Boundaries can feel so confusing for parents who are working to parent consciously.
Like many parents here, maybe you want to give your child some freedom to discover her own needs and preferences. Perhaps you want your child to grow into an adult who knows what he wants in the world. You’re trying not to slather punishments and consequences all over the place, but you still need some semblance of order. And you don’t want to just flip out on your kid, but you’re feeling a little out of control at times.
There’s a lot of confusion about what it really means to have loving boundaries. Parents who grew up in authoritarian households often swing to the opposite extreme (permissive parenting), sometimes to avoid conflict but most of the time because they just don’t know what else to do.
I hear a lot of stories about the real everyday struggles of parenting consciously. Parents share stories about their kids who stay awake all night and disturb the whole household and they don’t know what to do about it.
I hear stories from the moms who don’t want to breastfeed the toddler all the time, but who don’t know how to set a loving boundary around it. Instead of it being a connecting time where the little one slows down for a moment to connect, it’s something the mom just has to do, and resentment builds.
Boundaries are a foundation of our homes, and many well-meaning parents believe (mistakenly) that parenting consciously means that we don’t have any boundaries or limits for our children. So today I wanted to take a few minutes and talk about boundaries and what that means here at Consciously Parenting.
Guiding Principle #8 says, “Children need boundaries. We can set appropriate limits for our children while still respecting their needs and feelings – if we are aware of ourselves. (We can ask, for example, “Is this about me? Is this about them? Are my children communicating a need? Is the boundary I’m setting necessary, or is it an opportunity for me to grow?”)
Boundaries respect everyone’s needs and feelings, and value the relationship above all else.
What does that mean?
When my oldest son was little, he was allergic to all the foods. Well, almost. He was diagnosed as failure to thrive and when we removed most of the foods from both our diets, he got better and grew a massive amount for a 2-year- old in a short amount of time. That meant that he couldn’t just eat whatever he wanted and that’s super challenging with a young child who is actually out in the world.
I remember we were at a family gathering when he was a little bit older where there were lots of interesting-looking foods that he really wanted to try. I could see him longingly looking at the brownies that weren’t on his diet, so I wasn’t too surprised when I found him under the table eating a brownie.
In that moment, could have yelled at the little 3-year- old sitting under the table with brownie all over his face. But I didn’t.
Instead, I got down on the floor with him, a napkin in my hand, and gently wiped his chocolate covered face as he handed me the brownie when I held out my hand. I talked to him about how much he really wanted that brownie and how hard it is not to have it. He cried a little bit while I was talking and I think I teared up a bit, too. I was on the diet with him and I knew how hard it was to not have the treats everyone else was having.
My primary goal in that moment was to connect with him.
When a child feels like an adult is on their side, they’re more likely to listen and to connect with their own internal guidance like my son did in the story I just shared. There wasn’t any question that he wasn’t supposed to eat the brownie. He knew. I didn’t have to lecture him about it. And when I approached him in this way, with empathy and understanding, he just handed it back. I didn’t have to explain that he wasn’t supposed to have it or why. He already knew. But he was having feelings about not being able to have it and that needed attention.
When I allowed room for his feelings, he felt validated and he no longer felt alone. I listened to what he really needed and decided that, in the future, I’d always make sure to have a treat that he could have when we were attending events like that one. It wasn’t something I really needed for myself, but I could hear that he did.
He never took something that he wasn’t supposed to have after that (that I’m aware of, of course). He would turn to me to make sure something was ok for him until he knew for himself. And once he knew for himself, he would ask questions about the food and would get out his own treats or snacks when needed. We made room for his feelings about it whenever it came up.
As a young adult, he has learned what his body can and cannot eat and he manages it for himself.
The boundary is the part where I didn’t just let him eat the brownie.
Boundary isn’t another word for a lecture, though sometimes there needs to be an explanation.
Boundaries aren’t punitive, but rather learning opportunities.
Boundaries are about discipline, which means “to teach.”
“It hurts mommy when you hit me. I can see that you’re upset. I’m going to move a little further away and listen while you’re having your big feelings to keep myself safe.”
“I see you’re having such a hard time staying off your cell phone at night. Let’s put it out in the main room at night. I’ll put mine with yours, too. That way we can all get enough sleep.”
“I see you want to nurse right now. Mommy needs a few minutes to get a snack and go to the bathroom. We can nurse in a little bit. I’m happy to cuddle with you for a moment before I get my snack, if you’d like.”
It isn’t always easy to figure out how to use a loving boundary instead of a consequence or punishment. It takes practice and it takes listening to others who are working on the same ideas. We become like the people we spend the most time with, so look for others who are parenting using loving boundaries. Check out the Consciously Parenting Community on Facebook. And check out the resources we have in the Learning Center. They’re all about helping you find your own way with love and respect.
Let me know your questions. If you need extra help, I do offer one-on-one sessions via phone, Zoom or Skype. We can do a lot together even in just 30 minutes, so don’t hesitate to reach out for support if you need it. (We all need it at one time or another!)