Winning the Battle: Boundaries, Choices, and Control
by Loretta Maase, M.A.
We rob our children of valuable lessons when we give them the message that our anger or our punishments are the logical consequences of their poor choices.
When we allow our children to make their own (age appropriate) choices, live with the consequences, and grow in the process, we are insuring our chances of raising responsible, accountable children - and bringing our home lives under control as well.
Responsibility is developed over time. If we can react to our children’s mistakes (even their defiance) with empathy and sadness rather than anger we are contributing to the development of this important trait.
The paradox is, the more non-essential control we give up, the more we actually have. We can give our children the control that we don’t absolutely need in order to establish the control that we must have.
The trick is to give our children ever-increasing amounts of control without handing them the reigns of too much too soon. We begin by giving up control in certain areas. As our children grow, these areas increase. We start with either/or choices with very young children and move toward more open-ended options as they grow older. For example, toddlers can choose whether they want to wear their coat or carry it (very concrete options). Ten year olds can choose how they want to spend their allowance. And 17 year olds make choices regarding most every aspect of their lives.
When we give up struggles for non-essential control and cease making demands, our children have no demands to react against, only choices to make and consequences to live with. Making choices forces them to think and thinking is vital to developing responsibility. Offering choices and following-through with consequences also provides vital opportunities for our children to make mistakes and live with the real-life results. Perhaps most importantly for us, offering choices and following-through helps us stay out of those consuming and painful control battles with our children.
Likewise, if can we react to our children’s mistakes with kindness rather than rescuing, we are also helping them develop responsibility. There is a world of difference between kindness and rescuing. Kindness means sincerely listening to a child express his frustration with leaving his homework at home. Rescuing means leaving work to take him his homework and thereby preventing the logical consequences from running their course. The emphasis here is on compassion. If we can step back far enough, not get caught up in the emotion of the time, and see our children as learners we can gain the perspective that they’re just in the middle of learning an important lesson and will be on to something else in no time. If we can detach ourselves from the situation for a moment and see things objectively we can keep from becoming emotionally involved with the details while still being compassionately involved with the person.
Does the idea of giving up non-essential control bother you as a parent? If so, why? Do you have the belief “my way, right or wrong”? If so, what parenting style does that fall under? What are your values regarding parenting your children? It’s important to evaluate these questions before going further.
Boundaries and Your Sanity
Why do children test our boundaries as they do? There are various reasons, but let’s look at a primary one. First, let’s define what roles boundaries play in our lives.
Imagine you’re in a dark room, say a small, dark theatre. You have to move around and you can’t see anything, but you can feel the walls around you. Imagine that you push on a wall and it gives a little. You push on another and this time it doesn’t move. You push on another and are surprised to find out that it’s a lot closer to you than you thought. You push on another and it moves away altogether. You have to move around the room, but because you’re not sure where you’re going to find the walls, you push on them constantly to test them.
Let’s say the walls are you boundaries – the limits that you determine are acceptable in your home and with your family.
Now imagine being in the same room again. You still can’t see anything but you can feel the walls. This time the walls are stable and don’t move when push. You might push on each wall a time or two to test their stability, but they still don’t move. Eventually, you learn where the walls are and how much room you have between you and them – room where you can freely move around. You stop testing them and relax, knowing where the boundaries are.
This is what it’s like with kids and boundaries. Growing up can be tough business and kids are often ‘in the dark’, wondering about our next move. When we keep changing the rules and failing to follow-through with predictable choices and consequences, we are encouraging our children to push on the walls to test them. They never really know what we expect of them.
Contrary to what they say, kids need rules and boundaries. They are not able to provide them for themselves. They depend on us to provide them for them, and to make them clear. Therefore, it helps to consider: are we actually challenging our children to test our boundaries because we keep changing them? If your children are regularly testing your boundaries by challenging your house rules and expectations, observe yourself in action. Have you: 1 – determined what your rules and boundaries are? 2 – made your rules and boundaries clear? 3 – followed-through each time as you said you would? Sometimes the answer to the question, “why do our children do what they do?”, begins with us.
The details. Putting the concept into action:
The heart of discipling responsibility is getting our children to think for themselves. The goal is to help them develop their character – character that will carry them through times of temptation and doubt. Therefore, the first step is framing questions for our children that force them to think while clearly and firmly expressing our boundaries and expectations. And of course, we do this at age-appropriate levels. To be effective, consequences must match the crime.
*It’s important to point out that not all consequences have to be negative. Perhaps the most effective consequences are those that occur as a result of responsible choices – good old-fashioned positive reinforcement. Your three year old picks up her toys by herself and therefore gets a little extra time to play. Your ten year old starts and completes his homework without being asked so you allow a little extra computer time that evening. Your teen meets curfew all month without fail and you increase her curfew by a half-hour. The point is, watch for times when your child(ren) make good choices on their own and slip in a little positive reward as a result. It goes a long way.
1. We begin by offering real choices, not threats.There are two basic principles in offering choices to our children: Offer two choices for a child to pick from, and, only offer choices that we, the parents, can live with and follow-through with.
**Note: Never offer choices when a child is in danger.
For example, with young children you might say “would you like to be quiet and stay in here with me or continue to cry in your room?” You are implying that they will go to their room if they continue crying. No threat, it’s just a fact. You might even say one time “if you can’t decide I’ll decide for you.” It is vitally important that you resist explaining the choice and the reality of the consequence. Your child hears you and understands you – even when he or she seemingly ignores you. Kids are bright. They get it. And you rob them of the opportunity to choose and learn when you kill your question with an explanation or a repeat of the same question. If you can ask the question one time and let the chips fall where they may, your child will soon learn that you’re not going to explain and repeat and explain and repeat. One question, one choice, one consequence, one time. One more important lesson learned.
2. Consistency and follow-through will be your greatest tools or your greatest challenges. This can’t be overstated. Often when parents report back that things went well at first but quickly turned into temper tantrums and control battles, we can trace the root of the problem to notbeing consistent and not following through. Older children will never take curfew boundaries seriously, for example, if you don’t faithfully follow through with consequences.
It will help to remember that not only are you gaining control in the here and now by not engaging in control battles, but that you are helping your children gain essential skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives. They learn day in and day out that choices really do mean consequences. The message that gets internalized slowly over time if we can consistently and lovingly follow through is: “What I choose will affect the course of my day” (and therefore my life, my relationships, etc.).
3. Natural consequences occur without our intervention and, when appropriate, are also instrumental in teaching our children valuable lessons. For example, you casually mention to your ten year old that it’s cold outside and recommend that he take a coat to school with him. He chooses not to and he gets cold. That’s not your problem. He’s the one getting cold.
You mention to your six year old that breakfast will be over in five minutes and she better eat if she’s hungry. In five minutes, you clean up the kitchen and your daughter gets hungry an hour later. She’ll survive and maybe remember next time that not eating means going hungry.
Your teen stays up unreasonably late and is too tired to get up in time for breakfast before school. Perhaps next time he’ll plan his time more carefully when he understands that late nights mean sleepy mornings and no breakfast. You don’t have to do a thing, except let natural consequences take their course. If you don’t rescue your children you allow them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
4. Knowing what language you want to use and when to use it can make or break your plan. Often in the heat of battle (or spontaneous outburst of defiance or challenge) we jump into our old patterns of trying to gain control. We yell, argue, or punish. It will be very helpful and empowering if you establish in advance what language you want to use in order to give your children the message that you mean business. By establishing your communication style you are also putting boundaries around how you will respond and, essentially, control yourself (a blessed relief when we’re always scrambling for the right way to handle ourselves and our kids during the heat of the moment).
Here are some good examples that frame choices with thinking words and questions:
Scenario 1. Your three year old is in tears, verging on a tantrum because she’s not getting what she wants (her older brother’s toy, a treat at the store, etc.). You establish for yourself what words you will use when offering choices. You ask an either/or question one time:
~Do you want to play quietly out here with your toys or play in your room? (When she refuses to stop crying you pick her up calmly and carry her to her room. You tell her one time that she can come out when she’s quiet).
~Do you want to quietly stay in the store or shall we go to the car until you’re quiet? Again, one choice one time. Then calmly carry her to the car with one statement about going back inside only when she’s quiet, then button it! If you remember that you’re firmly helping her learn thather choices bring her consequences then it will be easier to let go of your anger in these situations. Of course this approach takes time and you may just have to leave the store and return another time.
~Do you want to fall asleep quietly with the door open or do you need it closed while you cry?
Scenario 2. Sometimes, with older children, it’s more appropriate to offer if/then choices in place of a question. For example, your ten year old whines about doing homework because he wants to play a computer game instead.
~You offer the option to do what he wants to do only after he gets his homework done. You say something like “enjoy your game when your homework’s done.” Then button it! If he challenges you and you find yourself tempted to debate the matter, it helps to become a broken record by repeating your previous words one time only, “enjoy your game when your homework’s done”. If he argues at all, you calmly turn the game or computer off and walk away. No words, no explanation, no anger. Remember, you are discipling and training not punishing. Punishing only draws his attention to you and away from him and the consequence of his choice. It’s ok for him and the three year old mentioned above to make wrong choices and live with the consequences.
The value of letting our children live with the consequences of the choices they make comes with letting them hurt from the inside out. That’s when they learn best. In fact, you even welcome it, knowing that you’re going to loving use the experiences to allow your children to learn from their mistakes. Just be sure to not take away the lessons by explaining your actions!
~The same scenario can be applied to chores, etc.
The point is, your children will soon learn from your language that you mean business when offering one choice with one question only, or one if/then option that you simply won’t debate. When your children learn your language and approach and see you offer choices between two situations that they must choose between and you following-through faithfully and unemotionally with the consequences, they learn the mathematical formula of making choices and living with consequences: one plus one equals two. “If I choose this, this will happen but if I choose that, that will happen.”
Scenario 3. Your teenager comes in two hours past curfew. In real life, we don’t get grounded or lose our cell phones or stereos when we show up late to things. We have to make up the time, or worse, we lose an opportunity or get fired. For consequences to be applied successfully they must be logical. Your teen comes in late, causing you to worry for two hours, so he has to give you back two hours next time he wants to go out. Instead of getting the car at eight and coming home at midnight, he gets the car at ten and still has to come home at midnight. No fanfare. No yelling. “You took two hours from me and I want them back. Feel free to go out two hours late but still be back at midnight. Have a nice time.” No discussion, no anger, only choices and consequences, as best you can. Again, it will help to know your language and become a broken record if the push for debate arises (i.e. he starts to argue).
Why would you take this approach with a teenager instead of getting angry and punishing him? After all, anger happens in the real world too. The reason you take this approach is, simply, because it works and anger and punishment don’t. They really only create rebellion. By the time a teenager becomes a driving, independent teenager most of our parenting is already done. Holding our teens accountable with real logical consequences is one way to reinforce that the real world operates according to decisions and their results. When we do this we are giving them the message that, at least in relationship with us, it’s wise to choose wisely for they will have to live with the results.
5. Owning the problem. It’s important that parents draw a clear line regarding who owns what problem. We help our children own their own problems when we allow them the opportunity to fully experience their own feelings without appeasing or rescuing them. We must let them have their own disappointments and their own rewards. It’s our teens’ responsibility to own their own problems and find their own solutions. If they’re up late and are tired in the morning, is that your problem or theirs? If they skip a class and get an F on a test they have to take it up with the teacher – you don’t. Stand your ground and help them own their own problems.
When we give our teens the message that the logical consequence of their poor choice is our anger we interfere with the process of ownership. External voices (ours) draw teens away from the self-examination that leads to self-responsibility. Conversely, when we allow our teens to experience the consequences of their decisions, without the inclusion of our anger or our lecturing, we are encouraging the development of our teen’s own personal internal voice.
© Loretta Maase, M.A. All Rights Reserved. Loretta Maase, M.A., - Executive Director of Parent Rise. Ms. Maase has an undergraduate degree in child development and a Masters degree in Counseling, with a specialization in child development and parent-education. She is the author of 'The Parent Rise Connection' parenting program for single parents. As former Regional Director of two foster care agencies, clinical director of The Parenting Center of Albuquerque, and therapist in private practice, Ms. Maase has taught parent education to hundreds of parents since the 1980’s. She is the proud parent of two daughters, Lily and Arielle.