Tag Archives: Evolutionary Parenting

Boundaries, fencing, & reliving childhood. Surviving the preschool years (and Antarctica).

Through the pack ice to Cape Adare, Antarctica

Through the pack ice to Cape Adare, Antarctica.

I certainly got to experience the full fury of the Southern Ocean the first of several times that I’ve travelled down to Antarctica by ship, either departing from New Zealand in this case, or South America. At one point we encountered stormy weather, complete with 15 metre waves and pitch and roll close to the boat limits. It left me feeling a distinct lack of control over my existence.

The latitudes heading towards the frozen landmass are very reverently referred to as the Roaring 40’s, Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties and travelling these waters for this landlubber usually involves significant, debilitating seasickness.

It’s a heck of a roller-coaster ride through tumultuous seas that generally worsen before you reach the sanctity of Antarctic waters itself, the Silent Seventies.

If you gave me a choice, however, of skipping directly to Antarctica by a comparatively short but uncomfortable five hour plane flight dressed in full survival gear or six or more days of boat and stomach heaving up and down at sea, I would probably always choose the ship-based option.

Never one to typically take the easy road, I’m aware that sometimes the journey itself is the most memorable, if challenging, part. In the case of the Southern Ocean, there is much beauty and mesmerising change to be found along the way that those who travel airborne to Antarctica never get to experience. The constant, graceful companion seabirds, that vary in the type of species one sees as the ship migrates south like accompanying guardians each doing a shift; the subtle changes in the colour and texture of the oceans; the captivating and spectacular icebergs that appear; the whales, seals and finally penguins that bring unprecedented delight once the calmness of the pack ice appears; the pack ice itself- that most magical experience of pushing through these floating sculpted jigsaw pieces with the unnerving sound of the ship rubbing on ice but the most divine colours in water ever; and of course the vista of the frozen land itself- mountainous, treacherous terrain but also the most indescribable, sublime beauty. And we travellers just know looking at it that it offers pure pleasure of exploration once we land.

And the waves, the weather and the cold on that journey- well they just really let you know you are alive. They’re there to test you, to push you to limits at times. All of this extremeness serves to make you think and reflect and ultimately I’d like to think that everyone that heads south is a better person at journey’s end- looking at the world with new eyes, having experienced life on earth like nowhere else on this planet.

Parenting is really no different from ship-based travel south. It’s a damn hard roller-coaster journey as well and we all who travel this route will be sorely tested at times. It will be uncomfortable, maybe even gut emptying painful. Like the waters next to the Antarctic continent itself, where the supposed utopia of the Silent Seventies may still be far from silent, might indeed be unbearably cold with wind that whips straight through the body, our children even as adults may still push buttons and we may never find that elusive stillness. However, along every step of the way, just when it all seems too much our child’s beauty will melt and then re-melt our hearts; their crazy antics will bring immeasurable pleasure and every day we will celebrate the little changes and milestones that occur in our child’s development because no one day being a parent is the same.

Although there are varying research outcomes[1][2][3] on the happiness of parents versus childless adults (something I will delve into more deeply in future posts so just giving you media rather than research links here), parent’s lives are undoubtedly changed by the experience of having children, hopefully mainly in a positive sense (see Leaving a Legacy).

None of it’s easy though and the toddler and preschool years are certainly busy and brain-taxing. They’re frequently referred to as the Terrible Two’s, Terrific Three’s and Fabulous Four’s. In many ways, these nicknames are accurate, although in our case we didn’t find anything very terrible about the Two’s for MissBB; although they certainly are for some families.

There’s no question there is huge amounts of pleasure to be gained from a toddler as they migrate into a pre-schooler, becoming more of an individual and in doing so becoming more of everything- more busy, more noisy, more active, more talky, more tantrums, more whiny, just more! Many parents then may find that the Trying Three’s and Furious Four’s may be more apt descriptors.

We have hit the 4’s with an abrupt full on Roar- maybe that’s why she likes the Katy Perry song so much. MissBB has certainly been letting us know she is her own person with her own opinions and decisions about how she wants her life to be run. There have been some significant developmental shifts associated with this- an explosion of language and non-stop talking in our already vociferous child and the dropping of the day sleep completely. No wonder I’ve been exhausted (The rubber band effect: building and maintaining resilience). It’s also as I alluded to in Time Out coincided with the Why? phase returning- the one where it’s all about the question and attention and nothing to do with actually listening to the answer and when combined with whining has the ability to irritate more than pretty much anything.

And recently at every step of the way there has been boundary pushing and more boundary pushing. Children are born to push boundaries. By age four they are in full combat mode, frequently in armoured tanks, apparently itching to take down all fences. This may seem at times like a curse to parents, but this assertiveness is an essential part of development.

Boundaries constitute the space between one person and another; a limit that allows us to protect ourselves. When we impose boundaries or limits we make it possible to separate our thoughts and feelings from those around us, and in doing so this allows us to take responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and actions.

When we do this around our children we are teaching them the process of building boundaries as well by letting them know what is acceptable and not acceptable to us. Everyone has a right to set their own boundaries and it’s important to remember this about our own children. As this is the framework on which they begin their lifelong process of defining their own boundaries, it’s essential as parents to think carefully about how we engage in this space. Boundaries need to be clearly defined but they also need to be flexible and for those with two or more children in their families, consideration needs to be given to the unique needs of each child.

There are several kinds of boundaries: physical boundaries (i.e. the physical space- the space we own around our bodies); emotional boundaries (these help give us the space needed to deal with our own emotions); intellectual boundaries (the right to think what we want and apply it in our own way); and spiritual boundaries (the right to believe in our own spiritual/religious beliefs and respect for other’s perspectives).

Why are pre-schoolers so good at seeing how strong and high the fence is, particularly with respect to physical, emotional and intellectual boundaries? At this age children are slowly becoming aware they need to lessen their egocentric take on the world but typically with strong push-back to maintain it- it’s a great shock to discover the universe doesn’t revolve around them. Alongside that, they also need to know that they are safe– they need to know what their physical and emotional limits are – how far can they go before it’s ‘dangerous’. If we create intact emotional boundaries (and the other types of boundaries too) they allow both parent and child to feel safe, supported and respected in their relationships.

20131230_0012-FenceCreating our boundaries is a little bit like the fence around this grave. The fence denotes a limit, where the remains of the deceased are still respected by a physical line. At the same time it gives someone walking in the cemetery a boundary where they can perhaps feel emotionally and spiritually safe that they aren’t stepping on the dead. Good boundaries are actually a winning situation for both sides.

However, when pre-schoolers are testing any of their limits, it can be challenging as a parent to deal with. As trying as this is, it’s normal behaviour. Parents then need to respond by providing their child with clear (I prefer this over ‘firm’), as consistent as possible, yet flexible boundaries around demands, expectations or requests. Like all things though, it’s important to pick your battles and ask yourself that all important “Does it really matter?” question. It can entirely feel like a game of fencing- one jab in from the child, and another back from parent to demonstrate what the limits are. A fencing game that never ends.

Whatever the limits you decide are important to you, it’s important to unconditionally love. It’s also essential to employ some flexibility with respect to boundaries- each child has their own needs and not paying attention to this can create problems especially in the teenage years.

Gentle guidance with a very nurturing positive approach has been shown to be best. These children are little people and need to be treated with respect, rather than punishment based approaches. Some excellent resources can be found on Our Muddy Boots (e.g. Children have rights too, Why I do not use time out or time in; Bullying my kids),  Evolutionary Parenting (e.g. What is discipline, Bullying, Parenting and Communication), PhD in Parenting (e.g. 3 R’s of toddler discipline: repetition, reaction, reassurance), Lori Petro’s site as well as here. One way to foster boundaries is by teaching appropriate manners and ensuring parents and child use them.

However, at some point the wheels will fall off (the parent) in response to the child and it’s easy to use words and actions that are punitive, shameful, blaming and judging in nature. This is so easy to do because we have all these layers of societal and family filters through which we view the world- the way that we were raised though is not necessarily the way we may want to raise our own children. When we’re parenting at our best we have recognised that these filters exist and battled through them to discover the way we actually want to parent, which may be quite different. When parenting becomes challenging, it’s easy in our stress of losing control and of being exhausted for those filters to flip back into place and revert to perhaps how we were treated as a child without realising there is another way- that it’s actually a matter perhaps of re-finding our own values.

To get back to connection with your child, some of the tips here are particularly fantastic. Usually what is required involves applying the very own strategies I teach to my child to myself: our mantra is Stop (recognise a trigger), Breathe (mindfulness), Think (what the problem is), Do (take appropriate action to solve the problem) or Say (express what you want) to deal with the issue at hand.

Being mindful that your child is a person in their own right, it’s often great to talk about things as Lori Petro suggests. Bring in some humour and some honesty about what behaviour is pushing the limit and troubleshoot together to make the boundaries intact again. Often I think, based on my own experiences it’s us as parents that need to shift our attitudes rather than just expect that our children will comply.

That such positive routines work is shown by a reduction in bedtime tantrums (together with improved marital satisfaction) by Adams and Rickert[5] versus the graduated extinction method. Also, as media reported here Avolio et al[6] found that children that experienced an authoritative (“authoritative parents can be described as being demanding (challenging), responsive, rational, considerate, consistent, and assertive yet not restrictive) parenting style versus an authoritarian (“authoritarian parents are controlling, lacking in warmth, support and consistency”, and favour punitive approaches) style were more likely to take on leadership roles as adults and less likely to engage in modest to serious rule breaking. Parents are indeed the first leadership trainer.

Sometimes our boundaries hold us back- teaching our children when to push through their perceived limits is important

Sometimes our boundaries hold us back- teaching our children when to push through their perceived limits is important.

One of the best ways I can think of to both know what it’s like to be a child pushing hard and to teach them how to both create boundaries and to push through them when they are holding us back is to engage in challenging activities with our child. The activities may be a recreation of our own childhood or something entirely new. I wrote about this with respect to holidays in Time Out and although this can be done any time with your child, holidays provide an ideal consolidated learning opportunity.

It may be something like exploring a cave, climbing a tree, swimming in waves, rock climbing, kayaking or just jumping off something, or even engaging in imaginative play (a trip to Antarctica by boat perhaps?). When faced with the fear of thinking we are at our limit what do we do?: stop, breathe, think, say or do.

As we define and then redefine our boundaries we grow

As we define and then redefine our boundaries we grow

As adults, teaching our children we may feel a little out of our comfortable zone but being aware of the risks, and letting just a little of our control go all the same is such a powerful learning tool. This is the space in which we can all grow.

References:

[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/14/living/parents-happiness-child-free-studies/

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-belkin/parenting-and-happiness_b_1497687.html

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/08/one-more-take-on-whether-_n_4066427.html

[4] http://www.suzannewelstead.com/resources/Boundaries.pdf

[5] Lisa A. Adams, Vaughn I. Rickert 1989. Pediatrics 84(5): 756-761. Reducing Bedtime Tantrums: Comparison Between Positive Routines and Graduated Extinction http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/84/5/756.short

[6] Bruce J. Avolio, Maria Rotundo, Fred O. Walumbwa 2009. Early life experiences as determinants of leadership role occupancy: The importance of parental influence and rule breaking behaviour. Leadership Quarterly 20(3): 329-342. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1048984309000794#