Establish Clear Boundaries with Kids, Teens this School YearAug 16, 2020
Terri was having problems with her thirteen-year-old son Josh not doing his homework. I helped her come up with a plan that would require Josh to set aside a certain time each night to do homework. During this hour Josh had to be in his study place with nothing else but his work, and he was not to do anything else but study. Terri had no control over whether or not Josh actually chose to study during that time. What she could control was that he do nothing else during that time but sit with his homework.
When I saw her the next time, Terri looked sheepish. She had not lived up to her end of the plan. “What happened?” I asked. “Well, we were all set, and then he got invited to go to a baseball game with his friend. I said no, that his hour was not up yet. But he got so upset, I could not talk him out of it. He seemed so mad and sad.”
“So,” I said, “that’s what he’s supposed to do, remember? He hates discipline. So what did you do next?”
“Well, I could see that this requirement was just making him too sad, and I could not stand it. So I let him go.” (Clue number one that a child will not develop self-control is when the parent does not have self-control in enforcing the rules.)
“What happened the next night?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“He got upset again. It was a similar situation. He had an opportunity that would have been very sad to miss.”
“So let me get this straight. The way you are deciding what is right or not is by how he feels when he is required to do something. If he is upset, then you think it is the wrong thing to do. Is that right?”
“I haven’t thought about it that way, but I guess you’re right. I just can’t stand for him to be sad.”
“Then you have got to come to grips with a few important truths. One, your values are being set by the emotional reactions of an immature thirteen-year-old. Your value system’s highest guiding principle is whether or not Josh is upset. Two, you don’t value one of the most important aspects of child-rearing: Frustration is a key ingredient to growth. The child who is never frustrated never develops frustration tolerance. Three, you are teaching him that he is entitled to always be happy and that all he has to do to get others to do what he wants is to cry about it. Are these really your values?”
She grew silent and began to realize what she was doing. To change, she had to commit to an important rule for setting boundaries with kids: A child’s protest does not define reality, or right from wrong. Just because your child is in pain does not mean that something bad is happening. Something good may be occurring, such as his coming to grips with reality for the first time. And this encounter with reality is never a happy experience. But if you can empathize with the pain and hold on to the limit, your child will internalize the limit and ultimately get over the protest.
This is a law of the universe. Frustration and painful moments of discipline help a child learn to delay gratification, one of the most important character traits a person can have. If you are able to hold the limit and empathize with the pain, then character will develop. But if you don’t, you will have the same battle tomorrow. If you rescue your children from their anger at your boundary, you can plan on more anger at later limits. Remember, their protest or pain does not determine what is good.