By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.
The parental control and socializing agenda discussed in the "A is for Authoritative parenting" tool couldn’t get very far without strong boundaries and a big campaign for independent functioning. A paradox in the boundary-making mission is that it relates to both protecting children from excessive freedom of action (e.g. rules related to curfews, bedtimes, and media exposure) and nudging children toward responsibility for independent action (e.g. rules related to chores, self-reliance, and expectations for autonomy).
Picture the long, rocky and wending road of child development. If we put fences up on either side, especially in the beginning, the child is likely to stay on track. But we want to remove these borders increasingly so that the child can negotiate the road independently. The child will fall down, go off-track, and encounter many obstacles, but by managing these dilemmas and problem-solving opportunities with our assistance when needed, the child will develop increasing competencies.
Throughout my career I’ve been asked the question, “How does a parent know how much freedom and responsibility to give children as they grow up?” Obviously, there is no “one size fits all” answer, because children vary so much in the independence they can benefit from and handle responsibly. Of course age is a factor, but children who have built-in (biologically-based) abilities to self-manage can handle surprising amounts of independence while others with novelty-seeking, rambunctious personalities often require a taxing amount of parental supervision and monitoring.
The word “boundaries” refers to limits both in behavioral and interpersonal realms. In the parenting world, it refers to setting limits on children’s rights and privileges, establishing rules and structure, and protecting children from excessive and harmful freedom or indulgence. In the psychology community, personal boundaries refer to the emotional and physical distance between people that can run the gamut from too detached to overly-enmeshed.
Parents with firm parent-child boundaries (neither rigid and detached, nor permeable and enmeshed) are capable of making the best decisions about behavioral boundaries for their children because they are involved and empathic parents but don’t get overwhelmed by absorbing their children’s emotions. To be effective with carrying out most childrearing responsibilities, parents need firm personal boundaries so they can stay calm while enforcing rules and discipline even when their kids exhibit typical negative emotions or tantrums.
Providing boundaries and encouraging independence are tightly connected parenting goals. Children become competent by having rules and limits about behavioral expectations, and they survive and thrive by being both protected from too much and pushed toward enough independent functioning. Parenting involves a constant weighing of costs, benefits and risks when figuring out the balance of boundaries and freedom for each individual child.
By providing behavioral limits and structure throughout childhood, children internalize boundaries and become increasingly responsible. External rules ideally become internal rules as the child becomes socialized over the years. Naturally related to this goal is the degree to which parents create boundaries for themselves, e.g. rules for their own conduct, self-management, and values-based life style. In other words, parents need to be self-organized in order to organize their children!
Let’s take the example of creating boundaries and encouraging independent functioning during morning routines. It’s a good idea to establish a regimented schedule in which family members follow the same routine every morning with age-appropriate expectations for waking, dressing, chores, breakfast and preparation for the timely exit for school.
When children go wayward with their morning routine, parents need to prioritize the boundary agenda to get things back on course. Optimal guidance involves positive support, patience and consistency. When nagging or arguments take over, parents need to devise more positive strategies. Nagging is likely to backfire, result in less compliance and worsen the morning wars. To employ more successful approaches, parents can instigate star charts or rewards temporarily to get the independent behaviors up and running again.
Another approach to morning course correction can be “natural consequences”. For instance, a consequence for the teenager who ignored his alarm clock and missed the bus can be that he must ride his bike to school, even if it makes him very late and suffer the detention penalty. This handy boundary-making exercise (i.e. the parent sets a limit by refusing to be the alarm clock, the hustler and the shepherd) can work wonders for increasing teen compliance and independent functioning. However, many parents can’t tolerate their kid’s freak out, the detention consequence or the bad grade in the first class of the day.
A mom I know imposed this consequence once last year with her sophomore. Her daughter pitched a fit and loathed biking in the rain, but never again slept through the alarm or lagged through the morning routine. An alternative natural consequence for a younger child might be chores to pay back mom for her cab service to school—say, 15 minutes of weeding or housework for every minute it takes to drive—after all, there is the hassle, return trip and gas to pay for too.
The parent who refuses to be the teen’s alarm clock illustrates the link between setting boundaries for children and a firm parent-child interpersonal boundary. The parent who prioritizes the rocky road of building self-management over the road more easily taken (which would be avoiding the intervention) has a strong internal boundary between herself and the child. The teen screams “I hate you” as she bikes away to school and the mom remembers the importance of “getting to calm”. She self-soothes by reassuring herself that: (1) It is her job to teach her child about responsibility; (2) She has a good enough relationship with her daughter to withstand some temporary loathing; and (3) She needs to avoid resenting her daughter for what is normal teen sluggishness, even if it has gotten out of control lately. This parent tolerates the short term cost of a pretty bad day for the long term reward of building greater responsibility in the teen.
Since sloppy habits are part and parcel of everyday life with kids, parenting involves a steady practice of tightening up boundaries or making adjustments—be it boundaries about belated bedtimes, homework fights, potty mouths, lapses with chores or cheating on screen time limits. Setting boundaries can result in aversive stuff in the short-term—like wrath in the child or big life disarray—so much so that parents frequently end up taking the easy way out by avoiding and postponing this necessary task. Sadly, everyone loses in this scenario—the children become indulged, incompetent and irresponsible, and the parents dislike what they see in their children and themselves.
Boundary decisions are part of every aspect of childrearing. When should we let the toddler negotiate stairs on her own? When should he be encouraged to ride a bike, and how far, and where? When should children be allowed (or pushed) to walk to school? When should they ride buses to their music lessons instead of having their parents schlep them? How much independence do you give children who never opt to check, edit or review their homework? How much supervision do you give a child who has just acquired access to Facebook or a cell phone? What do you do when your 17 year old claims that all the parties involve alcohol? As much as we want to protect our children by holding them close and preventing risks, children do not develop competencies clutched in our arms.
In consultations with parents, I pose this question: “What is best for your child in terms of expanding competencies while also protecting him or her from harm?” Then we examine the child’s issues (e.g. track record with independent functioning, temperament strengths and weaknesses, desirable next goals for competence-building), parent issues (e.g. philosophies about child-rearing and attitudes about independence and protection, anxieties and fears, conflicts between parents about these issues, cultural norms) and circumstantial issues (e.g. perceptions about danger in neighborhood and school, available opportunities for expanding independence, peer dynamics, etc.).
These family and context factors determine perceptions about what is desirable for the child’s independent travel related to stairs, bikes, buses, homework, cyberspace and dubious parties. A rule of thumb can be letting out the boundary leash as the child demonstrates increasing levels of competence and pulling it back in when the child messes up. For instance, if the child doesn’t stick to agreements about cell phone use or visits to the mall, privileges are revoked and rules are made stricter temporarily. Children range in their appetites for independence—some want more and some want less. Parents will be holding back the bucking broncos and nudging forward their timid tortoises.
A big fly (or beehive) in the ointment occurs when parents disagree or when parents’ personal baggage derails their measured approach to deciding on how to adjust the leash. In other words, the question of “what’s in the interest of the child” gets mired and muddled in the mishmash of messy human life.
Anxious, overprotective parents often have difficulty with the premise that children may need to struggle, suffer or make big mistakes as an intrinsic part of developing self-reliance. It is one of those strange twists in parenting that anxious parents who are motivated to do the very best for their children end up placing their children at risk by trying to prevent risk.
The process of creating, maintaining and adjusting behavioral boundaries for children requires enormous energy, vigilance and tenacity. Parents who stick with rules and routines while staying positive and supportive are truly practicing the fine art of exquisite child-rearing. Above all, a huge amount of parental self-discipline is involved in prioritizing the boundary agenda—we need to impose on ourselves and our kids the “short term costs” of incurring bad days and bad moods for the long term benefit of building competent kids. No wonder the rocky road is often the one less travelled. But the slog is worth it—there is nothing more gratifying than helping children to develop into competent young people.