Or rather, “Where do I end, and the world begins?”
This is the fundamental question that children raised in permissive homes grow up never having answered and it’s a vital question if we hope to keep our children safe and healthy throughout their lives.
This is also the question that children ask during the second and third years of life. If an answer does not come during this developmental stage it becomes very difficult, though not impossible, to learn later.
Permissive parenting is overly concerned with whether or not a child is happy. This may be motivated by two things:
- A genuine desire for the child to experience nothing unpleasant in life
- A discomfort/fear of the child’s negative emotions or expressions of them.
While I am 100% in the attachment parenting camp, I must also admit that if a parent does not understand boundaries themselves they will struggle with how to move, within AP, from the infant to the toddler stages.
Without going into the fullness of the developmental stages, I will say that I have come to sum up the behavior issues of two year olds by asking the question, “How much control do I have over myself?” This means that it is the parents’ job to answer this question with specifics that help the child become empowered to make decisions about their own existence. Two year olds are starting to dress themselves, put on their own sandals, and many potty train. Most attempts to help are met with, “ME DO IT!” This is NOT defiance! This is maturity. Granted, the way this development of self control is expressed is often immature, but that is corrected by a simple technique of scripting (offering alternative words that are more appropriate).
A child who feels stifled is going to attempt to bust out.
I embrace the idea of not doing for children what they can do for themselves. I have found that much frustration from my children is actually in response to me not realizing their budding independence. A child who feels stifled is going to attempt to bust out.
I also try not to use phrases like, “Be careful,” because I believe it causes a child to doubt themselves as it is based on the assumption that they would not intuitively be careful. I’ve often seen children scaling steep and slippery towers with confidence only to have a parent see them and call out, “Be careful!” and then be horrified that the child immediately slips and falls to injury. Ironically, the parent is typically confirmed in their need to caution their child about safety rather than challenged in their use of warnings for a child already in control of things. But the two year old, while most often capable of dressing themselves, is not a fully matured individual and is not ready to handle all choices. As Dr. Phil said, “Sometimes our job as parents is to protect our children from themselves.”
I find that the best way to empower a two year old is through limited choices. The day may be too cold for shorts to be an option, but the child can choose between jeans and sweat pants. Not only does this help a child answer the question of how much control they have over themselves, but it helps both the child and the parent learn their personal preferences.
Some children are born with very good boundaries already in place and they may meet the presentation of two choices with the suggestion of a third they would prefer. If the third meets the requirements the parent has set for the day, then it is not permissive to let them wear their choice. With these children I have found that the limited choices presented, especially if there is an explanation given of how they were chosen (color, temperature, event attending), serve to teach the child what criteria you are using for selecting clothing and then they want to try themselves to select an item.
When children do not feel safe they test the boundaries.
When children do not feel safe they test the boundaries. They also do this at three. This is the stage where they are asking the question, “How much control do I have over YOU and the rest of the world?” In a punitive home where the answer to the question of the two year old, “How much control do I have over myself?” is a resounding NONE, the age of three is fairly simple as the child no longer is looking to set boundaries. When they do venture out to ask the question, they are met with the expected answer and accept their place as powerless in their world.
It is often these children who grow up to become permissive parents, because they want their children to make their own choices but were never taught how to themselves. In permissive homes where the answer to the question, “How much control do I have over myself?” is TOTAL, the age of three is when the parent will either decide that their non-punitive position just doesn’t work or they will continue doing nothing and feel like a martyr. OR, it is my hope, they will answer this question with an answer of healthy boundaries, “You have no control over me but you can make choices that influence me and your world.”
When parents begin the journey from punitive to GBD during the toddler years it is very easy for them to swing too far to permissive parenting, because they do not know how to answer the child’s questions about control, asked through behavior, with anything other than a punishment.
Most children respond to the presence of boundaries with a sigh of relief and improved behavior.
A punishment is a type of boundary. It is a firm and unmoving, rigid boundary. It is a wall with barbed wire on top that the childcare not even attempt to scale.
This is why many parents who start out permissive, and when frustrated at this stage of their child’s development turn to extreme punitive parenting methods, do report success with them. Most children respond to the presence of boundaries with a sigh of relief and improved behavior. And while these parents may become the biggest advocates for these extreme methods, it is because the consequences to the children and the relationship are not always immediately felt.
This is why organizations like those run by Gary Ezzo tend to have contact moms who are first time mothers of one or two toddlers and why most of the original contact moms are no longer supporters of his methods. For more information on why a totally unchallenging child during the toddler years is not a goal worth pursuing I encourage you to visit www.ezzo.info and read the stories of many of these mothers.
But, removing punishments does not also mean the boundaries have to disappear! In fact, in many otherwise healthy and functioning homes the reason that children begin to misbehave when the punishments stop is because they are needing reassurance that the boundaries have not changed. If they have changed, then the parent needs to explain to the child in what way. This also means the parent needs to sit and explain why the previous methods of enforcing the boundaries is being abandoned.
This is especially vital if the punishments were linked with the parents’ love for the child. It is not uncommon for the parent who told a child they were spanking because they love them to abandon spanking and find themselves with an insecure child who is doing everything they can to get the parent to spank them again. This is not because they child wants to be spanked, but, rather, because they fear the loss of the parent’s love. This can be avoided by explaining the change in how things will be done in the home.
While there are punishments mentioned in their books as a means of enforcing boundaries with children, I do still find Cloud and Townsend’s book “Boundaries” to be the best explanation of what boundaries are and how to identify and defend them. I have recommended this book for years and even the non-Christians who have read it report finding incredibly valuable information in it. So, rather than attempting to cover what they required an entire book to dissect, let me give a few key important points about boundaries as they relate to parenting.
A SEMI-PERMEABLE BARRIER
This is how Cloud and Townsend describe a healthy boundary. It is strong enough to keep the harmful out and permeable enough to let the good in.
While many people in our culture today score low in their emotional intelligence, it is our emotions that signal us about our lives and the world around us. We experience joy and fear and discomfort because things are joyful, fearful, or uncomfortable. The more comfortable we are with our emotions the more we can understand the messages we are getting from the world around us.
While happy is the goal of permissive parents, it is the individual who can understand their world at this level and seek out the joyful while fleeing the fearful and avoiding or changing the uncomfortable who reports happiness and, even more importantly, contentment in their life.
The awareness of something or someone making you uncomfortable is your first indication that a personal boundary is being threatened. It is very important to learn to set your boundaries wide enough that you make them known and act on them before a violation has occurred.
CONTROL OVER AFFECTION
This is vital for helping a child develop healthy boundaries. When a child expresses a disinterest in hugging or kissing someone they are setting a boundary. Rather than taking offense, I encourage those in my children’s world to wait until they are offering affection on their own because then it is truly a gift.
Affection is an expression of comfort with someone. I do not walk up on the street and kiss and hug complete strangers walking by. This is how it feels to a child who is forced to show affection to Aunt May who they have never met. If Aunt May really wants genuine affection, she would be well served to be a person who respects boundaries and gives the child a chance to see that not only is she safe, but a really neat aunt who they can enjoy and be affectionate with.
ASK YOURSELF “WHY?”
I take a personal assessment any time I’m not sure how I feel or am trying to figure out why a child may be acting the way they are. Often I find myself tense and starting to raise my voice and when I step back and take a breath I realize it’s because I’m ignoring my bladder’s boundary and I need to excuse myself to the bathroom, or my stomach’s boundary and I haven’t eaten all day.
I may also be ignoring my personal boundaries and allowing a child to push on something that is really a non-negotiable issue, and by setting the boundary and walking away I can remove myself from the power struggle. This is very helpful when my children are acting in some way that is unpleasant. By asking, “What would cause me to act that way?” I can often find a good starting place for addressing what is really going on.
A child testing the boundaries needs to be reassured that the boundary is secure.
BEHAVIOR IS A MESSAGE
Behavior is something that we must each learn how to control for ourselves. Because of that, we are best served to view an individual’s behavior as a message to us revealing what is going on inside of them and in their lives. A child testing the boundaries needs to be reassured that the boundary is secure. Once that is done you will have an opportunity to find out why they were testing the boundaries. Often it is because there is some threat in another area of their lives, or some personal insecurity they are feeling and they need to know you are bigger than them and can keep them safe.
- If we attempt to control behavior then we are not able to hear the message it is conveying.
- If we assign a negative intent to behavior we assume the message about our children reveals flaws in them.
- And if we ignore behavior we simply miss the message altogether.
The better we are at hearing the messages our children are sending us through their behavior, the better we will be able to set healthy boundaries for them and help them to become happy, HEALTHY, adults.