Monday, March 4, 2019
What's the Deal About Boundaries?
All around the globe it seems parent issues are the same. Being a parent of a young child can be a challenge, especially if you are not equipped in advance (who is, anyway?). The question often comes down to what boundaries are best for you and your child, and how to deliver those boundaries.
What is a boundary? In this context, a boundary is a limit on some activity. So why would we want to put any limits on our children? If you were walking down the sidewalk with your child and she suddenly was going to jump out into the street, you would want to prevent that. That physical safety boundary for your own child is an important boundary that all parents want for their child.
Boundaries can give a child a sense of security, and sense of being guided and cared for by their parent, and can give an opportunity for self-discovery. I find myself at the boundaries.
To me, equally important are boundaries making other children safe, both physically and emotionally. As parents, I think it is our responsibility to help our child to be with others in as much of an atmosphere of safety as is possible. And if we want to bring boundaries in a way that sticks, we have to understand several features of the young child.
1. The primary way young children learn is by imitating. They copy the example of others. If we want a young child to change a behavior, we have to give the example of the new habit we want to (eventually) see.
2. To learn something, everyone has to do it for themselves. That means we have to lead our horses to water, so that they can drink for themselves.
3. The young child is a creature of habit. As adults, much of our time is spent in habitual activity, perhaps upwards of 40% of our waking time. The young child even more so.
4. How we speak to the child can either support an environment of trust, or become an obstacle to connection.
With the young child, as with all humans, trust develops based on experience, the experience of needs being fulfilled, particularly the needs for safety and connection. Human connection gives us the feeling of being loved and being understood.
Here's an example:
A child is playing with a toy and your child notices. She goes over to the child, grabs hold of the toy, and pulls. She knocks the other child down (you can never be sure about intention, so don't assume) and ends up with the toy.
In my experience with these types of interactions, a common response from the child’s parent is:
“It’s bad to take things from others.” Or, “That was not appropriate. How would you feel if he did that to you?”
This type of response is somewhere along the spectrum of punishment. Check for yourself. What your child did needs to be corrected, to correct we must scold at least. Perhaps a time-out or a spanking is in order?
When we meet our child’s behavior with any sort of feeling that what she did was wrong or bad, she can feel it even before we speak a word, even before our foot starts tapping and our pointer finger starts waggling. As soon as she senses our “attack,” she shuts down her higher neurological functioning and the reptile brain is in command. The options for a reptile brain response are fight, flight or freeze. Learning a new method is not one of the options when the reptile brain engages. When the reptile brain is engaged, there can be no connection with your child. They are in a defensive mode.
Here are some suggested options, some possible script lines for you:
“It’s his turn now. Your turn is next.”
“He doesn’t like toys to be taken from him.”
“I don’t like when things are taken without asking.”
The first step, though, is an inner step for you, the adult. It is to reframe the situation so feelings of wrongness and blame are not coming toward your child from you. To get there, you have to understand that your child has a habit of taking to get what she wants. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with that because it usually is successful, and we can also understand the habit arose out of a strategy to get what she wants. But the other child does not feel safe, and, in fact, is not safe.
How do we create an environment with healthy boundaries? We as adults can take actions that create an environment where there is more and more safety for the children with each other by working on the habit life of the young children.
Sometimes things unfold in a way we didn’t want, sometimes our child does something we don’t like. When we interact with our child in these situations without judging and blaming the child, with openness to creative solutions, then we weave a fabric of trust and connection between us and our child!
I think one of the secrets of parenting - or being a human being - is not to take things personally, not to frame the world into fault and blame and judgment. One can take up as a practice learning how to try on others’ perspectives, trying to see into what needs they are trying to meet. Then it is easier to stay calm and try to find an effective solution to the challenge at hand.
As adults, I think it is our job to help our child be able to interact with other children so that the other child feels safe with our child. It is our job to teach boundaries for safe social interaction!