Early Boundaries

Someone recently asked how to deal with a toddler who refused to obey. I was glad the question wasn’t directed at me, because I learned a long time ago that when someone asks for advice. But it did get me to thinking about how I handled rebellion in a three-year-old (and oh was it easier than handling it in a thirteen year old or in a nineteen year old).

My kids learned very early that I would often negotiate with them over some things while others were not up for discussion. I often negotiated cleanup time, the number of books I was willing to read at bed time, or what qualified as acceptable clothing to go on errands with mom. But the things that went to safety or harming someone else were non-negotiable, and I made sure that punishment was “swift, sure, and severe” so that they understood that I meant business and wouldn’t budge after the first, seventh or one hundred and seventh time.

And by severe, I do not mean physical; I mean that the punishment didn’t always fit the severity of the crime. I remember very well a time when my daughter was about 3 and was told not to go any nearer to a pool nearby. Her hands went to her hips, her jaw tightened and lips pursed, and she looked me in the eye before deliberately placing her foot out in the direction of the pool. It was a challenge, and I did not ignore it. I swept her up into my arms, and we left (this is one of the things that makes dealing with a rebellious three-year-old ever so much easier than a nineteen-year-old; that definitely can’t happen when they’re nineteen – for a multitude of reasons).

On the ride home, my daughter vacillated between furious then devastated then furious then devastated until she finally realized that she was not going back to the pool that day, no matter what. She spent the better part of the day making repeated attempts to convince me to give her another chance, but I remained firm – and it paid off. The next time we went to the pool, she stopped when I told her to. She learned very quickly through that experience that freedom and privileges came when she respected the rules.

And the boundary I’d set meant that when I told her not to move beyond the edge of the vehicle while I got her little brother out of the parking lot resulted in her obeying what I’d asked. My kids knew better than to throw a tantrum for a toy while in a department store, and they knew better than to bother other people in a crowded waiting room. And they were proud of themselves for having mastered that self-control. Once when my daughter witnessed another child behaving badly, she “whispered” in her full voice, “Mom, if that was your child, you wouldn’t put up with that, would you.” I smiled apologetically at the mother who clearly had her hands full, but I was proud of my daughter for realizing she’d learned how to behave in public.

There is a lot of good that comes with “knowing better than”, even when we’re adults. When others aren’t quite certain what you’ll do in a dicey situation, they often don’t trust you enough to invite you to be a part of that experience. And when you can’t be trusted to stay within someone else’s boundaries, well, you usually find that the relationship is strained and not all that rewarding for either of you. I wanted my kids to enjoy a level of self-control in their relationships as adults, and so those early experiences helped them – even in their worst rebellions – to come to the understanding that hurting others for the sake of reveling in their own temper tantrum or self-will wasn’t usually worth the cost to the relationships of those they loved.

That being said, our youngest was a little Houdini. I once had my doorbell ring to find my neighbor holding my toddler’s hand. Just two minutes before, I’d seen him in our gated back yard playing with his two older siblings. It seems the little fellow, maybe only two at the time, had pushed a tricycle up to the fence’s gate, used a stick to push the latch open and relished in his new-found freedom by wandering straight out onto the sidewalk in front of our house. And when I thanked my neighbor for bringing my son to the door, she gave me a look that let me know exactly what she thought of my parenting. But, you know, I had no idea the little guy could jimmy open a gate. We padlocked the gate after that, but I also knew that my youngest didn’t have an innate fear of being away from his parents or siblings. Along with being firm with the rules, I learned that for my last child, I also had to be vigilant.

Truth be told, I’m not an expert and have no idea how another parent should raise their kid. But I believe that setting firm, unmoving boundaries on some issues really did spare a lot of drama and tension when my kids were young. I’m still learning how to parent adult children, so if any of you have advice, I’m all ears.

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