Thursday, April 05, 2007

Boundary Parenting: role confirmation?

One of the things that can appear worrisome about boundary parenting is the possibility of confirming or reinforcing bad character traits in a child.

If I have a child who lies and I stop trying to change that, if I instead just protect myself from the effects of it, doesn't that mean that I have taken the attitude that he is and always will be a liar? Don't I tell him that I don't expect that he can change?

I think this is a danger, and my experience with Carl was so long ago that I really can't remember it well enough to analyze to what degree I fell into that error. I wasn't thinking in terms of boundaries with him. I just found that trying to get him to stop lying to me was like beating my head against the wall. I got tired of fighting with him, feel disappointed and frustrated with myself, and I quit trying to fix him. I'd start up again every now and then and later realize that we were both happier when I was not trying to fix it, so I'd quit again.

The last few months of David's time living with us would have gone a lot better if I had used boundaries, but I did not have a good understanding or commitment to it then either.

It wasn't until I was living with an addict and working closely with an Naranon sponsor, who was also parenting teenage boys, that I really began to understand it. It was only with constant support that I was able to make progress actually doing it.

So, though I don't remember exactly how it went with Carl, this is how it should have been.

I would not have told him that I thought he was a liar. I would never tell him that I had given up on him. Inside I would have reminded myself that the way he behaved was just the way he behaved. It was for now. When he was ready he would change. When I did find out he lied I would not yell at him; I would just do what I had to do to take care of my own needs.

What I do remember was that I was surprised at how seldom I had an objective need to know whether what he was telling me was true. Most of the things that he told me were stories about his day, or ideas he had for plans. I did not have to make decisions based upon these things being true. Though part of me would always wonder if it was the truth, mostly I would remind myself that he was expressing to me what he felt, and that I could listen to him without worrying about whether he was spinning a tale which he thought did a better job of helping me to see how he felt.

Another reason why objectively it mattered very little, was that I became more immune to manipulation. Initially many of his lies were attempts to get me to do something for him, and I wasn't going to do them no matter what the truth was. He needed money for something. My usual response to that was sympathy. I would tell him that I knew that it was hard to live without money. He would grimace knowing that what I was saying was that he needed to get a job or live off the small allowance I gave him.

This is part of boundary parenting too. It's the natural consequences part. His problems are not automatically my problems. My job is not to solve his problems, but to express confidence in his ability to solve them.

So I know that we had many conversations that went like this:
"I have this terrible problem."
"Wow. What are you going to do about it?"
"Aren't you going to help me?"
"I think you can take care of this yourself."
"You don't believe me!"
"No. I think you can take care of this yourself."

Later my husband would ask me if I thought he was lying about the problem and I would tell him that I hadn't the foggiest idea. Maybe. Either way it was not something that I could do anything about. Hubby would find that amazing. He wanted to know what the truth really was.

I'm sharing this because I think it is a possibly helpful idea, at least with some kids. I wish that someone had explained it to me when I first starting doing foster parenting. I wish that when I took that behavioral management class as part of foster parent training they had talked about this alternative. This is part of what I have meant when I have said that I think that Al-Anon was some of the best foster parent training I ever had.

You mustn't though imagine me always succeeding at it. Even with Evan, when I was working very hard to do exactly this, I failed often. I let tensions between us rise over nothing. I fought with him when I should have let it go. I believed that I needed things from him that I did not need. I failed to protect myself because I falsely believed that I was trying to be too controlling. I got it wrong all the time.

But I didn't always get it wrong, and I found this way of thinking to be the single most valuable technique the foster parent trainers never told me about.


  1. Thank you so much for writing about boundaries in such a thorough and specific way. It's so useful to hear some of the details of how you've parented your kids. You do a really great job of making it clear how one might apply these ideas in one's own situation.

  2. 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?

  3. Whoops, that's me, Process, above.

  4. Wow, I love this post. You always give me a lot to think about. Thanks.


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