Thursday, April 05, 2007

Boundaries and biokids

Process wrote:

This is similar to what I mean when I talk about focusing on the relationship instead of on the child's behavior--"relationship parenting," if you will. I think to do it well the parent must have a very good idea of what a healthy relationship is (otherwise you'd be putting your boundaries in the wrong places and whatnot.) Also, in a relationship, when one person changes, the other person often does, too--this shouldn't be the goal, but it does happen--as you say, the other person decides to change. This kind of parenting is what I thought "Love and Logic" taught, but instead from what I've seen it's just very manipulative of the child. Do you use this type of parenting with your bio kids?

I have a series of posts in my head about boundaries. How are they different from "love and logic" and "tough love." Those I have to be careful about because they are really names for specific programs and I have not had any experience with them. I would be responding to what I see people doing and saying about them. The question "do you use this type of parenting with your bio kids?" is another topic and is a little difficult to answer without having written the other posts firsts, but I am going to give it a shot.

When I first thought about it my thought was that this is not the way I have dealt with the biokids. Then I read Bacchus's most recent post and I changed my mind. I did use something like this when the boys were toddlers.

Now I love my boys, but very young childhood was a difficult time for me. I KNOW there must have been good days. I have vague memories of them. Okay I have many good memories, but those memories are not filed under "toddler behavior." When I think of my kids as two-year-olds I seem to remember that they were uncivilized beasts who did not know when enough was enough, would push me to the edge of my ability to deal rationally and then keep pushing. They didn't know how to express themselves appropriately so they screamed and hit and spit. I remember leaving my friends' houses because my innocent, darling first-born had taken up the sport of baby-tipping.

I have a headache just thinking about it.

The thing is that small children don't have any understanding of or respect for boundaries. They don't have any understanding of or sympathy for the emotions and needs of others. They are not logical. For a long while they don't understand that the consequences that follow their actions are caused by their actions. I was committed, for a variety of reasons, to not hitting them, and there seemed to be so little that I could do to teach them to behave differently.

So I think a good bit of what I did do could be consider boundary work. I tried to take care of myself, although I think I did it less well than I should have. I removed myself from the immediate vicinity of my children when I needed to. I refused to engage with them when they behaved badly.

When they got just a little bit older, old enough to understand that I had feelings, the techniques I learned from Faber and Mazlish* started to work. I learned to guide their behavior by expressing my feelings appropriately, and teaching them how to express theirs. Part of the reason that it worked was that they had internalized a sense of boundaries and sympathies for others. Once they stopped being very young children I very rarely had to think carefully about what sort of behavior I had to disengage from. They were basically good kids who often did things they shouldn't and my everyday parenting techniques and internalized sense of boundaries worked well enough.

So once they grew out of the little beast stage and into the little human stage, I don't think I used boundaries in the sort of self-protective way. We had boundaries; but I did not have to think carefully about what my boundaries were and how to protect myself. I certainly thought, continued to think, that it was part of my job to teach them to be honest, and do their school work. All that jazz.

The thing is my parenting techniques did not work on Carl. To some degree or another all the kids from the system that I have known are emotional toddlers. They don't respect boundaries. They do not have an internalized sense of where the limits are. They push you to the edge of your sanity and then get anxious because you are losing your grip, which of course leads to them pushing you again.

And they escalate ordinary disciplining into power struggles.

I tell Ann, "Put your seat belt on, honey" and she crosses her arms and looks straight ahead with an attitude that says, "You can't boss me."

I tell David, "When you disappear I get anxious and worried. I know I can't make you go to school, but I do need you to call me when you are gone." He responds by looking at me blankly and then going on with his life just as he did before.

Carl comes home after curfew and I tell him if he does it again he will be grounded. The next night he comes home an hour later with an implausible story about why he cannot be blamed.

And it is infuriating because at some very fundamental way they seem to be saying, "Your needs don't matter to me, and I am willing to go as far as I need to go to win this fight." So I end up crying in the bedroom wondering if I can go on when I am trying so hard and things are only getting worse. I tried praise, incentives, consequences, rational conversation and nothing worked. Their behavior did not change.

Since I stink at behavior modification, I have to find another solution.

There seem to be two possibilities: get rid of the kid or stop trying to change the behavior.

Thinking about and enforcing boundaries is a way of living with behavior you cannot change. Sometimes, as Process indicated and I tried to say before, when teens understand that the rules are about protecting you and not about controlling them, they stop escalating and accept the limits. Sometimes when one person changes, the other person does too.

But working with kids this way means that you accept at a fundamental level that you cannot change them. You can only love and nurture them. Expressed this way, I would say that that IS what I have done with my bio kids, or at least what I have tried to do.

It is probably important to say that though boundary work can make it possible for you to accept behavior you did not think you could accept, it doesn't mean you can live with everything. Some boundaries are minimal conditions for living in our homes.

Boundary work though can mean that you can find a way to live with a toddler or a traumatized teenager without going insane.

*Faber and Mazlish wrote Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, and others. They were my child-rearing gurus.


  1. You don't stink at anything. Sometimes nothing works.

  2. Gah it's so frustrating. "baby-tipping" oh man I can understand how mortifying that would be.

    Right now, E has started face grabbing. You'll be playing nicely and then he'll reach over and claw at your cheek. Last night he grabbed at my nose and scratched the interior bone part of my nose. It was an unimagined pain.

    Odd how you can love something so much that can physically hurt you so much.

  3. We had pretty good experiences with Love and Logic. We still do, actually. When it doesn't work, it is usually because we are not applying enough love to our logic.

    We had NO luck with trying to explain everything out. Our teens have just not been rational enough to accept it.

    Our house was a loud, tense mess before we tried L&L, and when it starts getting that way again, Lionmom and I take a step back and remind each other of the L&L rules and things get better. I can't say it resolved everything. Of course not. But, a couple of our teens, who needed to, learned to accept responsibility for their actions.

  4. "This kind of parenting is what I thought "Love and Logic" taught, but instead from what I've seen it's just very manipulative of the child."

    I was really upset by this statement. Granted, I am a bit emotional right now, but I felt like the popular kid was attacking the thing that saved my life, but everyone would listen to her.

    Like any system, Love and Logic can be taken to an extreme. But what it does for us is allow us to do just what you said. Love the child while keeping boundaries that keep us sane. We have virtually no rules - consequences set up because we don't need them. We have expectations that are clearly outlined and the kids know that if they don't live their lives by them, that their freedoms are curtailed and the trust won't be there. For example, you are late for curfew, then it takes a while before you will have persmission to go out again. If you are up too late on the computer, we shut down the internet at 9. You lie, then I double check everything you say. And on this one, I also talk about how they are impacting my ability to advocate for them because I don't know what's true in a given situaiton.

    Lectures and appealing to them about the impact on others doesn't work for us with most kids. They aren't completely attached, so why would they care. But knowing clearly that it will impact them, while also knowing that we love them even if they lie or horde or screw up, well that works.


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