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Appropriate Boundaries In Parenting

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What do parents most want from children?  Is it obedience – for children to do what parents think is best whether for the benefit of the child or for the parent?  Could it be love – that parents want their children to love them unconditionally as parents try to love their children unconditionally?  What about becoming good citizens who are responsible, pleasant to be around, non-offensive to others, and working toward success and independence?  And, does love equal respect?  So, how do parents get what they most want from their children? The answer is setting appropriate boundaries.  These boundaries look and feel different depending on the chosen parenting style.

There are typically three styles of parenting with some parents jumping from one style to the other depending on what point or convenience they believe is important to make at the time.

The first boundary style is called “lines in the sand” as described here:

4-year old Jody and her mother are eating lunch at a local restaurant.  Jody wants some gum out of the gum ball machine and asks her mom for some money.  When mom says “Not now, sweetie”, Jody continues to ask and mom continues to deny the request.  Mom decides to call a friend on her cell phone and while mom is distracted Jody goes into her mom’s wallet, gets a handful of change, puts the coins in the machine and comes back to the table with some gum in her mouth.  After a bit, Mom finally notices Jody chewing gum and tells her friend the whole story as Jody listens.  Mom expresses to her friend she just doesn’t understand why Jody doesn’t obey her.  Jody is never personally scolded for her poor choice or instructed how to make a better choice.

Although many parents want to have fun with their children, when a parent draws a line in the sand as the boundary for the child to follow, the relentless waves of the tide come in and wash the line away each time it is drawn.  Therefore, what did Jody learn?  If this parenting style is used often, Jody will relentlessly test her mom and other authority figures just to see where the boundaries actually are.

Often, foster parents are unsure of where to place boundaries on foster children and may be overly lenient to compensate for the hurt foster children have experienced.  “Lines in the sand” parenting tells foster children that 1) they are not good enough to have set or standard boundaries and will need to set their own, 2) the parent is incapable of setting appropriate boundaries, or 3) they are special and don’t need to follow the same boundaries as other family members.  This parenting style leads birth and foster children toward rebellion breeding chaos, fighting, disrespect and a low sense of self- worth.

The second style of parenting is described as a “brick wall”.

Picture it … a tall, thick, red brick wall.  Does it signify protection, strength, a sense of durability; or could it be described more cold, looming, harsh, and impenetrable?  Children need the protection and strength from parents but never do they need parents to be unwelcoming, forbidding, rigid or unforgiving.  Children also need the opportunity to learn to make good choices.  A safe and

comfortable home environment is where children can experience many opportunities to practice making choices.  Being allowed to make choices encourages confidence.

If children find the answer to their requests always being “no”, and / or a place where guilt and un-forgiveness is the rule of the day, then those children will seek acceptance elsewhere and usually in unfavourable settings.  This parenting style also leads children to rebellion breeding chaos, fighting, disrespect and a low sense of self-worth.  Often children run from rigidity because their inherent sense of free will or freedom of choice is being squelched.  Foster children have often been reared in homes which have neglected their needs either through moving or non-existent boundaries, such as “lines in the sand”; or very strict boundaries described as “brick wall” parenting.

The two extremes in parenting have been explained leaving the third parenting style of the “deep-rooted tree”. 

Picture a tall sturdy tree whose branches spread out over the yard giving shelter, shade, beauty, freedom, creativity, recreation and a feeling of being tested over time.  One of the benefits of this parenting style is the manner in which life’s storms are weathered – with grace, flexibility and wisdom.  There’s no room for arrogance, impatience or pity.  A quiet strength is rooted in good soil rich with healthy nutrients expressing the importance of taking care of oneself and of others.  There are no inappropriate expectations nor judgement but a joy when family members choose to spend time together under the tree.  Delightful flowers and foliage often bring forth delicious fruit allowing others to share from the bounty and the beauty this style offers.  When the storms come, deeply planted roots hold the tree upright with a strong trunk.  The branches know just how far to bend without breaking from the wind.

And so it is with this parenting style.  As children need strength and wisdom from their parents, they also need flexibility.  “Deep-rooted” parenting has a strong foundation supporting children to learn from their personal experiences through proper guidance in making effective choices.  These teaching moments become life lessons which mould children’s character and prepare them to respond appropriately in future situations.  As foster parents, strength with flexibility offered to all children shows parents care about children as individuals, that parents believe in children and trust their ability to make good choices for their level of development.  Children experience freedom and peace when acting within appropriate boundaries.  In return, through time parents will receive the love and respect that they demonstrate to others.

Although flexibility is the key element in appropriate boundaries, determining how far a parent is willing to go and being consistent in not going beyond the boundary limit is crucial.  A rubber band has several uses but is most used for holding things close or together.  It can only be stretched so far before it pops.  When the band does pop, it is no longer as useful; it stings anything near it; and if the ends are tied together again to resume its initial purpose, there is less room to perform its purpose inside the band. Therefore flexibility has its limits.

Appropriate parenting boundaries are defined as: the structure from which to operate, which is geared for protection and effective living, offering freedom to act within the limits, while encompassing positive and negative consequences for reinforcement of the structure.  Without boundaries we have chaos, conflict, and confusion.

When setting boundaries ask the question, “Is this boundary used for protection and teaching or is it for my comfort?”  Keeping the child’s best interest at heart will help to ensure boundaries remain appropriate.  Use boundaries suitable for the appropriate age and stage of the child’s development and use reasonable punishment to fit the crime.  Pay attention to the behaviour you want to see by using many more rewards than punishments.  The best rewards are praise, hugs, pats on the back, etc. which don’t cost any money!  And if you want children to obey, they have to trust in you – not just trust you…but in you…trusting that you always have their best interest at heart.

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