Boundaries - no pain, no gain

Dear St Andrew's Community, 

This week we welcomed Dr Racheal Sharman to speak with both staff and parents about building resilience in our children.  One of things that struck me was how boundaries have shifted over the past 40 years, from a time when children were regularly reminded by the whole of society to obey their parents- to a situation now where sadly parents obey or make excuses for their children!  I appreciate that I am generalising and perhaps simplifying things, but we have a society now where we parents are expected to make our children’s world wonderful: all of the time, and yet by doing this, we are in a situation where children are not developing skills to deal with boredom or failure, to build resilience, control emotions and demonstrate independence. I found this article by Dr Henry Cloud, a psychologist who advises even the President of the United States (maybe not the current one!).  It is challenging and hope it might provide some insights. It is entitled ‘Boundaries’.

Boundaries with kids begin with parents having good boundaries of their own. Purposeful parents stay in control of themselves. If your child is controlling your decisions by protesting your boundaries, you are no longer parenting with purpose.

Terri was having problems with her thirteen-year-old son Josh not doing his homework. I helped her come up with a plan that would require Josh to set aside a certain time each night to do homework. During this hour Josh had to be in his study place with nothing else but his work, and he was not to do anything else but study. Terri had no control over whether or not Josh actually chose to study during that time. What she could control was that he do nothing else during that time but sit with his homework.

When I saw her the next time, Terri looked sheepish. She had not lived up to her end of the plan. “What happened?” I asked. “Well, we were all set, and then he got invited to go to a baseball game with his friend. I said no, that his hour was not up yet. But he got so upset, I could not talk him out of it. He seemed so mad and sad.”

“So,” I said, “that’s what he’s supposed to do, remember? He hates discipline. So what did you do next?”

“Well, I could see that this requirement was just making him too mad, and I could not stand it. So I let him go.” (Clue number one that a child will not develop self-control is when the parent does not have self-control in enforcing the rules.)

“What happened the next night?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“He got upset again. It was a similar situation. He had an opportunity that would have been very sad to miss.”

“So let me get this straight. The way you are deciding what is right or not is how he feels when he is required to do something. If he is upset, then you think it is the wrong thing to do. Is that right?”

“I haven’t thought about it that way, but I guess you’re right. I just can’t stand for him to be sad. He’s just a kid. ”

“Then you have got to come to grips with a few important truths. One, your values are being set by the emotional reactions of an immature thirteen-year-old. Your value system’s highest guiding principle is whether or not Josh is upset. Two, you don’t value one of the most important aspects of child rearing: Frustration is a key ingredient to growth. The child who is never frustrated never develops frustration tolerance. Three, you are teaching him that he is entitled to always be happy and that all he has to do to get others to do what he wants is to cry about it. Are these really your values?”

She grew silent and began to realize what she was doing. To change, she had to commit to an important rule for setting boundaries with kids: A child’s protest does not define reality or right from wrong. Just because your child is in pain does not mean that something bad is happening. Something good may be occurring, such as his coming to grips with reality for the first time. And this encounter with reality is never a happy experience. But if you can empathise with the pain and hold on to the limit, your child will internalise the limit and ultimately get over the protest.

This is a law of the universe. Frustration and painful moments of discipline help a child and a teenager learn to delay gratification, one of the most important character traits a person can have. If you are able to hold the limit and empathize with the pain, then character will develop. But if you don’t, you will have the same battle tomorrow. If you rescue your children from their anger at your boundary, you can plan on more anger at later limits. Remember, their protest or pain does not determine what is good.

Dr Sharman spoke about similar things, she had examples of needing to let a child experience tough moments, failure, and disappointment and the reactions that follow which ultimately build the ability to develop strong coping strategies for good mental health. It seems our job as parents is not to make their world wonderful, but instead to set clear boundaries,  allow it to be a little bit tough, a little bit rough, and be supportive through it!