A parent’s need to control and protect will always conflict with a child’s need for freedom and growth. From the time your child can move around independently, you will constantly monitor and negotiate boundaries.
As in the practice of Tai Chi, you need to cultivate “listening power,” to help you attune to your child’s phases and needs without imposing your expectations upon them. Pick your battles carefully.
In Tai Chi, “listening power” is not so much about listening with your ears. It is cultivating the ability to perceive what is happening, your child’s body language and what different behaviors really mean. In the martial art, one tunes in to these by reflecting body language, facial expression, and words; then responding intuitively without aggression.
In good parenting, there should be some, but very few, non-negotiable rules, and these should before the child’s safety and well-being, not the parent’s need for total control. “You may never talk back to me” is not a good one. “You may not cross the street without an adult,” is a much better rule. “Don’t talk to me in that tone of voice!” is unskillful. A better way to say it is, “I will listen you when you speak to me in a normal tone of voice.”
These kinds of boundaries must be set with “sinking power,” so that the child knows you mean what you say. Again, “sinking power” is absorbing the child’s energy without moving. Sink your strength into the earth with the relaxing breath. Allow the child to bounce off your energy, discovering without harm the nature of your power.
Let everything you have — mind and body, thoughts and reactions, plans and avoidance of plans — sink with gravity into your feet to beneath the earth. Relax your intention. Put everything underground where it can support you. Strewn anxiously through your body, it can only distract you.
Even the non-negotiable rules must change as a child grows. They won’t be the same for a three-year-old as a ten-year-old, and families that talk and communicate understand this.
To keep life simple, keep the non-negotiable rules simple and few. That way, you do not forever extend invitations for rebellion. Set these boundaries using all your principles. Relax, get centered, sink your power into the earth, and state the boundaries in a setting that allows the child to hear what you say, ask questions, and clearly understand that this particular rule is not negotiable. Have your child repeat the rule back to you.
You must also be able to explain what the consequences will be if the rule is broken, and have the internal power to follow through. Remember that your child will see, hear, and feel your true resolve. For example, instead of saying, “Clean your room right now, or you’ll be in trouble!” a better way to inform your child of consequences is to say (in a normal tone of voice), “You are welcome to join us for dessert as soon as your room is clean.”
Some children stay within the boundaries set for them very well; they like the safety of those invisible fences. Others are boundary-testers. They constantly push at the boundaries as if, because the boundaries are invisible, they aren’t sure the boundaries really exist. These kids used to be called bad or difficult. Now they are called “spirited,” a much better way to see them.
Boundary-testers are often people with a lot of power, energy, and curiosity, who, if not broken by harsh punishment and shame in childhood, will use that energy for great things and will probably be leaders and even visionaries in their adult lives.
If your child is a boundary tester, you can expect to have to pay much more attention to what he does. These are the kids that have an overpowering curiosity to see what happens if they try to cross the street without an adult or strike a match in a closet. They need to experience the consequences that follow when they test a boundary. Sometimes an explanation of why the boundary is there will do; you could get hit by a car and hurt very badly; you could start a fire, burn down the house, and be seriously hurt. Sometimes, along with an explanation, a consequence such as the removal of a favorite toy for a week, not being allowed out of the house for a day or two, and so on, needs to be put in place so the child knows the boundary is firm.
Try to anticipate and set boundaries ahead of time, so that the boundary is not set because of something the child does first. For example, the child goes into the street and gets yanked back and given consequences when he never knew that was a boundary in the first place. This is reactive, not responsive, parenting. This kind of boundary setting only encourages unsafe exploration, because the child has no idea what he can or cannot do without consequences.
With young children you must explain again and again why a certain consequence is being given to them. They are a bit like an old person with dementia! Take them through the whole story so they can link cause and effect, for their memories are short. Do not expect small children to remember rules and boundaries. Constant repetition and imitation will teach them. Without anger, simply remove the child from the situation, or show the child what to do by doing it yourself and then leading her body through the correct action as you speak. This way, the body-centered child learns to connect actions with words, and later the words will connect to right action.
For example, if the child inappropriately handles the cat, you can say, “We pet the kitty gently,” and do it yourself. Then take the child’s hand and repeat. Then let the child show you how she can do it by herself. If she is verbal, she will repeat the words; if not, you can repeat the words as she does the action. Again, do not expect her to remember this and never handle the cat inappropriately again. The whole sequence may have to be repeated many times to become a learned pattern of “how we love our kitty.”
Martial arts expert Dawn Callan defines boundary making beautifully:
“If you know how to set boundaries, you don’t have to build emotional walls.”
Setting boundaries for your kids helps show them how to set boundaries for themselves. Teach and model boundary-setting skills to empower your children to be free of fear and help them “danger-proof” themselves.
If you need to give a consequence when a child persists with inappropriate behavior, explain that if you let nature give her the consequence, she could get hurt (in the example above, the cat might feel scared and scratch or bite), so you need to teach her by giving her a consequence that helps her learn and remember.
Empathize responsively with her pain while holding firm with the consequence. Use your listening skills to let her know you understand it’s hard to stay inside when everybody else is playing outside. You can be sorry for having to impose consequences, while still letting the child know it is her own actions that brought about the situation.
Don’t ever withhold love and affection from a child as punishment for a misdeed. This reinforces the notion that it is the child himself who is bad, not the action he took or the words he spoke. When a child feels rejected in this way, he no longer links behavior with consequences — instead, he starts to believe that he is bad and he will begin to act like a “bad” kid would act. You have the power to define your child in this way, so use it carefully.
Try to avoid labels; if you must use them, use good ones that have the energy of love within them, and pride in who your child is inside: “I see that you’re really brave!”
Use the concept of “listening power” to attune yourself to which consequences will work for each child under each circumstance. Remember, this is your path, too, so take the time to do it consciously as your spiritual practice, not just a thankless job you must perform because you’re a parent.
Don’t make consequences overly harsh, and link them as closely to the behavior as possible. For example, if a child knows it is a family rule to put dirty clothes in the laundry basket and he does not, he may have to wear something other than what he wants and then later, with your help (depending on the age), do a load of laundry himself.
You are not trying to inflict pain or shame, you are teaching him how life works: behavior has consequences, and each individual must take responsibility for their behavior. Share a story from your own life when you “misbehaved” and had to experience an unpleasant consequence.
© 2015 Vimala McClure