I’ve been reading the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. I love when I read a book and it confirms for me things I have always known were true. I’ve always known that if I wanted to be healthy, I had to be able to say ‘NO!’- A ‘no’ that others heard and respected. There is tremendous personal power in being able to say, ‘No, you may not do that to me!’ and knowing how to enforce that for yourself.
In many respects the way my parents chose to discipline us was contradictory. They wanted us to be able to say no; but not to them, and only to things they didn’t want for us. No drugs, no sex, no talking back. My parents were lucky to get the feisty children they did, because they did less damage with that method than they deserved to do. We were blessed to have parents who- even though mistaken and damaged themselves- believed that if God wanted to change you you’d better let him do it! (I want to come back to this)
Here’s a funny (and sad) example of how my Dad allowed us personal power, at his expense. We didn’t get candy very often, for many reasons, but one day we got Snickers Bars. My mom, my dad, and each of us three kids had one. Maybe once or twice before, my Dad had demanded what he called ‘tax’ on our candy. He said he had provided it, so he should get a percentage back. (That was actually my dad’s idea of a joke- but more on that in a minute) The problem with my Dad’s tax is that we had to hold our candy bar out while he took a bite- a HUGE bite. This time, he said, “Come here, I want my tax!” and I looked at him, and I looked at my candy, and I said “No.” Half-jokingly, he said, “Get me my stick!” I said, “No, every time you take a tax you take half of my bar in one bite. I’m not giving you any of it.” My dad gave a kind of half-wounded laugh and tried the same thing with my little brother, and he refused too. 😀 He never demanded a tax again. I won’t lie and tell you it was an easy thing for me to do. Remember I had allowed the tax a few times previously, and I really didn’t know what would happen when I stood up to him. I think it helped that I was as tall as my dad at that point, and looked like an adult; it’s much harder to openly manipulate another adult than it is to fool a child. My heart was pounding a mile-a-minute. I was stunned that it worked; I think my Dad was shocked that he allowed me to win. There is no doubt that what he was doing was unfair, and he knew it. The first time he probably did not expect to get his ‘tax’, but we gave it to him because the penalty for non-compliance was pain and humiliation. When it worked he couldn’t resist the urge to see if he could do it again. I believe he felt convicted this time, because I had held up before him exactly what he had done, and refused to participate. I drew a boundary, and I enforced that boundary.
Now back to the contradiction. I never knew whether disagreeing with my parents would be classified as ‘standing up’ or ‘defiance’. Standing up to someone who is wrong or unfair was praiseworthy, defiance was punishable. My parents expected me to know the difference between the two. There wasn’t one. The emotions and the attitude of my heart were exactly the same. It is natural and normal and necessary to want to defend yourself in an unreasonable situation. And although ‘defend’ and ‘defy’ have different roots, one of the possible definitions for both is to maintain or resist. Both words describe actions we take when our boundaries are violated. What my parents actually taught me, was to be unsure if others would allow me to maintain my boundaries. They actually made it hard for me to say no when it was right. No is a reasonable response. It allows us to protect ourselves. It allows us to maintain our separate identities. No can be a very fragile thing in a child, however. My parents were not allowed to keep their ‘No!’ as children. When children are never allowed to say no, in words or actions, eventually their ability to express a negative is almost completely lost. True, these can be very compliant children. Compliant children grow into compliant adults, and very often they lack the ability to discern who has the right to order them around. In a home like the one I grew up in, you get children who would like to please their parents but have no idea how. Frustrated Pleasers I like to call them. You get adults who decide that since it’s impossible to please people; why try? After the initial wild swing in the direction of total non-compliance these adults settle back into a state of frustration, at least they do until and unless they find some boundaries.
So how do you maintain both YOUR boundaries AND your child’s boundaries? Well, kids don’t always know what is good for them, so they say no to things they really need, like medicine. So I must find a way to respectfully make it happen. Kids deserve respect too. They are people, small ones, but people nonetheless. My parental boundaries include, ‘No one will prevent me from taking care of my child’, and that includes the child himself. Many times that doesn’t look very gentle. But if I am going to hold Maximus down to give him medicine for a fever; I need to have made a few decisions first. First- must he have a fever-reducer? Second- can I offer him a little something to sweeten the deal? (I’m not talking heavy bribery or jumping through hoops- I’m talking a small candy or cookie) Third, can I wait a minute and readdress? Fourth- How can I do this as quickly and painlessly as possible? There are lots of other ways to make it happen, and they all depend on the situation and the child. I don’t have to resort to that most times, though. I have backed up what I say with action often enough that Maximus at least, knows Mommy means what she says. I am responsible for drawing those boundaries. I teach him to draw his own by not violating ones he has but cannot express.
My point is that you cannot spend your child’s formative years demanding that they avoid angering you at all costs and make all decisions the way you would make them, and then expect them to suddenly be able to think for themselves and be respectful of people when they leave home! Punitive parenting is often touted as the solution to all of society’s ills. My parents believe that if you shame and hurt a child when he does something you don’t like, he will learn to do what you DO like. They also believe that if they had not used spanking specifically as a punishment that we would be lying, thieving, heathen derelicts. They believe this, of course, because they were spanked (and worse, in my father’s case) and THEY turned out ok, right? Nope. My parents are two of the most conflicted people I know; speaking of God’s love on one hand, and totally unable to extend it to anyone else on the other. That brings me back neatly to my parents’ relationship with God.
I said they believed that if God wanted to change them, they had better let him do it. Actually, we do not have to say ‘yes’ to anyone; not even God. We are allowed to say no to God. One of the greatest gifts He has given his Children is the freedom to make our own decisions. Our yes only means anything to him if it is voluntary, freely given of a willing heart. He wants us to be willing, but he will not tell us we MUST be willing. He created us with natural limits and the desire to enforce them. He gave us those boundaries, and as parents it is wrong of us to force our children to remove those boundaries in the name of obedience. Give your children the gift of ‘no’.