Creating healthy, loving boundaries with your child (part 1)

Discipline vs. Healthy Boundaries

The children that are being born on this planet now have come with a special mission. They know their purpose. This world is evolving into more of heart presence, and this heart presence is what will unite education in mind, body, and spirit. And though your little one is going to change the world, it doesn’t mean they can run around and do whatever they please. Self-regulation and understanding of boundaries are an integral part of being in and contributing to society.

Before we get to discipline, we need to understand why we are disciplining. It begins with setting loving boundaries for and within yourself, and being that example for your children. Little ones seem wired to test boundaries at times. They are exploring their own limits of safety by intentionally discovering what your limits are. By testing boundaries they are asking “Is this safe? Where is the line, and how serious is the line? Do you really mean it when you say no, and why?” We can answer these questions with our behaviors and actions. The below are intentionally ordered resources to the process of setting flexible boundaries and, if need be, discipline as a last resort.

1: Why works both ways

Their Why

Before starting the process of getting a child to meet our needs, first try and understand their needs. Children behave in certain ways to get their wants and needs met. These wants and needs shift and change over time and with age, so it is important to be sensitive to what these are in their individual stage of development. Many times, if they are able to speak, you can just ask them. Work with them in their response to try and meet them where they are.

Example: A child continuously runs out of the classroom and you need to keep leaving the class to collect the child and bring him back. Instead of having the first reaction be frustration, try being curious. Why is he leaving the classroom? What does he need out there that he’s not getting in class? Directly ask questions like:

“Why do you keep leaving the class?”

“What is it about leaving the class that you like so much?”

“What don’t you like about the classroom?”

“Do you need something?”

If these don’t seem to be providing answers, or if conversation is not available with the child, intuition and contemplation may assist in coming up with the “why” for his behavior. Perhaps the classroom doesn’t hold his focus and he needs extra activities and stimulation. How can you provide him with activities that he can be fully engaged in? Perhaps someone wasn’t being nice to him in the classroom and he needed space. If this is the case, how can you provide him space within the classroom?

Your Why

If we can’t meet their needs, there is a safety issue, or you need something from them, we can begin this process. Children are more likely to respond when they understand the why behind your words. Creating rules just “because you said so'' as an authority figure teaches distrust and creates flimsy boundaries. It’s no wonder we resort to telling children what to do instead of working with them; that is old patterning from our parents and their parents. But if we are trying to change the world, it’s time to think in new ways.

Behind every command, ask yourself “Why is it I want them to do/don’t want them to do this?” Then, convey the message concisely and in a way that they can understand. Use “I” statements instead of commands. This goes for communicating with all people. Nobody really likes being told what to do, so phrasing out of personal experience is more honest and easier to receive.

Example: A child runs out of the classroom. Instead of saying “Get back in here!”, explain “I need you to stay in the classroom because I need to keep an eye on everyone at the same time to make sure you are all safe. As a class, we stay together. If you really need to leave we can all go together after snack.”

2: Give a positive command

Don’t think about a pink rose.

Did you think about a pink rose? Most people do. Our minds, and the universe, use positive language and commands. Adding the word “don’t” or “no” before the command really isn’t effective, as even stating not to do something still implants that image into consciousness. Instead, say what you would like to have happen. Give the child a boundary in which they can operate, what is permissible to do.

Example: A child keeps running out of the classroom. Instead of saying “Don’t leave the classroom!” reframe to “I need you to stay in the classroom please.”

3. Choice

Always give the child choice. Young ones, especially, are still forming autonomy. If they are told what to do all the time, they may experience shame and doubt about their decision-making, or grow up to constantly rely on others to make their decisions for them. Ideally, facilitating the process of decision-making is what is important. You want to give them information on why things are safe or unsafe, then ask them what they feel is best to do. Ask questions like “How can we get this done? What are some ways we can accomplish this? What do you want to do and why?” This allows them to come up with answers and options that maybe you haven’t even thought of.

If this sort of processing is not yet available in the child, giving them choices is the next best thing. Have them choose between different methods of achieving a similar outcome.

Try keeping it light hearted and provide a fun option for the child. Meet them at their level; be silly with them in achieving something if they are having difficulty doing it on their own. Resisting their resistance will only create friction. If you give in a little and keep a soft smile on your face, they may let up, too.

Example: “I’ve already asked you to go back into the classroom and told you why. I can tell you are having a hard time going back on your own. Do you want to race back as fast as we can? Or do you want to crawl back like puppies?”

4: Set the loving boundary

Be firm and mean what you say so they understand. The world is wide open for our little ones as they have not established boundaries for themselves yet. They don’t know what’s safe and unsafe; they are seeking our guidance for a framework in which to operate. They are trying to make sense of the world. If the walls they are relying on from you to guide them are flimsy, they will disregard your words and push back even harder, leading them to explore potentially unsafe realms.

As an added layer of providing choice and consent from the child, let them know what you are going to do and when you are going to do it. If they are unable or unwilling to make a safe choice, tell them on the count of three you are going to make the choice for them. It is better to have them come up with a resolution themselves, but this can be a tool for your toolbox. Just be mindful that this method does remove some autonomy from the child as you are now providing choices for them instead of allowing choice to come naturally from within themselves: external vs. internal. Often times they don’t want their autonomy to be removed so they will acquiesce on three, tell you what they choose out of the options you’ve previously provided, or come up with something completely new.

Example: Child runs out of the classroom again and will not return on his own. Instead of giving in and letting him play outside of the classroom or coming back for him later, let him know it’s now time to be serious. “I’ve already asked you to go back into the classroom, told you why, and gave you options of how to do it. I mean it. If you can’t go back into the classroom on your own, I am going to have to carry you. Do you want to walk or do you want me to carry you? If you don’t choose on the count of three I will choose for you. One, two, three...”

5. Be flexible and admit faults

It’s ok if we have received new information or had a change of heart. We are humans receiving constant input, building new neural pathways, and thus naturally will come to places where we will change our minds. If children witness intentional actions on a regular basis, they may feel more confident in making their own decisions. They will respect you more if you admit faults and explain the process in why you are taking a different course of action than what was originally stated. This feels better for you and gives you credibility in the child’s eyes. Flexibility provides freedom to be human, and helps you not to get stuck on one course of action.

If you spot that you have made a decision rooted in heightened fear, emotions, stubbornness or defensiveness… pause… take a breath, and consider if there are alternative ways of being that come from a place of love instead. If you find an alternative, softer way of approaching an issue after you have already said or done something out of a heightened state, just admit that and again explain your process in words they will understand. They will admire your vulnerability and give them permission to do the same.

Times to be flexible:

  • when new information arises

  • change of heart, mind, emotion, mental state

  • external circumstances change

  • location changes

  • people around you change

  • really anytime

Example: You have ran through all the previous resources and now tell the child, “If you don’t go into the classroom on the count of 3 I am going to pick you up and put you back in the classroom in time out for 5 minutes.” You count to three and the only thing he does is run, scream, and cry even more. You struggle to pick him up and put him back to the classroom, and as you get closer to the classroom, his cries get even more intense. You put him in a chair and he keeps getting up and running around the classroom as you chase him to put him back. You begin getting more and more frustrated.

Or… you begin to see this isn’t working. You notice his body and his intensity and recognize that there is really something going on for him. Tell him, “I can really see you are having a hard time sitting still and staying in the classroom. I’m sorry I didn’t see it before, thank you for being patient with me. Maybe what you need is to get some energy out and go for a run. Would you like to go on a little run with me around the school before coming back into the classroom? I can ask one of the other teachers to keep an eye on the classroom for me.”

6. Avoid Empty Threats

Threatening to do something with the knowledge that it is not actually going to be done creates fear and mistrust in children, and cultivates an attitude of inauthenticity. Yes, fear is an effective way to get people to behave in certain ways. We live in a fear based society where security theater and empty threats are commonplace. All too often, people simply follow these empty rules without question, because they were taught to do things because someone else said so. And this is where we can begin to see that as a society, our autonomy has been stripped as well. Again, when you say something, mean it. Stick to words that have authenticity and intention behind them.

Example: Signs that say “speed enforced by aircraft”. Realistically, if you are going to speed, what is an aircraft going to do? Swoop down and give you a ticket? It is more likely an empty threat to evoke fear in people to get them to behave a certain way.

Another example is when parents say “I’m going to throw away your computer if you don’t come here right now!” First of all, when is right now? What is the actual boundary there? And the parent certainly is not going to throw away hundreds maybe thousands of dollars of material because a child isn’t behaving. In your heart you know if it is feasible to follow through on what you are saying, and if it is, you’d better mean it and actually follow through. If you find yourself using empty threats, check your emotions. Are you responding in a calm grounded state where you are able to compromise and work with the child? Or are you angry, fearful, or in a heightened state causing things to be said that aren’t truly meant?

7. Follow through

Commitment to your word shapes you as a person. Children can see this shape clearly and directly impacts the child’s sense of basic trust vs. mistrust, the first developmental marker in Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Your follow through directly influences the child’s sense of trust and safety in the world. So if you say you are going to do something, whether it be taking them out for ice cream or putting them in time out, you’d better do it. If you don’t, they soon learn that they can manipulate you because of flimsy boundaries. They will learn what has worked in the past to get what they want, and adapt to use that every time. Not only is it important for kids to see their role models follow through on their word, it helps you establish yourself as a person. You receive the opportunity to practice commitment, authenticity, learning what your boundaries are and expressing them to others, and of course, following through on your word.

The new kids are programmed to question authority, shake the system, break free of illusion and complacency, and create a generation of free and innovative thinkers. I appreciate when kids question and test me. It does test my patience, but I know they are just doing their job. Meet them at their level. It is good for them to have a role model who is loving and firm, who can set healthy and flexible boundaries for the sake of self preservation and the safety of others.

Tips when disciplining children:

  • Avoid disciplining, instead process with them

  • Respond from a grounded, centered state

  • Monitor for heightened emotions in yourself and the child

  • Avoid meeting resistance with more resistance

  • Be flexible and willing to compromise

  • Get to the root of why they are doing something and see if that need can be met in a different way

  • Let the punishment fit the crime

  • Always have a reason and intention

  • Never go back on your word, but if you do, explain your process and why you are changing your mind

  • Set firm but loving boundaries

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