Developing Healthy Boundaries

My last post was written toward an audience of parents who are using spanking, hitting or yelling as their main disciplinary tools.  Today we are going to tackle the opposite problem – that of a child with a parent who feels almost overpowered or overwhelmed by their child’s behavior.  Becky Bailey, in her book entitled,”Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline”, writes that in the past, if a child’s needs and an adult’s needs collided, the adult’s needs would take precedence, mainly because the parent considered any strategy that negated the child’s  needs a success.   She notes that this has reversed in our society today:  “Powerful, strident children seem to dominate powerless adults.  Parents who know that they do not want to repeat the patterns that governed their childhoods, but lack a better approach, have simple flipped the equation.  They have negated their own needs and let the children rule.”

There are certainly situations where children have special issues and needs that cause the parent to feel overwhelmed, but this post is focusing on the parent feeling this way because of the choices they make in their parenting. Barbara Coloroso, in her book, “Kids Are Worth It!  Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline” discuses two types of families that she terms “Jellyfish A” families and “Jellyfish B” families.  “Jellyfish A” families are described below; “Jellyfish B” families are composed of parents who are having personal problems of such magnitude that preclude them focusing on their children, such as parents recovering from addiction issues or other personal issues.   Of interest, she also includes in “Jellyfish B” families parents who are intense work-a–holics or pursuing personal and professional goals at the expense of their children.

Of the “Jellyfish A” families, Barbara Coloroso writes, “The first kind of jellyfish parent was taught what, when and how to speak, act, and react; he was not taught how to think  So when it comes time to develop a backbone structure in his own home, he doesn’t know how…..He is frightened of repeating the abuse he knew, but doesn’t know what to replace it with.  So he becomes extremely lax in discipline, sets few or no limits, and tends to smother his children.  Anything his child wants, his child gets, even if the child’s wants are at the expense of the parent’s own needs.”

Parenting advice columnist and family psychologist John Rosemond (whom, I have to say, is not at all attachment oriented and someone with whom I certainly do not agree with most of the time) had this to say in a newspaper column entitled, “Parents need to be husband, wife first” (October 4, 2008).  He writes:  “ The 1950s mother went about her child rearing with an almost casual attitude.  It was “all in a day’s work,” as opposed to being all of her day’s work.  She exuded a sense of confidence in her authority; therefore, her child recognized her authority.  She established a clear boundary between herself and her child (as in, “I don’t have time for you right now, so go find something of your own to do”) that today’s mother feels prohibited from doing.  Thus, today’s mother often feels as if she is under assault from her children from the time they wake up until they consent to occupy their beds.”

These are  interesting perspectives to think about, even if you do not agree or feel that way in your own family at this time.  These quotes got me thinking!  However,  if you are feeling slightly stressed by your own children -who seem to never get to bed on time, who don’t want to eat what food you have, who seem to do the opposite of everything that you desire and suggest, and you are feeling powerless to change the situation – I have a few encouraging thoughts for you.

My first thought is that for many attached parents, the want and need to set some boundaries actually takes time to develop, and many attached parents do feel challenged by the shift in parenting that must occur as the baby grows up.  The relationship between mother and baby in an attached relationship is a unified one.  This is because the biology of the baby actually screams for the mother and baby to be one unit.  I think this is the main point that John Rosemond actually misses in many of his columns when he discusses the need for leadership and boundaries before establishing involvement and connection.  In my opinion, he misses the fact that a human baby is hard-wired for connection from the point of birth,  and, that if we follow the baby’s cues at all, connection must take place first.  All infant reflexes are present in order that once the baby is born, the baby can make its way alone to the mother’s breast and attach to the breast without assistance.  Connection!  We are mammals who by the very nature of the fat content of human milk are going to be frequent feeders.  Connection!  Human babies are born essentially underdeveloped neurologically because they cannot remain inside their mothers any longer and still pass through the birth canal. Connection!   Human beings mature slowly compared to most other mammals and need support for a much longer period of time than other mammals.  A mother who has practiced listening to her baby’s cues, breastfeeding on demand, co-sleeping in order to satisfy frequent breastfeeding has worked with the biology of her baby to foster a close bond that will serve this baby well over time.

Again, connection to our children is so important and the connection between the mother and father and baby sets the stage for wonderful social adaption in the later years and for good health in so many ways.  I do not in the slightest want to downplay the connection that babies and all children need from their parents.  Yet, as these attached babies grow, many mothers I have met seem to  feel their slightly older toddler (who was and is still a baby), is not perhaps their equal, but almost a small friend or semi-peer.  They seem to  feel their small child’s every opinion needs to be seriously weighed and measured.  Sometimes parents are then caught off guard when the toddler or preschooler’ behavior does not live up to the picture of the child as a small friend – the first time the child yells,”I hate you” when they are a preschooler, the first time the child has a huge temper tantrum, the first time the child hits or bites or kicks – the parent feels like the wind has been knocked out of them because they realize the relationship is changing and that the child is not as mature as they thought!  Or perhaps the child’s ever-changing opinions are just a source of fatigue!  All of this is the beginning of the gentle shift toward more boundaries that happens as the child grows and can also help signal where a child is in their own maturity.  It can be challenging to move from that “one-ness” of babyhood and early toddlerhood into an area of a bit more structure, a few more boundaries, a sense that there are certain limits within the family and to hold that space and those limits with gentleness and love.

The toddler and preschooler is certainly deserving of dignity and respect and of being guided in a way that is gentle and loving.  We will continue to talk about these tools in future posts.  However, another thought in this picture is this:  in my stance from a Waldorf perspective,  the best way to preserve your toddler and preschooler’s dignity and show them respect is to understand they were just a very little  baby a year or so earlier and to not expect them to make decisions that an adult should be making and to not burden the small child with adult concerns.   Please do not give them the burden of adult decision-making in the guise of being fair and respectful to your child.  Provide a wonderful, child-inclusive environment, love your child, find humor and wonder with your child, but do not equate the child as your equal in this loving relationship. 

Eugene Schwartz, a Master Waldorf Teacher, has this funny little scenario regarding what we do to our children every day, published in the book Beyond the Rainbow Bridge, page 115:

Good morning, dear.  What do you want to wear?

A sleeveless jumper, a short-sleeved dress, or long-sleeve dress?  Flared skirt, denim skirt, or flowered skirt? Short-shorts, capri pants, hiking shorts, or pants?

Pants and a shirt.  Good.  Which ones?

Red, blue, green, striped, checked or plaid pants? Straight-legged, flared, roll-up, or regular-cut designer jeans? Tank top, turtleneck, short sleeved, or long-sleeved shirt? A shirt with a cartoon character, cereal box hero, or plain front?100% cotton, cotton-polyester mix, cotton with lycra or spandex?

Let’s have breakfast.  What would you like to eat today?

Orange, cranberry, grapefruit, or mango-tangerine-guava juice? Granola with nuts, honey, brown sugar, or with organic fruit? Served with 2%, 1%, soy-based milk, cream, or low-fat yogurt? Regular or cinnamon toast, English muffin, or bagel?”

And the list goes on.  It is one of those scenarios that is funny but rings true for so many of us.

I have parents who tell me they never “pick battles” with their children, that there is really nothing that big to get upset about. I do understand.  But there are times when your children will need to know and see that you can be a wall for them to bounce off of when they are spinning out of control and that you will not crumple because they need you to be the parent, the more experiences adult,  at that moment.  There will be the time when you realize, as a parent, that all the things they want are not all the things they need.  There will be times when they will not like you – this is part of parenting and part of transitioning from the “oneness” between mother and baby to the separation required for a child to go out into the world and have his own experiences.  Waldorf looks at the child separating from the parents later than most developmental sources, with what is called the nine-year change frequently typifying the beginning of separation. In looking at childhood development, we expect the parent to understand more about life than a small child under 7 and to use their wisdom and experience to guide their child.

So, in my view, the best way to be attached to your young child is to be the authentic leader, the model of the emotions you own, the person who thinks about the rhythm of the day, the person who sets a gentle and loving tone for your very own home.  And you see your wonderful small child as just that – a small child who has an intense need to be  home, a need to be loved by his or her parents, and yes, a need to be treated as small.

I know many attachment parents who would disagree with this view (and I said in my very first post that everything you read here may not resonate with you and your family!)  However, if you think I am on to something, try it out for a few days.  Offer very limited choices if you have to offer choices at all, stop talking so much and explaining so much to your small child and just let your child be in the wonder of your day – working, playing, being outside, listening, resting.  Structure your rising times, nap times, bed times and meal times.  Have a rhythm to your day that involves your child.   Work toward that earlier bedtime so you can have some time to just be, and to be with your spouse.   It is difficult to present being on the same parenting page if you never get a chance to talk to your spouse without your child present and listening.  

Just as a parent who is working to develop patience needs to stop and think before they open their mouth, a parent working to develop a more authoritative (not authoritarian, not demanding!) parenting style needs to think and have something to say that involves a bit of direction to the child that is younger and has less experience.  This is your job as a parent.

Remember these wonderful words from Adventures in Gentle Discipline:“Bear in mind that to say children are equally deserving of dignity and respect does not have to mean that the relationship itself is of equal power. As a parent, you have a broader view and more life experience to draw from, and these are assets you bring to the child as his adult caretaker. You also bear more responsibility for choices surrounding your child than he does.” (Adventures in Gentle Discipline, page 11).

Work toward parenting your child toward the wonderful adult you know he or she will be, and respect the natural progression of childhood.  Give your children a childhood that is free from adult concern, but yet asks for respect and responsibility from your child within your family and home.  It can be done!

Next up, Big Tools for the Big Picture of Gentle Discipline.

Just a few thoughts from my little corner of the world.  Thanks for reading!