Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Learning Boundaried Parenting

So with Carl I learned that I could not make him tell me the truth. Ann (and you can read Ann's Story in its entirety if you haven't yet) I learned that I couldn't make her do school work, among other things. By the time David moved in I had FINALLY come to the conclusion that there were certain things I could not change. I didn't think very clearly about it though.

I believe I started out deciding that behaviors that were part of what they needed to do to survive when they were young were too deeply ingrained for me to change. I continue to believe that it is possible for the kids eventually to make changes in themselves, but it wasn't something I was going to be able to change with behavior modification or anything like that. I also decided that school battles were ones I could not win with teens.

I've come to believe that parenting for character, trying to teach kids to be honest, compassionate, generous, courageous (add your virtue here) is an appropriate goal with all kids, as long as we understand that these are not things we can generally tackle directly. The more I parent, the more I teach philosophy, the more I think Aristotle was on to something. Virtues are habits of character. They take time and mentoring. Very young children (I can only speak of neuro-typical children with any authority here, what does and does not apply to children with special needs I must leave to those with experience) learn to be generous and honest simply by being raised by generous and honest parents. Okay, it isn't that easy, but that is more or less how it happens.

Traits of character develop in older children, teens and adults because these children, teens and adults are working at it. They may simply be trying to be like someone they admire, or they may have a more clear understanding of the sort of person they want to be. We can be part of that process, but we can't be in control of it. I firmly believe that it can only happen if we are modeling these habits of character.

I have a friend who believes that the change tends to come after they leave us. He's becoming a priest and he raised his nephews through their teen years. He thinks that Jesus had to leave the disciples because as long as he was there, they were depending on him to guide them. That meant they didn't have to think for themselves. They only had to internalize what Jesus taught them once the external Jesus got out of the way. (I over-simplify). He does not think we should be in a hurry to get kids to leave us, just that many of the things we hope we are teaching them won't really happen until they do.

Anyway, as one of the commenters said on the last post, all this sounds great, but it can lead you to the conclusion that you should just let kids run around and do whatever they want. Those who have read for a while know that isn't what I think.

Here is what I think: figure out what rules you and other people in the house need to be sane and safe. Be prepared for that list to be different then you thought it would be. Let's say that one of those rules is "no hitting."

Okay, so first, you communicate the rule.
Second, particularly when you are the parent, you figure out what you can do to prevent the occasions for the behavior. What tends to escalate kids to that point? If you are part of the escalation, what do you need to do to change your behavior? How can you help the child think of alternative?

Third, develop an action plan for when the boundary is violated. This will be different for different aged people of course. I have teenage boys. They are bigger and stronger than I am. NONE of them has ever physically threatened me (though Evan did a fair amount puffing up and trying to stare me down in a pretty intimidating way), but if they did, I have an action plan. My action plan is to speak quietly, move slowly, and get me and everyone else out of danger and call 911.

If I was working with a much younger child the action plan might be "if you hit you will have to go to your room until you can calm down."

My father's caretaker cannot tolerate my father swearing at her or criticizing her religion ("You know there is no god, or there is, he's an *sshole.") Her action plan is to stop what she is doing and say, "George, You know I don't like that language. I can't stay here/help you if you speak to me that way." Then she either leaves or just stands there until he gets himself under control and says he is sorry. What often happens, I am told, is that he storms off. She finishes whatever she was doing and then he apologizes to her later.

When Ann would start yelling at me, my action plan was to sit down and stare at the floor until she wore her self out. If that didn't work, I would stand up and say, "as soon as you are able to talk calmly, please find me."

These action plans are designed to protect us. They are not punishment. Please, by all that is good and holy, please do not put implement an action plan and then turn it into a punishment. If you have told someone that you will talk to her as soon as she is calm, do not refuse to do so so that she can "know what it feels like" to be treated like dirt. Talk to her.

My own humble opinion is that you should not extend the action plan into a "consequence" at all. If you have told the six year old that he must stay in his room until he can interact calmly, then as soon as he can interact calmly, I think he should get your attention. All the usual caveats, of course. I don't mean that you should jump out of the shower, or even end your conversation before you would have anyway. I just don't think it is helpful to say, "I'm not ready to talk to you." Well, unless that is TRUE. There have been a few occasions when I have been so aggravated that I know that I cannot interact calmly. I have told the kids, "I am too upset right now and I can't be calm. I'm going to go for a walk/do the dishes/whatever and then I will be able to talk to you." The kids really do seem to understand the difference between my doing something because I really need it and doing something as a punishment for them.

The ultimate action plan is of course removal. This is NOT something reserved for foster kids. If Brian were to become violent I would not be able to live with him. I would do first do everything I could to get him help. I would hope there was something treatable behind it. I would take him to counselors and physicians. I would also call 911 any time I was not safe.

Okay, so boundaries in this sense are all about keeping everyone safe and sane. What I have found is that having action plans, but not punishment works well. Punishment just sucks as a discipline tool. Anytime you are doing something intended to make a child unhappy and hoping that doing that will "teach them a lesson," I encourage you to think really hard about whether there isn't a better way to handle the situation. I freely confess that I have failed to follow my own guidelines here. In this post I am writing about my ideals, and my actual behavior falls far short of that.

I don't think that requiring some level of restitution is punishment. If one child breaks another's toy, making the child do some age-appropriate work to earn the money to replace it, makes sense. I think it should be done sympathetically. What I mean is that I think it works best to talk kindly to the child who broke the toy, point out that Sara is really sad that her best ball was ruined, and ask the child something like, "What do you think we should do about it?" Hopefully the kid will say something like, "Buy a new one?" Then you can respond, "That is a great idea. Let's make a list of chores you can do to earn the money to buy one!" If you are dealing with a kid who doesn't really get money, then it may be that scrubbing the bathtub is the "right" amount of work to pay for a basketball. If you are dealing with a child who knows what stuff costs and knows how much people get paid for on hour's work, then it is different.

Now, you know how I wrote all those posts about Carl's lying and how I could not change it? Honesty is actually something that I need to be safe and sane. What happened with Carl was that I was constantly implementing my action plan: getting information from other sources. I did not do that secretly. I just did it.

Now here is something really important: a boundary is working if it is keeping you and those who depend on you safe and sane. It can work even if it does not change the behavior.A lot of time though it will change the behavior. My father swears around his caretaker far less than he would otherwise. However, he still swears. A lot. Just not at or around her (as much). If she got it into her head that her boundary was that he was not allowed to swear at all and that she wouldn't interact with him if she learned that he swore at all that day, I predict it would be a total failure.

Again, we are talking about the neuro-typical (and some percentage of the non-neuro-typical) here. People understand the difference between a boundary you need and an attempt to control or change them. I like to ask myself what what I would be willing to tolerate if, as an adult, I had to live with my sister. I know that she is neurotic about dirt and clutter. She really is. So I would be much more careful to be tidy there than I am in my own home. I would also shut my bedroom door. If she tried to insist that I wasn't making my bed right ("See, if you take everything off every morning and start from scratch you can make it all perfectly flat and straight") I would tell her that she was insane and recommend that she not open my bedroom door.

Self-protective boundaries are things that we really and truly need.

Okay, to sum up.

1. I have found characters or deeply ingrained behavior patterns can't be changed with behavior modification.
2. Character can change, but it happens slowly, and it happens from within. THEY do it when and if they want to. We can be part of it, but we can't make it happen.
3. We can still have boundaries to keep ourselves and our dependents safe and sane.
4. Boundaries should be left to all those things we really do need to be safe and sane, not to just stuff we want.

Okay, the next post is about the stuff we want.


  1. Regarding the aggravated "I need to be somewhere else until I am calm" behavior - it's not surprising that they understand that that isn't punishment, since you're modeling the behavior you just required from them. If anything, it's an enlightening moment that when you said "go to your room until you calm down" wasn't a punishment either, since you're now doing the same thing voluntarily yourself.

  2. These posts have been golden - you are saying so many things that I understand, but have a hard time explaining! Thank you!

  3. Great write-up! I liked the description of an action plan and can see how it relates to our situation.

    It's taken us a lot of trial and error but we've figured out the things that don't work to get our 7-year-old son to stop the targeted behavior: violent fits that happen 1-2 times a week.

    Things that don't work:

    - talking to him and asking him to do alternate activities such as taking deep breaths or punching a pillow. He's not interested in listening.
    - spanking. This worked for two weeks. Then it stopped working. It was a short experiment but we won't ever do it again.
    - time-outs. Time-outs are pointless. He craves human contact and being alone makes him more upset and less able to control his behavior.
    - time-ins. Same thing as time-outs... even if he's physically next to me, he needs acknowledgment or he gets more and more upset.
    - ignoring the behavior. I tried this once, and the result was that I became a punching bag.
    - removing toys from his room if he didn't stop. Just made him more upset.

    Now we have an immediate action plan:

    - we tackle him
    - we pin him down on a carpeted surface or carry him to a carpeted surface then pin him down
    - I take over holding him down
    - my husband goes in another room (he is more easily disturbed and more likely to yell back)
    - I wait until my son finishes screaming and raging, then give him a hug and accept his apology.

    That's it. We're not even bothering to take away privileges afterward. We're doing a lot of things to work on the fits in the long term, like rewards for fit-free weeks, therapy, medication, talking about anger management when he's calmer... but just as it happens, our current course of action keeps everyone safe and returns us back to normal life as soon as possible.

    The fits are not that frequent, and aside from the fits, he's a joy... but our capacity to carry out a simple optimal action plan totally depends on our physical fitness. It's scary to think that if he had been adopted by much older or less physically capable people, he probably would have disrupted. He did not start having these fits until about 6 months with us.


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