You know the drill. Our child does something wrong. We want to teach them a lesson. We step in. Not only do we want to tell them the behavior is wrong, but we also want them to feel it. We rush to give them some consequences.
Logical vs. natural consequences
A consequence is presented as a harmless way to manage children's behaviors. There are consequences that we come up with (logical) or that occur by themselves (natural). Let's see an example of each:
- Logical consequences: Our child doesn't tidy up their toys → the toys get a "time-out."
- Natural consequences: Our child insists on putting too many things in their backpack → they have to carry it.
Why consequences are bad
No matter how mild it sounds, a consequence is a form of punishment. Like all other punishments, its main goal is to control behaviors.
Of course, not all behaviors are welcome. Our primary role as a parent is to lead our children to better behavior. There's a better way of achieving this.
Today, we'll discover the golden compass of positive discipline: boundaries.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are the lines we draw between ourselves and others.
Boundaries are not rules. Rules exert control. Boundaries are about letting others understand and respect our needs.
How do boundaries work?
We don't have complete control over our children (just like we don't have control over our partner, friends, or parents). What we have complete control over is our needs.
Boundary-setting is a great way to show others—including our children—what our needs are.
One of our primary needs in our parent-child relationship is to protect our children. Let's see an example:
Example: Our older kid is hitting his sister.
Consequence: "You can't hit your sister. Time out! Apologize to your sister and go to your room."
Boundary: "You're mad. It's okay to be mad but I can't let you hit your sister. I will now hold your hands for everyone's safety."
Here are 4 reasons why boundaries are a better tool than consequences.
1) Consequences target behaviors, boundaries target what's underneath them
Consequences are a strategy for behavior modification. We see one behavior and realize we want different behavior. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy, a behavior always communicates a larger story.
"Behavior is the tip of the iceberg."
—Dr. Becky Kennedy
When children behave in a way that doesn't please us, it might be because:
- They might be lacking a skill
- They might have an unmet need
- They might be trying to communicate something
We're no different. We don't always behave in the best way possible. Yet we all want to be understood beyond our behavior.
Consequences cause us to miss the reason behind a behavior. Boundaries, on the other hand, give us a safe space to address the root cause.
2) Consequences feed external validation, boundaries help build internal validation
External validation is when we seek approval. Internal validation is when we make sense of our internal experiences: our emotions, thoughts, and motivations.
Rewards and punishments give us external validation. They seem to work in the short run. When children are little, they are easier to control with rewards (sticker charts, snacks, extra screen time, etc.) or punishments (consequences, time-out, no screen time, etc.).
When they become teenagers, our rewards and punishments won't matter to them anymore. By that time, we will have lost many valuable opportunities to build their internal validation mechanisms.
The more we ignore a child's internal life, the less a kid gets to know himself.
—Dr. Becky Kennedy
By setting consequences, we show a behavior was wrong. But do our children actually feel why that behavior was wrong?
Boundary-setting, on the other hand, gives them a backstage pass to our decision making-process. They develop respect for our needs and decisions. Respecting other people's needs teaches them to respect their own needs too.
3) Consequences make us a dictator, boundaries make us a leader
In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent holds the authority. The parent might occasionally choose to share power with children but the decision-making responsibility is always on the parent.
We set boundaries for safety not for convincing. Even though our children don't like the result of our decisions, boundaries help them accept our leadership because they, too, see that it's for their own safety.
Consequences, on the other hand, exert control on our children without conveying our intention to protect them.
According to Dr. Becky Kennedy, setting a boundary is an act of love:
In difficult times, children look for someone to help them make good decisions. The parent is the pilot of the plane. When we avoid setting a boundary, the kids learn that the threat of their feelings makes parents doubt their decisions. We should be calm around their storm. This way, they will see that their feelings are safe to have.
They are allowed to have feelings. We validate the feelings. But we separate decisions and validation.
See more in Dr. Becky's videos here.
4) Consequences cause disconnection, boundaries cause connection
Consequences put the parent and the child on opposite teams.
- Failed to do your homework? No play date.
- Did not help me tidy up your room? No books today.
- Took longer to finish your chores? Less screen time.
- Refused to put on her coat? Be ready to get cold.
Do we want to be on the other team? Or do we want to hold on to our role as the calm, confident, and compassionate leader who draws boundaries for our child's wellbeing?
When children see that our decision is not an intention to control but rather to protect, our message resonates better.
- Failed to do your homework?
Connection: "Was it too hard for him?" "How can I help him figure this out?"
Boundary: "I can't let you go to school without your homework. Do you have a plan to get this done? Can I help?
- Did not help me tidy up your room?
Connection: "Why isn't he motivated for this?" "Can I involve more fun in this process?"
Boundary: "I can't let you watch TV before tidying up your room. Do you wanna race to fill up the toy basket?"
- Took longer to finish your chores?
Connection: "Is she tired today?" "Is she distracted?"
Boundary: "Today we will have less time than usual to watch TV because I can't let you lose sleep."
- Refused to put on her coat?
Connection: "Is this an act of independence?" "Is she really not cold?"
Boundary: Depending on how cold it is, "I can't let you leave the house without a coat on. It's too cold outside, you might get sick." OR "I'll pack your coat in my bag. Make sure you tell me when you are cold."
You are the leader your child needs. The calm, confident, compassionate leader who never negotiates safety or protection. All you need to do is remember this role and holding a boundary will be easier.
To convince yourself of your decisions, try repeating this sentence in your head: "I'm the parent. I can do this."
You got this!