Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fear, Boundaries and Pleasers

A good hug

I write a lot about punitive parenting, and why I believe that it is wrong for parents to try to control their children through fear of punishments.  It goes against my core beliefs about theology (I follow Christ because I love Him, not because I am afraid of Hell), as well as my beliefs on parenting (which, as you have probably noticed, are very much enmeshed in my faith--all of life is spiritual).  I rarely write about the flip side of that, but I believe that it is just as damaging for parents to try to please their children out of fear.

One of my favorite sayings from Crystal Lutton is that "Happiness is not the only acceptable emotion".  Yet so many of us have grown up with a fear of any emotion that isn't happy that we don't quite know what to do when our children express anger, frustration and sadness.  I think that is part of the reason that temper tantrums are such a big deal for parents.  We just want them to go away because of our own discomfort with such an intense expression of feeling.  Instead, what we need to do is learn healthy ways to express (not squash) our big emotions and teach them to our children.

Figuring out boundaries is a tough job for little people--and often, for big ones!  It is OK for your toddler to cry because she wants a toy that another child is playing with--she is not "bad" for being upset at having to wait.  Of course, the answer is not snatching the toy away from the other child, either.  Instead, it is an opportunity to give her words she can use to ask for a turn, or perhaps to offer another toy to trade or a way to play together.  If the owner prefers to continue playing, then you can help her find acceptable ways to express her feelings about that.

Boundaries are not always fun, even when they are healthy.  We can be firm without blaming, shaming or dramatizing.  We do not need to add to an already painful situation by blaming our children or other people, pointing out "shoulds", or scolding.  We also need to be careful not to make it into a bigger deal than it really is.  I once saw a mother scream at and scold a tree when her preschooler bumped into it.  It was kind of funny, but also kind of sad.  The tree did not jump out and attack the kiddo.  A simple kiss and hug without framing her child as a victim would have made a lot more sense to me.

Another important point is that we cannot always "fix" things, and we should not always try.  A broken toy may need to be mourned.  Instantly jumping in with promises to replace it may not be what our child needs.  Perhaps they just want to express their feelings about it and move on.  I am not saying that we should refuse to help our children when they have a problem, by any means, but I am suggesting that we carefully ascertain whether our children need listening and validation, coaching on how to deal with it or simply the freedom to cope and problem-solve themselves. Most of us need a case-by-case and even moment-by-moment approach.

I have found that one of the most important tools for me is Naomi Aldort's SALVE formula.  It is amazing at helping me manage my own feelings and helping my children process theirs.  I don't link videos often, because I greatly prefer text links, but this one is worth watching, really.  It is just over 5 minutes, and it is just her speaking, but it has been incredibly helpful for me.  Becky Bailey and Aletha Solter have some helpful resources, as well.

I have made it clear that I believe we should always respond with compassion to our children's distress.  But compassion can also be a kind embrace and empathy while still holding firm to boundaries.  We cannot make other people happy, and it is not healthy to try.  If we are operating out of fear of their displeasure, we are not modeling a healthy relationship.   Do you want your children to learn that love means a constant effort to placate someone else's whims?   That is a set up for abuse.

Whether it is teaching them to fear our displeasure, or acting out of fear of their unhappiness, both are really two sides of the same coin.  It is modeling to them that love means taking responsibility for another person's feelings.  That is not healthy.  Yes, we are to be kind, compassionate and sympathetic to others.  However, their emotions belong to them, and ultimately their happiness cannot rest entirely on our efforts.  They are strong enough and powerful enough to cope with disappointment, anger and sadness, especially if someone they love is with them to comfort along the way. 

Fear is not a good place to parent from, either our fear or our children's. I don't want my children to learn from my example that they must strive to please others, even when it is not healthy.  I want them to walk in the love and freedom of good boundaries, and to be able to be authentic and compassionate without crippling themselves and others by a compulsion to please.

"...Perfect love casts out fear." ~ I John 4:18


CatholicMommy said...

Very thought-provoking. I must admit to being one of those adults that scolds inanimate objects in order to make the little one giggle rather than cry, but I hadn't thought about what that teaches. Thank you!

dulce de leche said...

Thank you so much! Actually, what you mentioned about giggles sounds fine to me--if they see the humor in it, then I don't think they are seeing themselves as victims. :) When I saw it it seemed to be more of an act of solidarity, and the toddler seemed to take it seriously.

Trisha said...

Very powerful and thought provoking post. I've been reading your blog for a week or two now and LOVE it. I want to reread this post several times, print it, and highlight parts! I struggle with handling dd's strong emotions. We don't punish and try very hard to practice gentle parenting, but I do find myself trying to stop her strong feelings and fix things even though that is counterintuitive to what I want to teach her. Thanks for a great post!

dulce de leche said...

Trisha, thank you so much and welcome! I love your blog and found so much wisdom and grace in your posts. 3 is a hard age for everyone, I think. I really appreciate the beauty and respect in your posts and am looking forward to more. :)

Pippi said...

I have to print this off and show it to my husband. I worry a lot about the way he vacillates between overbearing verbal criticism and bribing the kids to love him. He doesn't understand that it's natural for kids to love their parents, he can't buy it; and it only makes them manipulative to be bribed after lashing out at him. I know where it comes from, and respect the fact that he does not physically abuse them after growing up in such a violent home. But he still hasn't broken out of the emotional pattern his mother displayed: periods of harsh and unreasonable anger followed by periods of clinging, coddling, and permissiveness. He's so afraid they will hate him, but only because he thinks he is unworthy of their love. Then he panics thinking he's not teaching them responsibility, so he yells at them for leaving a mess like normal preschoolers. Oy.