It’s the same with our own flesh-and-blood kids. Second only to learning how to bond, to form strong attachments, the most important thing parents can give children is a sense of responsibility—knowing what they are responsible for and knowing what they aren’t responsible for, knowing how to say no and knowing how to accept no. Responsibility is a gift of enormous value.
We’ve all been around middle-aged people who have the boundaries of an eighteen-month-old. They have tantrums or sulk when others set limits on them, or they simply fold and comply with others just to keep the peace. Remember that these adult people started off as little people. They learned long, long ago to either fear or hate boundaries. The relearning process for adults is laborious.
Many parents are confused by how to teach children to respect boundaries. They read countless books and articles on spanking, time-outs, restrictions, and allowances. While these issues are beyond the scope of this book, a few thoughts may help organize the searching parent.
1. Consequences are intended to increase children’s sense of responsibility and control over their lives.
Discipline that increases the child’s sense of helplessness isn’t helpful. Dragging a sixteen-year-old girl to class doesn’t build the internal motivation she’ll need in two years when she’s in college. A system of rewards and consequences that help her choose school for her own benefit has much better possibilities for success.
2. Consequences must be age appropriate.
Think through the meaning of your discipline. A time-out in a chair can be helpful and build structure for a young child but would be humiliating to a teenager.
3. Consequences must be related to the seriousness of the infraction.
Just as the penal system has different prison stays for different crimes, you must be able to distinguish between minor and severe infractions. Otherwise, severe penalties become meaningless.
Someone once said, “I got whippings for little things and for big things. So I started getting more involved in big things. It just seemed more efficient.” Once you’ve been sentenced to death, you don’t have much to gain by being good!
4. The goal of boundaries is an internal sense of motivation, with self-induced consequences.
Successful parenting means that our kids want to get out of bed and go to school, be responsible, be empathic, and be caring because that’s important to them, not because it’s important to us. It’s only when love and limits are a genuine part of the child’s character that true maturity can occur. Otherwise, we are raising compliant parrots who will, in time, self-destruct.
Parents have a sober responsibility: teaching their children to have an internal sense of boundaries and to respect the boundaries of others. It’s sober because the Bible says it’s sober: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
There are certainly no guarantees that our training will be heeded. Children have the responsibility to listen and learn. The older they are, the more responsibility they have. Yet as we learn about our own boundary issues, take responsibility for them, and grow up ourselves, we increase our kids’ chances to learn boundaries in an adult world in which these abilities will be sorely needed—every day of their lives.