to be able to think about fixing a problem rather than just hearing a lecture about the problem.    Children from nine to twelve are really in the beginning of the foundation years for character development as we know it, and the teenaged years even more so.  So much work for the parent to do!

The point is, though, that gentle parenting and boundaries do co-exist.  Parenting is hard and challenging work!  You have to love your child so much that you will put everything else aside when your child needs your help. In this way, they can learn to be a  good human being and how to live and work with other people of all ages. 

Live big and love your children,

Carrie

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18 thoughts on “Gentle Parenting and Boundaries

  1. I love this, Carrie: “Live big and love your children.”

    I also have a question: My 2.5 yr old pushes and pushes and pushes boundries until I lose it, which usually means taking a serious parental time out. This happens at least once a day. I feel like I must be doing something wrong if my child is so insistent. It seems now that we’re in a bad dynamic and attempts at positive redirecting don’t redirect, that he won’t stop until the tipping point is reached and then he stops and wants to reconnect with lots of hugs and kisses. Does this make sense? What could I be doing to break this cycle, to end what seems like a continuous need to reach the tipping point? Any thoughts?

    • Elizabeth,
      The first thing that comes to my mind is “new developmental stage”. :) Whenever children hit a new developmental stage, I like to go back to the basics of rhythm, how much outside time, eating and sleeping times, what positive things are we doing together to build up that emotional love bank… Then I look to myself and what I am modeling. And then besides modeling, with small children, we must never be afraid to use gentle hands to help a child do something different, to move a child, to hold a child while they cry or protest, to love that child. Sometimes what we miss in our parenting is this physical piece of holding and helping and moving with gentle hands because it seems challenging, but small children really do need that help. He needs to be able to rely on you to hold up like a peaceful wall whilst he pushes. Sometimes this is impossible because we are human, but we can strive. Also, back to self-care: easiest to meet his needs when you are feeling well-rested, well- nourished, etc. These are just a few ideas, please do take what resonates for you and your little guy and leave the rest behind. :)
      Blessings!
      Carrie

  2. thank you carrie. this is beautiful. to elizabeth who is struggling on a daily basis, i wonder if you get really curious about what is happening for your child, what needs are unmet. i often catch myself “behind the ball” so to speak, where we’ve entered a new developmental phase, but i’m still parenting to the last phase, and then i suddenly see things from the new perspective and realize something….ahhh. he needs more movement, or different food, or more connection mid-afternoon, or whatever. i wish you love.

  3. Great post Carrie thank you

    I’m interested in the idea of aiding the child in making restitution – I hate small children being made to apologise as it’s so beyond their developmental understanding and can see how restitution fits better because it’s an act of ‘doing’ but I wonder if you could give some examples.

    thanks xx

  4. Hi Carrie
    Hope I am not to late, but I also have some suggestions for Elizabeth.
    In ‘Positive Discipline’ the authors talk about power srtuggles between kids and parents and that it is our job as parent to let go of the power struggle.
    I have done it several times and somehow the child always senses that you are no longer playing the game. It is a way of deescalated a situation. And then when I have stepped out of the power struggle, I decide on the action that Carrie always talks about either connecting, redirecting or giving them a task.
    Hard work, but for me it builds my confidence if I know I have gone through this day without yelling.

    • Yup, let go of your end of the rope. THere can be no power struggle if we let our end of the rope go. It does not have to be a power struggle.
      My friend says this a lot, and I think it is very wise!
      Blessings to you,
      Carrie

  5. I’d like to second Hannah’s request for more about helping my children make restitution. You mention this often, and I agree whole-heartedly, but I’m often left wondering exactly how to implement the practice. I’ve been hoping you’ll write a post specifically about restitution (filled with lots of examples :)

    Thank you so much for the words you share here. I often visit when I need a little parenting reassurance…and I almost always seem to find just the exact, perfect thing I need to hear at that moment.

    …how do you do that? ;)

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  10. Hi Carrie-

    The ultimate happened yesterday…My child ran from me near a road. He stayed on our neighborhood sidewalk, but was told to not go beyond a certain boundary. It was a clear, easy boundary. I had my hands full with baby sis and two trikes. He ran all the way down the sidewalk to our home. I was furious, and shaken up. He’s four. I didn’t yell, but I was pretty forceful and clear about what he did wrong, and held him pretty firmly whilst doing so. I think it scared him. I am unsure if I could’ve done something better, maybe something not so scary to him, that would’ve had the same impact? His consequence is to hold my hand when we walk now, even though he had earned the privilege of walking ahead a little bit. He was pretty angry with me, but when I felt calm, I assured him of my love, cuddled, & re explained the rule and dangers. Would you have anything to add to a scenario like this? It’s the example everyone uses for when spanking would be ok, and so I guess I’m concerned that scaring him was just as bad?

  11. Ok, well, I didn’t yell, but I was loud & in his face. And I have to wonder, too, was it effective enough? The balance is so hard to determine.

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