Has parenting changed all that much in the past millennium? Along with many other advances in society, it certainly has. Now is a good time to look at the past, the present, and decide on a direction for the future. The practice of parenting needs some attention. What have we missed and how should we proceed?
The past thousand years have not been kind to children. For most of the past millennium the phrase “Children are meant to be seen and not heard”, was literal. Additionally, all child-rearing practices prior to this century included regular beatings of children. Children were thought to be born evil and needed the devil beaten out of them. Many children perished and continue to do so as a result of this philosophy. Those children did not do the awful things that children are doing today, however the adults grown from these practices certainly did. Though there were no school shootings, there were witch-hunts, public torture, killings and rampant domestic violence led by the adults and observed by the children.
In the last 100-200 years our view of children has begun to change. The prevailing philosophy of some (certainly not all) is that children are born good, and that with respect, nurturing, and loving guidance, they can become well rounded, responsible, successful adults. This is a new concept, never before tested in industrialized society. Has it been working? The results appear to be mixed. On the one hand, we have children succeeding in school, creating businesses, and advocating causes. We also have kids killing others. Children are more capable of expressing their feelings and opinions, verbalizing wisdom and perception beyond our belief. Children are also displaying unprecedented disrespect and disregard towards parents and others.
It appears that we are at a critical point. Should we turn back and reclaim the past, or forge ahead with new ideas into the future? If we choose to continue pursuing this new philosophy of parenting, we need to focus on understanding its effect on children and our responsibility in giving them the full benefit of its potential.
In the past 50 or 75 years North Americans have lived in and through a number of “therapy” models that are based upon blaming all of our problems on our upbringing, on the care or lack thereof provided by parents during childhood. So, if I’m a 50 year old alcoholic it is probably because of that time my Mother set me backwards on the potty. And I’ve been doing things backwards ever since! Or, maybe it was because they paid more attention to my sister. But, it ain’t my fault! Somebody else is to blame.
Many people – male and female – experiencing long-term behavioral problems often can trace their problems to incidents involving something a parent did or said that was so significant or traumatic to them at that time of their life that their very personalities altered. In most cases the incidents involved the Mother. Sometimes the Father, but usually the Mother. Although this seems a major indictment of Motherhood there is an explanation
- Mothers are usually the primary caregivers during the essential formative years. In those cases kids learn to think like their Moms and act like their Dads.
- Mothers generally have great concern for the safety and wellbeing of their kids, and they try to protect them through control and guilt.
- Sometimes they live through their kids, pushing them toward goals and achievements they dreamed of for themselves.
This is not to say that Mothers deliberately set out to ruin the lives of their kids — except for those few mothers who are psychopaths! In fact, most parents want more for their kids than they had. No matter what the kids want. My fears and concerns get pushed onto my kids. Because they are mine, they must want what I want. And if they disappoint me, well it must be because they don’t understand how much I have invested in them (emotionally). So, if they really loved me (or us) they would perform properly. Therefore the application of sufficient guilt and / or physical punishment is called for.
From concern, caring, and protectiveness (love), on the part of the parent, comes behavior that can be a major event in a kid’s psyche. Powerful enough to cause them severe behavior problems for many years, maybe even forever!
What is to be done about it? Outlaw parents? Raise kids in government run communes? Or should we teach people to take responsibility for their own actions – regardless of the hand they were dealt in life?
WHAT? BE RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR ACTIONS EVEN WHEN THERE IS SOMEONE ELSE TO BLAME??
Why not? Perhaps, just perhaps, if I learned to only do those things that are in my own best interest I wouldn’t suffer from guilt, anxiety, inferiority, or even drinking, drugging or eating to “deal” with my problems. Maybe, if I took responsibility for my own thoughts and actions I could learn to feel better about myself.
But, and this is the big but, who is going to teach us? By the time most of us become aware that our compensating behaviors are not working we are generally parents ourselves and most of us have had one or more intimate relationship that has been destroyed. I guess that is where responsibility for self comes into it. This is where we get to pick our own direction and work at becoming who we want to be.
And, as our Mothers (and maybe our Fathers) probably told us “do what you want, as long as what you want to do is not deliberately hurtful or harmful to yourself or anyone else“.
We operate as a “smart system” that is capable of evaluating for our needs and determining what to do in order to meet those needs. Once we build our library of activities and events that will help us meet our needs our “smart system” will evaluate and choose the best option(s).
Because no other person can live my life for me, it follows that I am the one person on this planet who can restore my own dignity and self-respect. No one else can do that for me.
Let’s look at 4 aspects of the new parenting philosophy and see how we can improve the results.
- Children are born good. The change in belief from children being evil to children being inherently good comes from simply looking at your newborn baby and seeing the perfection, innocence and complete dependence their vulnerability creates. This is the basis for unconditional love and the concept “address the behavior, not the child”. Anything “bad” or “evil” is a result of the child’s reaction to events in its environment or biochemical unbalances in their system. When our children misbehave, it is important to remember the goodness in them is temporarily distorted and that they are discouraged. Discipline from the viewpoint, “I love you and I know you are a good person, this behavior is inappropriate, here is a better way”.
- Treat children and ourselves with respect. One of the greatest errors made by parents that are respectful of their children is that they forget respect for themselves in the process. This error may be one of the main reasons for the disrespect we see in children. YES! It is important that we respect our children, talk with respect, listen to them, and acknowledge their feelings and ideas. However, if we do this without taking care of our needs, it creates children that think the world is here to serve them, and they become utterly disrespectful of others in the process. To improve this we need to take good care of our needs by placing firm, loving limits on children’s incessant demands. The opportunity for growth is changing from only respecting the child to an idea of mutual respect.
- Nurturing our children. To nurture is to educate, rear and nourish. In the larger perspective nurture is “the various environmental forces, which combined, act on an organism and further its existence”. Various environmental forces? Could this be the answer to the mixed results we get in being a nurturing parent? The horrors our children are exposed to at such a young, vulnerable age through media violence and the reality of the news are nurturing them. We must seriously consider the impact this has on our children and what we can do. There is no past, wisdom to depend on; we parents must decide how it ought to be handled. We need to protect them from what we can by monitoring their exposure, and more importantly, being heavily involved in their interpretation of the things that they do see and hear.
- Providing loving guidance. The most important idea for the emerging parenting philosophy to succeed, is our deep involvement in our children’s lives. We must guide them through their childhood with time, patience and dedication to their emotional health. If we spend time with our children when they watch TV or play video games, we are much more likely to pick up on their clues that something is wrong. If a news report is scary, we need to be there to discuss it with our child and help them understand. When they act out in frustration, we need to take the time to look more deeply into their discouragement and help them sort through what is wrong.
Let us proceed with faith that we can become the kind of parents that hope and dream for our children, at the same time realize our limitations and challenges. We can inspire our children to believe in themselves by our compassion and loving guidance. Most of all we need to realize that in order for this new parenting philosophy to work, we must spend a great deal more time influencing our children. This is the most important task we will accomplish in our life, let’s do it well!
The increasing distance between parents and children is generally caused by the parents focus on self-gratification, material wealth and personal fulfillment. This becomes a combination of neglect and indulgence – cause and effect. Today, parents are so often absent that they appear reluctant to assume the authority that is not only necessary to parent effectively but is also their solemn obligation to their children. A fallout of this situation is referred to as “stupid trusting”.
One serious concept most parents have wrong is the issue of trust. These parents have the impression that “love” means always having trust. A silly, and dangerous, notion.
When parents have reason – whether from something they’ve heard, seen, or just sensed – to question their child’s behavior they are often immobilized to follow through lest the child accuse them of not trusting. The fear of that accusation virtually provokes paralysis, causing them to ignore problems concerning inappropriate behavior – illegal acts, sex, drugs, cheating, skipping school, smoking, eating disorders, pornography on the internet, and others.
These parents have said they didn’t see how they could do anything, because they would have to admit to “prying” into the privacy of their children. Because their children would never trust them again.
So, rather than risk their children getting mad at them, they risk their children’s lives!
This mentality reflects a belief that children are the equals of their parents, just shorter; that children, whose every need is met by their parents, are somehow entitled to equal standing when it comes to their own opinions, decisions, activities and privacy.
Those who accept the responsibility are entitled to the power. Since parents shoulder the entire responsibility for the life and continued wellbeing of dependent minor children, the parent holds the power. Children only have power at the pleasure of the adult – who measures it out to the child as a function of maturity (the ability and willingness not to be impulsive and to follow rules), trustworthiness (gained by opportunities handled appropriately) and circumstances (people, places and things involving minimum risk).
Trust is a very different concept as it relates to the child or the parent. When a child in a typical family talks about trusting a parent, he generally means that the parent will give or do whatever is promised, in spite of any, or all, intervening circumstances. For instance, a teenager may complain of no longer trusting one or the other parent. The reason could be because the parent promised the teenager extra money for doing some specific chore and didn’t pay up. Of course, the fact that money became scarce in the household due to financial troubles was irrelevant to the teenager. And, that is the point. For this teenager, trusting a parent means getting what was promised – a self-centered concern.
Contrast that to the essence of a trustworthy parent. A parent must be trusted to be alert and aware of the behavior, emotions, activities and problems of their children. A parent needs to be responsive to the needs and events in the lives of their children. A parent must be trusted to discipline, teach, direct and even punish, when necessary, to help the children develop character.
It is important to notice that the things that make a parent trustworthy are not self-centered but child-centered. That is because the parent is responsible for the child, while the child is responsible to the parent.
A responsible parent will use any and all means to gain the information needed, if the child is off-track. While daily snooping in their child’s things is wrong, destructive to the relationship with the child, and indicative of some problems of their own that needs attention. However, where there is an indication that something might be wrong, or where there is intent to follow up to make sure things stay on track, the parent has a moral responsibility to that child to get that information.
When parents are not compulsively bugging a child for no good reason, and the child complains about “their” things and “their” space and “their” privacy being invaded, the child needs to learn that the possessive pronoun “mine” is not completely accurate. All the children have, including their own lives, is by the grace of their parents and God.
During the developmental stage of 2-4 years of age, children are supposed to push boundaries, manipulate, and tease. This how they learn how much power and control they have in their world. It is not something bad that has to be stopped. Children are supposed to do it. It is not your job as a parent to stop the teasing and manipulating. It is your job to handle the teasing and manipulating in ways so that you stay detached and it allows that stage to come and go in its natural progression.
Staying detached means keeping your emotions in check. Avoid getting angry. Avoid getting frustrated. Avoid adding you emotions to your children’s. Kids have enough of their own emotions without parents adding theirs to the mix. Children need parents to remain calm, loving and firm. If you understand that the pushing and manipulation are a normal part of development, it will help you to stay detached. It’s how children learn.
CHILDREN’S SOCIAL INTEREST
Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was an Austrian psychiatrist who worked with Sigmund Freud. In 1911, Adler broke with Freud to set up his own theory of psychology, which he called “individual Psychology.” In 1920 he became director of the first children’s psychology clinic in Vienna. He advocated social equality for all people, all races and for women and children too. Equality here means the rights of dignity and respect.
There are several interesting points he made that are relevant and important in the area of parenting.
- We are all social beings with the need to belong. Our children also have this need to belong. Early childhood is a time when our children are learning how to belong. Positive ways of belonging are contribution and cooperation. We want our kids to feel, “I belong by contributing” and “I am interested in cooperating.”
- We all need to feel significant, useful, valuable and important. Our children, too. Our job as parents is to help our children feel significant, important and worthwhile in a positive, meaningful way.
- We all need to find our place. Once again – so, too, our children. Initially infants and young children find their place in the family. Then, as they grow, they find their place with the neighbors, at church, in scouts, in Little League, in school, etc. Later on we find our place in the community, in our work and in our love relationships. We want our children to find an important and positive place in their world.
Belonging and significance are key ideas in Adlerian psychology. Adler wrote that social interest is having a true, caring concern for other people, and a real desire to make a contribution to society. What we really understand about crime is an intentional injury of others for one’s own advantage. Obviously, then, the problem concerns human beings in whom social interest is not sufficiently developed, wrote Adler in 1935.
Concerning children raised with social interest, he wrote, “A child so trained will feel himself to be a part of a whole, a member who lives with, works with, and plays with other members, and who regard first the small tasks of his childhood and later the greatest tasks of his maturity in only one way – by asking himself this question, “What can I contribute?” An individual so trained in early childhood will never show criminal tendencies, even when the pressure of external circumstances becomes as severe as it is today when so many are failing.” (Remember, this was written more than 60 years ago).
Instilling a feeling of social interest in our children is crucial in parenting today. Raising children today is no easy undertaking. Parents need to help their children gain a feeling of belonging and significance, along with a care, concern, and contribution to others – social interest.
Your city is no different from any other North American city. Kids join gangs because they have an undeniable need to belong.
Meaningful contribution to the welfare and well-being of others is a wonderful, powerful, way to gain a sense of belonging and significance in one’s life. Our children too!
A Challenge to You
1. Looking back at your childhood, did your parents really listen to you? If not, what did they do that kept you from sharing with them?
2. Think about a time that your youngster shared his/her feelings and you did not really accept them. Go to them and try to discuss those feelings with them now.
In many recovery programs, the acronym HALT is used to remind individuals when they are not taking care of themselves. Our internal conditions can cause us to react to life’s circumstances in a negative way. HALT is a method of checking in with yourself and determining if you are too:
H – Hungry
A – Angry
L – Lonely
T – Tired.
If any of these fit, it is recommended that you get this handled and then come back to deal with the situation…in a more positive manner. This week, catch yourself when you are reacting to things in a negative way. Ask yourself if you need to HALT and take care of something within yourself before you continue interaction with your family or other relationships.
III. A HEALTHY FAMILY IS…
When partners see differences as desirable, struggle as beneficial, and grief as necessary.
When partners never press the other to change, yet by probity, stir them towards it.
When neither accepts that which is not given with an open hand.
When each can turn to the other for whatever is urgently needed and appreciate whatever is available.
When love is neither a plan nor a commitment, but only a consequence of who we are to each other.
And when there are children…
When personal language (NO!: I want -I don’t want: I like-I don’t like: I will-I won’t) is the cornerstone of conversation: taught, appreciated and encouraged by example alone.
When the home is shaped by the reality of who each is and not according to an ideal of how a house should look and a family should behave.
When parents know that a child’s deepest instincts and greatest unconscious desires are to cooperate, to please, and to respond in kind.
When parents know that all disturbed or disturbing behavior comes from the frustration or blocking of these deepest desires – in all of us.
PARENTS ARE BLAMED, BUT SELDOM TRAINED
Parents are often blamed for the mistakes of their children, but very few parents ever receive formal training for the most important role of their lives: helping their youngsters to become responsible, confident adults. An even sadder fact is that many parents do not realize the need for formal training to enable them to become effective parents. Most parents either do exactly what their parents did, or the complete opposite because they hated so much what was done to them. Parents need to utilize parenting strategies or tools that have proven to be effective and positive.
Many parents today feel overwhelmed by the culture and more helpless than their parents. Being a successful parent today seems to be much more demanding than at any other time in the history of North America. The reasons for this are many: youngsters are exposed to a violent society with weakening sexual morals through many hours of television viewing, magazines and newspapers; drugs and alcohol are more available today; the divorce rate is higher; more mothers are working outside the home and our society is more mobile resulting in less support from an extended family. Children used to look at ministers, teachers, neighbors and heroes as leaders. Now they look to the Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, rap groups and celebrities pushing sneakers as their role models. It’s what makes childraising harder. It’s not just that parents have less time to spend with their kids, it’s that they have to spend more of their time doing battle with their own culture.
Most parents look upon the teenage years with a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety; anticipating rebellion and worry about their teens becoming victims of our society. A solid foundation for parenting teenagers is laid in the early years of a youngster’s life. Successful parenting requires skills or tools and those skills can be learned. A key time period for parents to begin to refine their parenting strategies is the time immediately preceding the teenage years. All parents can benefit from learning some new skills for relating to teenagers. Your task as a parent will be much easier and you will feel more confident in your role as you acquire new tools or strategies.
When adults have trouble fixing a car or sewing a dress, they will readily consider whether or not they have the right tools. However, when dealing with youngsters, it is easier to blame them when things do not go right, rather than look at ourselves. Most parents lack the tools to go the distance in parenting. As well, parents also bring hidden factors with them from their childhood. These hidden factors will interfere with their ability to apply the parenting tools consistently and effectively. Hidden factors can also cause parents to become over emotional and too angry when dealing with their youngsters.
There is a story about the guy at the river who kept swimming out to save people who were drowning. After several rescues a large crowd had gathered, but at the next cry for help, he simply walked away. When the crowd encouraged him to save this person, he replied, “No! I’m going to go upstream and teach them how to swim.”
Whether you are drowning at this point or need to learn to swim (learning parenting strategies), don’t delay in acquiring parenting tools. Don’t delay in learning how to deal with your hidden factors effectively. Some parents are doing well now, when the waters are calm; but do you have enough skills and tools to deal with your youngsters when the waters become rougher?
A Challenge to You:
1. What is your attitude about the need for parents to receive training to be effective parents?
2. Are you open to learning some new ideas that will make life easier for you and your youngsters?
3. What did your parents do that you liked? What did they do that you didn’t like?
IV. INSTANT PARENTS?
With our busy lives, we often look to short term, easy answers for everything. We have fast food, computers, the latest gadget or gizmo to save us time, money or stress. Many of these new ideas are great and do make our lives easier. The area of raising our children, however, is quite a different matter.
Our approach to discipline often tends be “single event oriented”. Take the example of a child who does not get ready for school on time. We might yell, nag, threaten and have a rotten morning every day. This pattern usually ends up with the parent as responsible for the child’s behavior. This causes the parent to use some sort of force or control to get the child out the door on a regular basis. If we instead take a long-term approach, we will realize there are many opportunities for teaching the child skills that will benefit them in the long run. These skills will also serve to lighten our burden of being responsible for something the child can most likely be responsible for himself.
One example is a mom and 7 year old daughter. She was having the “morning trauma” and decided to take a new approach. She turned over the responsibility of getting ready in the morning to her daughter, including getting up (she gave her an alarm and taught her to use it), getting dressed and fixing herself breakfast. With these new responsibilities, she gained a sense of pride and accomplishment. She became motivated to cooperate because of the feeling of worth and value she felt inside. The mother, so relieved to have this burden lifted, showers her daughter with gratitude and acknowledgment for her contribution. The mother reports that the morning routine is working well almost every day.
Another example is from a mom of 5. Her 16 year old son comes home from school, into her home office to tell her about his day. She listens to him while she works. There was no problem here. The kid is a very agreeable, well-behaved kid. The mother realized she had not been giving him her full attention. She decided to take an extra moment, stop her work, turn her chair around and listen when her son shared about his day. She said that she noticed, each day she did this, what he had to say became deeper, more meaningful, more vulnerable, as he began to open his heart to his mom.
One parent reported as follows, “I have noticed there has been a great deal more “wildness” in my home. Perhaps it’s all the teacher in-service days, or holidays, or being stuck inside from the rain, but I have definitely noticed my patience and tolerance has been decreasing. Last Sunday, I was observing my children (at 7am), yelling, playing, fighting, running around and appearing to be misbehaving (all that noise? They must be doing something wrong!). I wanted to scream at them to knock it off. In reality, they were just bored and trying to have fun.”
Raising our children is not just about discipline – that is, getting the behavior we want. Raising children also involves teaching them values, skills and responsibility. Raising children involves teaching children how to handle relationships, how to live a happy, prosperous life and how to make sure to honor and respect the lives of others.
Guiding children’s behavior as they grow is the very essence of teaching children all they need to know to learn to be responsible, happy adults (and to be great parents themselves)! It is our job to take time and thought to achieve that result – even though it takes a great deal more effort at first, the results are worth it!
V. THE KEYS TO SELF-ESTEEM
Being a parent is one of the most important and demanding jobs some of us will ever undertake. At the least parents need to provide shelter, clothing, good nutrition, medical care and, if possible, a savings for college. Just as important, parents need to instill a solid sense of high self-esteem in their children.
High self-esteem is a positive feeling based on self -acceptance, self-respect and self-love. It is accompanied by specialness, worthwhileness, appreciation, safety, personal power, belonging and gratitude. It’s not arrogance or conceit or self-centeredness. It’s a sense of “I’m glad I’m me!“
Self-esteem is the bedrock upon which the rest of life is built. The first few years of life are of paramount importance for instilling a foundation of high self-regard and belief in oneself. Parents can do many things to encourage this self-respect and courage in their children:
- First, parents need to love, respect and accept themselves just as they are right now. That love flows over to their children who then learn self-love and are able to love others.
- Second, parents need to love their children unconditionally, just as they are, no matter what. Parents can let their children feel loved, while disciplining unwanted behavior. Children who are loved unconditionally are able to trust and grow into emotionally healthy adults who feel self-confident, worthwhile and able to love others.
- Third, parents can be models of positive self-talk. Self-talk is the continual monologue running through our minds. A parent with a “can-do” attitude shows a child how to handle the bumps and bruises of life. Do we encourage ourselves, or do we put ourselves down? How is our self-esteem? We can let our children hear us say to ourselves, “I can do this!” Our children learn how to treat themselves by watching how we treat ourselves. Be kind and encouraging to yourself.
Fourth, parents can teach their children affirmations that will enable them to believe in themselves. One mother taught her children to say out loud or silently, “I am happy, healthy, beautiful and smart.” Another affirmation her family uses is “I am lovable and capable.” The result is that she is raising optimistic courageous children who believe in themselves.
- Fifth, parents can teach their children that mistakes are for learning. Criticizing is not a solution – it is just criticizing. When we learn from our mistakes, we gain confidence and wisdom. Teach children to learn the lesson and go on.
- Sixth, parents can recognize and respect each child’s uniqueness. Comparing is not a solution, although it often leads to competition and resentment. Appreciate that each child is unique. Children’s self-esteem increases dramatically when you know they value their uniqueness. This helps them learn to value themselves.
- Last, parents need to help their children feel successful. It’s important to take the time necessary to train children how to do things well. Noticing children’s efforts and improvement builds self-esteem.
Helping to build healthy self-esteem in our children is very similar to loving them. All the different ways we show our children love also increases their self-esteem. As parents, we are in the position of being able to be an incredible influence in the emotional and spiritual lives of our children. To help a child build their self-esteem is to make a powerful difference in his or her life, and ultimately the world.
If we could truly help develop self-esteem in our children, parenting would become a great deal more manageable (and fun!) In order for that to happen, a few preparations must be made:
- We need, as parents, to have good self-esteem ourselves, to feel valuable and competent. How often do we find ourselves angry with a child because WE are late, or disorganized, or feeling out of control? We need to be accountable and not blame (or take it out on) our children when we can’t find our keys and are running late again. This will help win their respect and teach them how to take responsibility for their behavior. Children can be very good problem solvers (of our problems as well as theirs) because they are open to new approaches. Ask their advice about how to avoid the same problem next time. It may even result in extra cooperation, for they have an area in which they can truly feel valuable.
- We, also as parents, need to follow the golden rule and treat our children as we would want to be treated. Courtesy, respect, acceptance, a willingness to listen – these will all enhance the parent/child relationship. Children can only learn these qualities if we have modeled them first
- Finally, try putting yourself in your child’s place – often! Get down on the floor if it helps. Try to remember those days full of wishes and little power to attain them. Think of how passionate they can be about things that seem trivial to us. Be willing to say yes more often. Spend that one-on-one time really listening to how they feel, about anything and everything. Take advantage of breakfast together, going out for ice cream, a ride to soccer practice, a good night talk with the lights out and really connect. The more in tune you are with your child, the less trouble you will have with cooperation and feeling the need for gaining control.
- Shower your children with encouragement and enthusiasm and enjoy the time you spend together. It all goes by so fast. In the movie “Hook”, the father is so busy with his business that his wife admonishes, “Be careful – you’re missing it!” Enjoy the now with your children. These are the good times!
Six Ways To Help Your Child Build Self-Esteem
1. Let your child hear you acknowledge something she has done in front of another adult.
2. Let your child order his own meal and purchase his own ticket.
3. Leave an encouraging message on the answering machine and have him listen to it.
4. Let your child pick out your earrings or necktie. When old enough, have her pick out your outfit and wear it that day.
5. Don’t accept sloppy work from your child. HOWEVER be light and/or humorous rather than judgmental in your approach to the matter.
6. After you have corrected your child, take a moment to ask your child what he heard. Children often hear, “You don’t love me” or “I am bad” rather than the message you intended.
VI. SETTING LIMITS
What are limits? Limits tell your family under what condition you are willing or unwilling to do something. They tell your family where you “draw the line.” They tell them what you will or will not tolerate. Their purpose of limits is to take care of you. Limits are not designed to control or manipulate someone else’ behavior. Here are three examples:
Example 1. A mother was playing basketball with her two teenage sons. The boys were getting competitive and soon the game was not being fun. Mother announced, “It is not fun for me when you two fight. When you are ready to make it fun again, come and get me. I’d love to play again.“
Example 2. One parent was holding hands roller-skating with her daughter. She said in a very demanding tone of voice, “Skate faster!” This wasn’t the first time Mom had noticed that her daughter was being demanding so she said, “I am unwilling to have you talk like that to me. It makes me feel like not cooperating with you and if you continue, I will skate by myself.“
Example 3. A daughter asked her mother to take her to the video store and rent her a movie. Her daughter had already spent her allowance that week. Mom said, “I’d be willing to take you to the video store but, I am unwilling to rent you a movie.“
Limits give others important information about you to help them know what they can or cannot expect from you. They are about you. Not about criticizing someone else’s behavior or about trying to make them act in a certain way.
Why do children need limits?
1. Children need you to set limits so that they can recognize and respect other people’s limits.
2. Limits provide a sense of security. When children don’t know your limits, they feel lost in an abyss. They feel confused and sometimes literally bounce around trying to find some. Limits make children feel like we care about them. Children who are raised without limits often feel abandoned.
3. Children need limits to learn how to deal with conflict. *What happens when someone tells me I have overstepped their limits? *What happens when someone disrespects mine?
4. Children need limits to help them define themselves. They help them clarify their own limits because they have seen your model. Limits help them to learn what is socially acceptable and what is not.
5. Children need to learn that if they go past a certain point, there will be consequences. Some of them may be serious.
What issues need limits?
You may want to set limits about the use of your belongings, TV watching, bedtime, curfew, your time, the use of profanity, mealtime, chores, care and feeding of pets. This is not a conclusive list. Make a list of important issues for you.
How do we know when our limits are being violated?
The best clue to determine whether or not you limits are being violated is by being in touch with your feelings. If any of the following feelings sound familiar you know your limits are being dishonored. Or that you are not being clear about them:
• anger, resentment, impositioned, smothered, taken advantage of, abused,
• like you are pulling more than your fair share of the weight, unappreciated,
• like you are being divided between two people you love,
• taken for granted, a child taxi cab driver, wondering what about me?
Why do we have a difficult time setting limits?
Our ability to set and follow through with limit setting will be largely determined by how you were parented as a child. If you were in any of the following situations, setting limits may be difficult for you:
• Not having any limits as a child; being unsupervised
• Being told messages like, “Don’t make waves,” “Children are to be seen and not heard” “You are being selfish.”
• If you were told it wasn’t “nice” to assert yourself.
• If there was abuse in home – either mental, physical, emotional, sexual, drug and alcohol – or work.
• If there was someone in your family that you had to give up your needs for because they were sick or disabled.
• If self-sacrifice was modeled and expected of you.
• If intimidation was used to motivate you.
• Sometimes we don’t set limits because we don’t feel we deserve them. Or we feel guilty about our own actions such as, working too much or getting a divorce.
What we do instead of setting limits?
We often choose one of the following behaviors rather than setting limits because we are afraid of creating conflict. We are afraid the other person will get angry or leave us, or reject us. We may even feel that what we say or do will not make a difference anyway. Instead of directly setting limits we sometimes indirectly handle these situations by:
• Denial (Acting or pretending as though it didn’t happen)
• Ignore it and hope it’ll go away
• Talk yourself out of how you are feeling (I shouldn’t feel that way because … )
• Making excuses for the other person’s behavior (He only said that because he was tired.)
• Ruminating about the issue (Going over and over the event in your mind, trying to make sense of it.)
• Blame someone else
• Blame yourself (if I had only done … he wouldn’t act this way.)
• Getting even
• Hiding behind righteousness (I’m above having those feelings.)
• Pretending that you don’t care
• Withholding your love or your communication
What can we expect when we start setting limits?
When you first start setting limits, you can expect that your child’s behavior will get worse. They will test you. They will try everything in their power to get you to go back to the way you used to be. So, make sure your seat belt is fastened. You may be going for a ride!
Steps for setting limits
1. Honor your feelings. Remember feelings are neither right or wrong. They just are.
2. Get clear about what you want. What you are and are not willing to do.
3. Present the information to your family member using an “I” statement. For example, “I am unwilling to wash clothes that are not in the hamper.” There should be no blame, shame, guilt, exaggerations or complaining. Do this step as soon as possible to prevent an unnecessary build up of resentment.
4. Be ready to “stick to your guns.” Be consistent and follow through.
VII. “I” MESSAGES
One man recently explained how hard it had been for him to learn to express his feelings. “At first,” he said, “it would usually sound like, ‘I feel you should take the trash out’ or ‘I feel you’re really depressed.‘” He has since learned a great deal about feelings. However, he discovered that early on, sharing what he thought were his feelings was actually masking his attempts to control others.
Too true. How often, when we are learning new skills for growth and self-care, do we inadvertently misuse or mishandle them? Case in point: “I” messages.
A well-intended communications tool, “I” messages are frequently used incorrectly and often with negative results.
Briefly, “I” messages are recommended as a way of taking responsibility for one’s own feelings in conflict situations. Generally beginning with the word “I,” they offer an alternative to the more destructive “You-messages” that attack, blame, or advise someone else. For example, “I” messages allow us to say, “I’m angry that this room is a mess,” instead of “You kids are such inconsiderate slobs!” or “You make me so angry!” In this sense, “I” messages are a giant step forward in healthy interactions. Likewise, saying, “I’m really sad my friend is moving,” or “I’m too angry to call her back now,” demonstrates honest and responsible ownership of one’s state of mind.
So what’s the problem?
We get into trouble when we attempt to use “I” messages to control or change someone. There is also some danger when “I” messages suggest that the other person’s behavior is responsible for our feelings. Telling a child, for example, that “I feel sad when you get poor grades” may be a true assessment of your feelings, but it implies that your feelings are the result of your child’s behavior and, in this case, that your happiness depends on his report card.
We certainly don’t want to burden our children with the overwhelming-and impossible-responsibility for our happiness and well-being. Remember that personal growth and self-responsibility typically involve learning to separate who we are and how we feel about ourselves from other people’s behaviors. The tendency to connect our serenity to our children’s choices, achievements, or appearance leaves us continually vulnerable to all sorts of things we can’t control.
Part of changing destructive patterns of enmeshment requires changing patterns of the language we use when we speak to one another. Perhaps “I” messages can be appropriate ways of doing just that, particularly when they offer us a way out of shaming, blaming, criticizing, or name calling. Yet they can easily become a new way to dress up a manipulation. Let’s work this through:
Perhaps you say, “I feel sad when you get poor grades” in an attempt to encourage your child’s achievement in school. Suddenly, the kid begins to apply himself and pulls his grades up! However, what’s likely to be behind the change in his behavior? Keeping you from feeling sad.
Likewise, let’s say your child’s teacher tells him, “When you forget your library books, I feel angry and frustrated!” Assuming your child cares enough-or is threatened enough-to be motivated by the teacher’s feelings, wouldn’t you prefer he be motivated to return library books by the opportunity to take out some new ones?
Parents who cringe at the thought of telling their children, “You’d better behave. You don’t want Daddy to start drinking again!” might easily slip with a statement like, “I get really hurt when you two don’t get along,” or even “I feel so happy when you make your bed.” All three statements make the child responsible for the parents’ state of mind and convey the impression to the child that he somehow has the power to control how Mommy and Daddy act and feel.
There are several drawbacks to these implications. Ask any adult who grew up in a troubled home who has had to reconcile the shame and frustration of not being able to keep a parent happy, calm, or sober, no matter how well he behaved or how quietly she played. Plus, these statements teach children to choose their behaviors on the basis of other people’s approval and other reactions, which is exactly what most adults don’t want their children to do. (It’s not fair to complain about the power of peer pressure when we keep communicating to kids that their safety and approval comes from doing what other people want.)
Aside from these obvious dangers in reinforcing people-pleasing, telling a child you’ll feel happy, proud, or less angry if he does what you want will put the child in the painful position of having to choose between your feelings and his own if his needs are different from yours. This approach is not likely to work. Very young children are developmentally incapable of identifying with another person’s feelings and older children are likely to rebel to just meet their power needs. Most often those who do comply with this style of guilting only do so for awhile, and then only to protect their safety and self-esteem.
If you want your children to indeed change their behavior, then you probably don’t need to express your feelings in the first place. There are several ways to eliminate your feelings from the equation.
For one thing, you can talk about what you need – preferably before you’re going to need it. Instead of waiting for your kids to tie up the phone all night and countering with, “I feel so frustrated when I can’t use the phone,” how about letting them know ahead of time, “I’ll need to have the phone free between 8:00 and 9:00 tonight.” This statement sets clear boundaries without using your feelings to manipulate or control. (If this is a chronic problem in your home, it may help to get a commitment or a plan from your children that shows how they will plan their phone time in order to be off the phone in time.)
If it’s 7:45 and you just remembered you needed to make a call, you will probably have to interrupt to tell them you’ll need the phone in 15 minutes. If your children resist, let it go for now and next time do some boundary-setting beforehand, negotiating a schedule that will accommodate everyone’s needs. If you must use an I-message, use one that communicates your needs without expressing your feelings – without giving in to the inclination to structure I-messages as; “When you do….. I feel…..” Instead, use statements that are boundaries or contingencies.
Setting a contingency – and stating it as a boundary – can completely eliminate your feelings and behavior from the outcomes of your children’s choices. For example, telling a child, “You can watch TV as soon as your homework is done,” or “You can have the car again this weekend as long as you get in tonight by the time we agreed to,” or “I will make dinner as soon as the counters are clean,” simply leaves the consequences of the child’s choice to the child, without challenging her acceptability, threatening her safety, or requiring her to cooperate to keep you from going crazy. (Do you really want your child to clear off the counters to keep you happy or to avoid your anger? Wouldn’t you prefer that she cooperate so you can get in there and start on the meal?)
To a great extent, it comes down to intention. Telling people how you feel in an attempt to change their behavior so you’ll feel better is manipulation. However, if you’re simply “externalizing” your feelings, or getting them “out,” then the outcome of your sharing –that is, whether your children cooperate or not – doesn’t matter. But in most cases it will matter, and you’ll have better luck with a contingency that doesn’t rely on your child’s need for approval or fear of anger or abandonment.
It takes a great deal of mental health to hear, “When you act that way, I feel this way,” and not feel responsibility for the other person’s feelings. Unfortunately, many adults rely on a child’s dependence on them to generate cooperation. It’s doubtful that a caring child can hear an “I” message that says “When you…, I feel...” and not be shamed into care-taking the other person’s feelings.
Learning to have and express our feelings without making other people responsible for them is one of the greatest challenges for personal growth, especially for parents and their children, where the boundaries between them can so easily blur. While “I” messages may be preferable to You-messages, beware of their capacity for being used as a statement of blame.
One of the arguments in favor of “I” messages has always been that it helps people identify and express their feelings. If that’s the case, then fine, go ahead and talk about the reaction you’re having to someone’s behavior, language, or attitudes, but talk about it to someone else!
Question whether you need to externalize your feelings to your children, or if you just need to externalize them period (by pounding on a pillow in private, writing in your journal, or talking to a therapist, sponsor, or a friend). Watch your intent. There’s probably a better way to ask your children for another behavior, one that leaves you free to stay neutral and accepting of them. Even if you need to back up and set better boundaries to anticipate and avoid future problems, you can still remove the threat of possible manipulation. The result may just be cooperation, but most important is that both you and your child can come through your feelings unscathed.
“Every survival kit should include a sense of humor.”