Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Building Fences

Image credit muffet68 on Flickr
I write a lot about non-punitive parenting, and why we practice showing grace and kindness.  It may leave some people wondering just what boundaries we have (if any).  I don't believe that anyone can grow into a healthy person without understanding healthy limits, and a huge part of my job as a parent is teaching, modeling and enforcing boundaries, and helping my children develop the skills they need to respect the boundaries of other people and to enforce and maintain their own.

Like fences, boundaries work both to protect them and to protect others.  They are a healthy barrier for both.

The first one we teach them is physical boundaries.  Their bodies belong to them.  No one is allowed to hurt them or make them feel yucky (unwanted tickling or touching them inappropriately).  From the time they are toddlers, we give them the script, "Stop or I'll tell!" (and teach them to tell us anyway, even if it stops).  I highly recommend Protecting the Gift by Gavin DeBecker. 

But all the words won't make much difference unless we back it up with our actions.  If we teach them that adults are allowed to violate their body boundaries by spanking or other actions against them, then our words become very weak.  Along with being careful in our own actions, we must also make sure that other people respect their limits when our children are powerless to enforce them.  I believe that the only time that it is OK for us to violate their body boundaries is in holding them if we must to protect someone, and that they should be released once everyone is safe.  (Car seats fall into this category of safety and protection, IMO.  Correct use of car seats is non-negotiable).

In the same way, they are not allowed to hurt others to express their big emotions.  If they feel like hitting, or kicking or whatever, they need to find safe ways to do that.  We teach them to dance, play the pushing game, or exercise or other physical activity to release angry feelings.  They can also draw, go to a comfort corner to cool down or take deep breaths and squeeze their palms together--anything that allows them to let go and regain control.

In a related note, it is important to teach them emotional/verbal boundaries, and how to use words to express themselves and protect themselves.  Hurtful words and name-calling are not allowed.  Non-Violent Communication is one of my favorite resources, and I want to order their book for children soon.  It involves teaching them how to identify feelings, and how to express to others how they feel without shaming or blaming.  "When x happens, I feel y."  We also work on scripts for how to handle difficult situations.

A difficult balance, especially for my little Betazoid, is learning how to understand and care about other people's feelings without taking responsibility for keeping other people happy at all times.  We have to remind her sometimes that it is OK to let her brother or sister cope with their own emotions and that she does not have to sacrifice her own boundaries in order to please them.  We had a lot of conversations about that, and I can see it getting easier for her to say no when she should.

Again, modeling is key here.  Do they see me demonstrating healthy boundaries?  Do I take appropriate responsibility for owning my own feelings, or do I blame them on others ("You make me feel so...!" )?   Do I say no when I need to and allow others to be responsible for their own feelings?  Do I correct or enforce boundaries without shaming and blaming?  (In case you are wondering, the answer to all of these is that I am working on it.  I am trying to learn these skills as an adult, and am very much a work in progress.)

Property boundaries are important, too.  Most things in our house belong to everyone, but there are a few items that are the sole property of the individual.  We don't force sharing if it is something that belongs to the child (I certainly have possessions that I do not share!).  They have been really open to waiting for someone to finish and then using it.  As long as they know that they will get an opportunity to have something and use it until they finish, disputes are rare.  They also know that violence means that they do not get it.

In modeling healthy property boundaries, we try not to snatch things from them unless it is extremely dangerous.  Even our little ones will bring a different toy to offer the baby if she grabs something of theirs.  Another way to maintain healthy boundaries here is to give everyone space where their belongings are protected and to make sure that others do not touch them without permission.  I am working on teaching them to not touch things that don't belong to them, but like I said, it is so rarely an issue in our home that I haven't given them enough practice.  It is a work in progress, but we are working and there is progress.  :)

Someone recently pointed out that these are some pretty high expectations for little people.  After all, a huge number of adults have issues with boundaries.  That is true, and I am one of those adults who is still learning!  The key is that this is a practicum, not a final exam.  This is about teaching and learning, not judging and punishing for failure.  These skills take a lifetime, and all of us are growing together.  So it really isn't about expectations and judgments, just about loving, equipping and growing.  I want to teach my children how to build fences in their own lives, and how to respect the fences of others.


Hippie Housewife said...

Love it. I'm working on these same things with my own children in the hope that they won't, like me, have to fumble through learning them as adults.

dulce de leche said...

Thank you so much! <3 That is exactly where I am at, and it is hard to erase a life time of messed up boundaries.

Meredith said...

It's so refreshing to hear that I'm not the only one trying to learn these things in adulthood that were meant to be absorbed through childhood :) Here's hoping my children will be saved that struggle!

Daniel and Teresa said...

I'm just reading about GH, and I have a question- how do you "not allow" name-calling and pushing? My 4 year takes out all his pent-up anger and frustration on our 2 year old. We've had huge struggles with him on self-control since he's been a toddler (and we did co-sleeping, baby-led weaning, etc.). We moved back to the U.S. in March, lived with family for 5 months, then moved again just a month ago. We talk about it, but it's a hard transition for my 4 year old. However, he can't keep taking out his frustrations on his brother! I've tried to teach him different things to control his anger, but it's a long road. What do you do for hurtful words and pushing? What are "natural consequences" for that?

dulce de leche said...

(((Teresa))) I think you are absolutely on target about the difficulties with so many transitions, especially on top of being four. Of course, your little one still needs to be safe.

If you can tell that lashing out is likely, I would intervene or at least hover close enough to intercept, if possible. If it happens before you can avoid it, I would still do my best to protect them by separating if needed. I would also encourage my 4 year old to make amends.

Like you said, it is a long road. What are some of the tools you have given him to cope with anger or frustration? I have learned with mine that just telling them what not to do (don't hit, don't say hurtful things, etc) isn't effective. I have to give them specific steps of what they *should* do when they feel angry--nonviolent ways to express it, telling them how to ask for help and helping protect his boundaries if the 2 year old is bothering him, messing with his stuff, etc.

For me, the natural consequences here would be that the little one gets hurt and upset, and eventually begins to fear his brother, which is not something that I would be willing to allow. I agree with you completely that in this instance, it is important to step in and protect them and their relationship.

Daniel and Teresa said...

Thanks! He's doing better at coming up with ways to make amends and re-establish the love between the two of them (which is what we've been focusing on, telling him that when he hurts Timmy he's showing him "not-love" and helping him come up with ways to "show love." The annoying thing is that he pushes more often when everything seems fine, as opposed to when he's angry. And then he laughs and says it's funny. Is this a coping mechanism to deal with his unkindness. One more question (sorry!), what do you do when they blatantly disobey and there is no fitting "natural consequence?" (as opposed to not picking up toys and losing them temporarily, or not setting the table so they need to help with chores after dinner). We're feeling really good about using gentle discipline and we want to succeed while still helping them understand the need to obey.

dulce de leche said...

That sounds a bit like my little guy--he doesn't always realize when he is being too rough or that his play hurts. Teaching them to give high fives seemed to help--it gives all the noise and feeling of "happy hitting" but also gives the recipient the chance to decline and nobody gets hurt.

When it is important that they comply, I help them do it. That usually means walking over to them, gently touching an arm or shoulder and making eye contact, then telling them what they need to do. If they don't, I offer to help (they usually want to do it themselves). If I need to help them do it, then I do. That is the short-term strategy.

Long-term, though, if it is happening a lot, I need to either change my expectations, delivery or reconnect. There have been times when I was asking for something that they weren't developmentally capable of yet. (The Ames and Ilg books, "Your Four Year Old", etc are great at explaining what is normal, although I disagree with some of their advice. Other times, my request was reasonable, but too vague ("Be careful!" instead of "Walk slowly"). If we have been going through a rough patch and I have been grouchy or unkind, then I need to make amends and work on rebuilding trust and connection so that they want to obey.

Some of my other tools are in this post:

dulce de leche said...

Oops--hit enter too soon. This post: http://dulcefamily.blogspot.com/2010/04/our-toolbox.html

Maggie Sierdsma said...

Dulce, I love your line about it being a practicum and not a final exam!

Can you explain the "pushing game" please?

Megan @ Purple Dancing Dahlias said...

Love this! Printing it so that I can read it often, we are struggling here with our almost 4 years old. He really missed out on being two because of his cancer and so now its like he is trying to learn the lessons from his 2nd and 3rd year all at once.

Maria said...

"So it really isn't about expectations and judgments, just about loving, equipping and growing" I think that is a beautiful statement! also want to tell you I loooove your blog name "Dulce de Leche" yum!

Unknown said...

I don't think these are high expectations for children of gentle, responsive parents. Such children's minds are not cluttered with the uncertainty and sometimes, confusion, that mainstream parenting methods foster. I don't mean that in a holier-than-thou way. Just I've noticed such a difference in what my eldest could grasp and what my youngest can, because of the changes in my parenting. They are both bright children, as all children are. And with the freedom to always speak their minds and to have their needs met, children are capable of understanding seemingly adult ideas, on their level of course. That's why I love AP. We try to make sure our children are secure in the little things that when ignored, become big problems for them...so that they can spend their time mastering the stuff that truly is important. I don't comment on your blog much, Dulce, but whenever I read it, you touch my heart. You seem to be such a gentle person and mother, a great example for me. Thank you.

Kimberley @ The Single Crunch