by Cheryl L. Erwin, MA, MFT
You hear a lot of talk these days about boundaries. Oprah talks about setting healthy boundaries. Parenting books explain how to set boundaries. Parents everywhere understand the need for rules. So what, precisely, is it that makes discipline so frustrating? The way I see it, it isn't setting the rules and boundaries that's the problem for most parents: it's following through.
We're usually pretty good at coming up with rules and consequences. The difficulty comes when we have to enforce what we say. Here are a couple of examples I've heard more than once: Family gets new puppy. Parents make agreement with children that they will feed puppy and clean up after puppy or said puppy will go to the pound. Children nod solemnly when asked if they understand. Children forget to feed puppy or think scooping poop is gross. And parents find themselves unable to follow through: "We can't take the puppy to the pound -- it's so cute and we love it!"
Or parents tell children that if they don't pick up their toys, the parents will take them to the Salvation Army. Children nod solemnly when asked if they understand. Toys remain scattered across the floor–and parents just can’t make themselves take all the toys to the Salvation Army.
The danger in making rules and not following through is that children may decide that parents are a pretty safe bet: there's a good chance they won't do what they threatened. And believe it or not, one of the ways young children learn trust is when parents provide fair limits with consistent follow through. "Aha," children think in their heart of hearts when parents follow through with dignity and respect. "Mom and dad are on duty. I can trust them to do what they say they'll do."
In the words of grandmothers since time immemorial, the key to effective limits and boundaries is to say what you mean and mean what you say. This means you need to think before you speak, which generally means you should take time to be calm and consider things rationally. Don't set a consequence that you know you won't be able to follow through on -- and don't follow through when you know you're being unreasonable or simply acting out of anger and frustration.
Remember, discipline is meant to teach. Set consequences in advance, preferably with your child's input, then follow through with dignity and mutual respect. If your child neglects to pick up her toys, for example, you can agree that you will pick them up and put them in a box on a high shelf for two days. (A time limit, incidentally, only needs to be long enough to get her attention and make the point -- not so long that she gives up, becomes discouraged, or forgets what she did wrong in the first place.) Yes, she'll probably get mad, whine, and beg. You can remain calm, follow through, and when you return the toys, ask kindly, "What do you need to do to keep them?"
Simply following through is a powerful parenting tool, but it's only effective when you can do it without lectures, nagging, or anger. You can ask, "What was our agreement?" and even empathize with your child -- as long as you’re willing to follow through. Parents can be kind and firm at the same time. It's much easier when we take the time to engage our brains before setting up the rules.
Cheryl Erwin, MA, MFT, has been working with (and learning from) families for more than ten years, most recently as a licensed marriage and family therapist, speaker, and parenting consultant in private practice in Reno, Nevada. She is the coauthor of seven books in the Positive Discipline series, and How to Turn Boys Into Men Without a Man Around the House: A Single Mother's Guide," with Richard Bromfield of Harvard Medical School. She also writes articles on parenting and family relationships for a number of regional publications, and has written for such national publications as Parents Magazine. She presents a weekly parenting broadcast on KUNR -FM in the Reno/Sparks area. Cheryl is married and has an adult son, who has been, by far, her best teacher.
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