May 28, 2008

Setting Boundaries for Kids

If you've read my previous posts on parenting and education, you know that I'm a laid-back "free schooler" or unschooler. And sometimes that makes people think I let my kids do whatever they want. That's true, but it isn't. Let me explain.

My goal in parenting is to raise emotionally and physically healthy humans who are capable of making wise decisions in life. Emotionally healthy means they are not hampered by fear or shame and that they feel confident in their abilities to make a difference in the world. Two books come to mind that really helped me in this area--The Blessing and How to Really Love Your Child. After reading The Blessing, I began saying to each child at bedtime, "You are a blessing and a treasure from God." And I try to live that attitude toward them everyday.

Teaching them to make wise decisions--I think that stems from a healthy sense of self and the acceptance of their personal, intrinsic worth as human beings, but it also comes from some very basic rules of behavior. As a perfectionist mom, I knew I had it in me to have a list of 100 rules and the will power to make them obey, but stronger still was my desire to have happy, well-adjusted teenagers down the road. So, I boiled down the rules that governed their behavior to just a few. That made life easier on all of us. Here they are:

1. You are not allowed to hurt yourself. This means I will say no if you want to jump off the roof or try drinking that interesting concoction you just brewed.

2. You are not allowed to hurt other people. This means you are not allowed to say hurtful things or hit them, etc.

3. You are not allowed to hurt other people's things. This means you are to be very careful with what does not belong to you.

4. You must immediately obey mommy and daddy. Your life may depend on it. Running after a ball into the street comes to mind.

Practically, here's how these rules worked. If my child asked me if they could do something, I'd think through these rules, talk through them with the child, and if nothing was violated, I'd usually say yes. If they got in trouble, I'd explain how they messed up on one of the basic rules. Over time, these things become second nature and form the foundation of making wise decisions.

And these basic rules leave a lot of room for exploration and fun. I've let my kids do some crazy things. For example, when they were ages 3-7, we had a slide in our house from the upstairs into the living room that emptied through a closet door. The back wall of that closet opened over the basement stairs, so when we took out the wall and cut a hole in the floor upstairs, installing a slide was a natural. 

Now that we live in an old church building, we have a huge open room that was the sanctuary. In there we've had a zip line (now closed because it's too dangerous) and a rock-climbing wall with harness.

If you want to be invited to other people's homes, teaching your child #3 is essential. Learning to control the urge to touch and throw and mash is essential to a life of peace with your neighbors. I remember one time when Peter was about two years old, we were visiting an older aunt. I walked around with him as he inspected every inch of her living room. He'd reach out for something, and I'd pull his hand back. Maybe I'd pick it up and let him stroke it, but over and over again, I'd say, "gentle," and demonstrate what I meant. We kept a quiet and slow pace. Kids mirror your attitude, so if you are yelling and frenzied, they will be too. And for many years to come, before we went to someone's house, I'd remind them to be careful with other people's things, ask before you touch, etc.

Boundaries are essential. They keep society together and they lay a foundation for emotional and physical health. But teaching and maintaining those boundaries is an art. I'll talk more about that next time.

PS The pictures are of my adventurous youngest child, Melissa. I should do a whole post of crazy pictures from her life!


Anonymous said...

AWESOME PICS of Missa....she really looks like she is flying in that first one.

Ok..which house had the slide... I'm having a hard time picturing that..


Yes, do share more adventurous pics.

This is really great stuff...

with love, L

Jena said...

the house on sixth street by the library...That would have been 1997-99. Maybe you were off teaching English somewhere on the other side of the world?

Heather said...

Oh thank you! It is hard to find fellow Christian unschoolers who think kids should have to obey but also think they are free to learn. Keep ending up running into radical unschoolers who think they should never even tell their kids what to do, ever. What a relief. Thank you.

And AWESOME post! Our house rule is Love your neighbor as yourself--which includes all of those things, including respecting yourself and not sitting on your sibling. :)

Genevieve said...

These pictures are hilarious. I am so thankful to have discovered your blog as a new parent/unschooler. You've put into words what I have only been thinking about.

Debbie said...

I just found you blog today and love your rules. We are unschoolers (although my son is only 3 1/2) but are struggling with my sons very strong will. Any ideas on what to do when he resists the rules? He's often disrespectful of our stuff...and it is so frustrating. I know he's only three...but am just wondering how other parents deal with this sort of thing. Thanks for some great reading...I'll be back.

Jena said...

Hi Debbie,

Three-year-olds don't have a lot of self control yet, so I'd make sure he's not acting out because of other issues, like feeling bad about himself or his relationships. I've always found that a kid with an emotional tank filled up will act better. Then maybe there the tired or hungry thing. That can make a kid act up too. If it's none of those things, I'd work on praising good behavior, modeling good behavior, and practicing good behavior in artificial situations. See if any of that helps. :)

Debbie said...

Thanks so much Jena. This is helpful. I think my son's behaviour is really just him testing. I see him next to other kids I feel like he's just an angel. I'm probably blowing the whole thing out of proportion. I'm not worried about his emotional tank. He gets lots of love and praise from everyone.
The tired thing...ah ha. He gave up naps before he was three. Far too early in my book - but we just couldn't get him to nap anymore. He's asleep between 6 and 6:30 pm and sleeps til at least 7 (most days.) Thanks again for all this. We are working on respecting...himself, others and stuff. I'm praying it's all just a phase.

Metaxalone said...

I have a struggling reader too and I also have the child who asks what we are going to do each day : )

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