Right now, with our two-and-a-half year old twins, my wife and I are helping them explore their environment to learn new things and to have fun with play. To create happy and secure children, we are also teaching limits and boundaries. A lot of time has been spent sharing our expectations and enforcing consequences for good and bad choices:
"You can't pull your brothers hair or bite, or you will have a time out and need to say sorry" (And if you reply "I'm not ready to say sorry", your time out continues.)
"You can watch a DVD in the car on a long road trip if you don't put your feet on the screen or pull the wires, if you do, daddy will turn it off."
"You need to tell us what you want with words. We will help you as soon as you stop screaming and let us know what you want."
Milk stays in the cup. Food stays on the plate. We sleep in our own beds at night...
As children grow and develop more skills, some things get easier. But parents of tweens and teens point out how new challenges quickly replace old ones. As children mature, their needs for boundaries change, but continue.
It is helpful for children to know clearly what is expected of them. It is hard to win the game if we don't know the rules. It is hard to reach a destination if we don't have a map. Family rules should be established and discussed.
When parents are rigid, unreasonable, and unyielding, they may be met with defiance and hostility. But when parents are vague, wishy-washy, and inconsistent, they may find their children floundering.
I have been fascinated in my career to have many adolescents tell me privately that they want limits from their parents and that it lets them know that their parents love them (even if they protest in their parents presence.) Teens will often push for new freedoms, and they should. This is how they grow in independence and responsibility. But, this push should be met with negotiation and parental guidance.
Recently, a young adult who was struggling in college and searching for direction asked his father to impose a curfew and help him establish structure in his life. He determined that his lack of self-discipline and follow-through stemmed from a lifestyle of permissiveness and absent parenting that started with his parents divorce in his teen years and continued throughout his adolescence.
It is best when rules are developed from a place of love and respect, and when limits are fair and reasonable. Any adult who has worked for a boss who was arbitrary, hostile, and controlling will tell you that the experience was demeaning and did not nurture their best work. Similarly, children will respond best to a boss who is loving, compassionate, forgiving, and fair. Sometimes, the hard part of parenting is giving your children what they need when it is not what they want. Being a loving parent does not mean giving in or sacrificing parental limits to become your child's best friend. It does mean working in the best interest of your child.
Psychologist John Townsend also points out that an important part of establishing boundaries is recognizing that your child has a choice of whether or not to follow the rules. It is hard to exert our will on another. Children have the freedom to follow rules or not. But there should be consequences for their choices.
Consequences should be proportional to the mistake. They should quickly follow the offense and they should be finite in duration. To have an impact, they should be enforced. Consistency is essential. Ideally, consequences should matter and be tailored to motivate an individual child. When possible, consequences should be determined and discussed in advance, hopefully as a deterrent to pushing the boundary.
Children should be rewarded with praise, positive feedback, and privileges as the consequence for making good choices. Similarly, children should face the negative consequence of a poor choice. When consequences are used appropriately, parents don’t need to scream or lecture excessively to get their point across. They can let the consequence do the work.
To help children develop character, it is useful to allow children to accept the natural consequences that result from their behavior at school, on sports teams, and at other activities. Certainly, there are times when parents must advocate for their child when a child has been treated harshly or unfairly, but parents who bail their children out from all problems rob their child of the opportunity to learn the lessons of their actions. They create entitlement and irresponsibility.
Finally, it is important for parents to set good examples and model appropriate behavior. It is hard to expect a child to be honest if he sees a parent twisting the truth or taking unfair advantage. It is hard to expect a child to be kind and respectful if he sees a parent belittling others or acting in an abusive way to a spouse or talking about people behind their backs.
Based on my work with adolescent patients, some areas where parents should set boundaries and expectations are:
electronics (TV, computer, cell phone, texting limits, social networking minutes)
alcohol and drugs
curfews/check-ins/informing parents of their location
On a recent vacation, my wife overheard a group of twelve and fourteen year old girls by the pool discussing boys' penises, sexual activity they have engaged in, and their alcohol consumption. A waiter reluctantly delivered two pina coladas that a girl accepted for her parents who had stepped away. The girls consumed the drinks, and when the father returned, his daughter thanked him for ordering the drinks. He nodded in acceptance.
Currently, alcohol and drug use among middle and high school students is astronomical. One reason, I believe, is that parents are failing to set clear expectations and boundaries around illegal alcohol consumption. Because some kids experiment, and perhaps because they, the parents did, many adults are now creating an environment of permissiveness and acceptance.
The fact that kids may push boundaries is not an acceptable reason to not have boundaries in place. It is the reason kids need them more than ever.
I encourage parents to discuss expectations, to set safe and supportive boundaries for their children, to reward good behavior, and to enforce consequences when needed. Your kids will be better for it.
If you have concerns about your child's behavior or family functioning, or if you have a mental health need, you may visit my website www.drportteus.com or contact my office at 214-550-3367 to schedule an appointment.
Andrew M. Portteus, MD, MPH