At LIFE we talk about the framework of limits. Inside the framework the child takes on responsibility for himself. He is given responsibility slowly by explicit teaching and guidance. Once old enough, these responsibilities become kid issues. Children can exercise freedom of choice within this framework along with the lessons that come with these choices. Parents don’t interfere by rescuing, nagging or lecturing. As the child grows, the framework expands and contracts. Two steps forward as they push for autonomy and independence, one step back as they cling for reassurance.
Outside of this framework we as parents support limits. Limits represent safety, respect, responsibility and values. When the child crosses over the boundary, he enters into the territory outside the framework. This is where family issues exist. For example, a kitchen left in a mess by a child is a family issue because it effects everyone. A child’s messy bedroom is a kid issue as long as there are no dying hamsters or rotting food on the floor. Here is an example of what this looks like for an eleven year old girl:
Limit setting can become clear when you break it down to two questions: What is the limit that we want to set? How do we enforce it?
Respect: “Your freedom to swing your arm ends where my nose begins!” In other words, I will ignore some of the normal, stage related mouthiness, rolling of the eyes, defiance and so on but when you cross my personal boundaries, I will let you know. Get clear with where your nose ends! To figure that out, you need to consider the child’s age.
How do you teach respect? While a “time out” may be necessary at times, the true teacher of respect is empathy. Talking about people’s feelings and how our behaviour can have an effect on others.
If a child acts aggressively or rude we can go into the child’s feelings and find out what their viewpoint is. Why did they act that way? What was going on for them? If we put our agenda aside temporarily and really listen, we can come to a place of understanding our kids. When we do this we can often feel the judgment we have of our child wash away. In most cases when dealing with children, their feelings need to come first. They don’t have the maturity to put their needs aside if they have big feelings going on. When the child has had a chance to get those feelings out and have them reflected back then they might be ready to hear how you or the other person is feeling. This is how children learn about respect at a level that goes beyond punishment and reward. There may be a consequence in place but the true learning comes from having an honest open exchange.
The Gift of Owning Feelings – Allowing children to own their feelings and in turn owning our own, develops healthy emotional boundaries. We provide structure by setting limits on behaviour which harms others; we provide nurture by accepting a child’s feelings. Children need both. This isn’t easy if we grew up in families that didn’t accept negative emotions in children. “Say you’re sorry.” Is a classic line that tells children to feel something other than what they are really feeling. Rather than reflecting their true feelings of frustration or anger, we are telling them to feel remorse. When children can have anger or frustration validated, they will often come to a genuine place of feeling sorry and express it sincerely. We can say, “It is absolutely not okay to hit your brother even if you feel really, really angry. Come and tell me how angry you are.”
Telling children what they should enjoy or when they should be hungry is another way of insisting that they feel the way we want them to. “What do you mean you didn’t have fun at the birthday party? There was cake and balloons and lot of kids to play with.” Everyday in many ways we can talk children out of their feelings, which sadly chips away at their own inner guidance and sense of self. The discipline for the parent is to learn to let go of this emotional control and replace it with acceptance and understanding. This kind of respect will guide children to a deeper level of moral development.
How do you teach responsibility?: One of the best ways to teach responsibility is to let kids experience the bumps and bruises of real life consequences. Of course we are there to support them emotionally but they need to learn to pull their own wagon. That means getting clear with kid issues and stepping out of the framework. If it is a kid issue, get out of there! An eleven year old needs to forget his homework and experience the embarrassment or frustration of not having it – forgetting lunches, sleeping in and missing class – smelling bad and having a friend tell him or being cold without the coat. Parents take that learning away too often and the end result is that they (the parent) will be blamed when something goes wrong. Get out of there!
Kids need to learn that when they take responsibility they create freedom in their lives. Freedom is exactly the consequence that you use to teach that. When we all chip in with the Saturday morning clean, we can all take off and have some fun. When, then. Use the positive consequence of giving freedom to a child who has taken responsibility.
“Because you come home on time and let us know where you are if you are going to be late, we can be flexible with your curfew.”
“Because you got dressed on time this morning, we can stop at the park on the way to pre-school.”
The flip side is that when they don’t take responsibility, there is less freedom.
Take time to teach -Remember to take time to teach your child to take responsibility so that they feel confident. We have outlined four stages for taking responsibility on:
Level 0: The child is too young to have the responsibility but the parent includes them by explaining what they are doing and letting the child help. The age depends on the task.
Level 1: This is a time of explicit teaching and practicing. Let your child know they are at this level and explain we are all level 1’s when learning something new. This can apply to anything such as washing dishes, riding a bike, being home alone, babysitting … the list goes on.
Level 2 : The child has learned the skill involved and now needs some guidance and perhaps a reminder. Some people feel their kids stay stuck at this stage and that may be true with family issues but if it is a kid issue, they can progress the next level.
Level 3 : No parental intervention or nagging! This disciplines the parents more than anything to stay out of that framework. Let the child take over the task. Natural consequences will teach him here, you can let go.
How do you teach values? : We come into parenthood with all kinds of values from how we sit at a table, manners, style of dress and much more. These values were probably learned in our own childhood and we learned them from our parents. Many of these values need to be examined carefully. Do we really think a three year old should sit at the table for half an hour and say please and thank you while keeping her elbows off the table? If we do, we could have many power struggles on our hands. Sometimes values need to be challenged and our children will be the first ones to do so. For example, why is it okay for girls to wear hats inside and not boys? These kinds of values will be challenged and if they don’t make sense, perhaps we need to relook them. This requires flexibility and a willingness to take an honest look at our own belief systems.
Values are taught by our modeling and while children may rebel against them, they will often come back to them as adults.
How do we enforce safety? : Safety is the one area where logical consequences need to be discussed ahead of time and carried through with. Matters that concern safety such as riding a bike with a helmet, a limited number on the trampoline, not playing with sticks or driving a car responsibly are the types of limits that need to be supported by a parents willingness to take action. Taking action means simply following through with the agreed upon consequence. It doesn’t mean yelling, lecturing or getting angry. As a matter of fact, when we do that, we take away from the consequence. It becomes “all about your anger” versus “a bad choice made by the child”.
This is where you get to practice what we call “dead head responses”. This is how it might sound with a seven year old:
Parent: “Gee son, I’m sorry to see you riding without your helmet, we discussed this and now I am going to have to remove your bike privileges for three days.”
Child: “Oh come on, give me another chance. I’m going to look like a geek if I don’t have a bike.”
Parent: “Maybe so.”
Child: “My friends will all leave without me and I won’t have anything to do.”
Parent: “Maybe so.”
Child: “Fine, be like that. You are the meanest dad in the world.”
Parent: “Maybe so.”
Having a dead head answer stops the parent from “biting the bait”. It gives the parent a little safety line to hang onto instead of jumping in and getting into an argument.