I might like the Dog Whisperer a little too much. We just recently added the National Geographic channel back into our TV lineup and I’ve seen a few episodes that have reacquainted me with Cesar’s philosophies. In my opinion, so much of what I hear from him about dogs applies to kids too. He certainly talks about the importance of training the owners, since so many of the “problems” in the dogs are influenced by the energies and habits of their owners. With parents and kids it is much the same way. If you are anxious and stressed, then there’s a good chance that that’s the energy you’ll be giving your child. If every bump or cry or want is met with immediate & nervous attention, then not only will your child learn that that is the proper reaction to bumps and cries and wants, they’ll also start to learn that gasps and anxiety are normal ways to react to most things. Similarly, if you tend to be a calm parent, then chances are better (though not certain) that you’ll pass on some calm to your kids.
Just as dog owners and parents teach habits to their pets and kids, they also are responsible for setting firm boundaries. How many episodes have I seen where owners are afraid to take their dogs on walks because their pups are too aggressive toward passers-by and other dogs? Or that families have to segregate their dogs from their children because the dogs just can’t be trusted around the kids? Changing your life when a pet or a child comes into it is a natural thing, but changing it so much that it’s grossly inconvenient for you and your family is quite another. What these pet owners were lacking was conviction and boundary-setting.
Boundaries: Invisible Fences
You’re reading a book to your son. Your daughter comes up and tries to take it from you. You redirect her and invite her to listen along, but tell her that she can’t have the book right now. She tries again, this time taking it from your hands. This little dance of take and get back goes on for a few minutes before you give up, apologize to your son and offer him a different book to read. No boundary.
You are checking your email on your iPhone. Your son comes up and asks to play a game on it. You tell him that you’re busy with it right now and that he can’t have it. He asks again and again and again and again. Eventually you give it to him or you put it away before you’ve had a chance to respond to that email. No boundary.
When we let kids get what they want after we’ve told them ‘No,’ we are reinforcing the fact that our boundaries are completely for show. The line in the sand might be there, but you can walk on either side of it. In the same vein, when we avoid situations where boundaries are needed, we are complicit in neglecting the teaching of them (like putting away your iPhone so that neither you nor your son can use it- no fair to you!).
How do we solve this problem then? Let’s return to the iPhone…
#1 Do you have rules about iPhone use?
Are they even allowed to play on it? If they are, when are they? Only when you don’t need it? Only when you’re out at a restaurant? Only once their homework is done? What are the boundaries that you’ve established?
#2 If they are sometimes allowed to use it, but just not right now…
They need to be warned that if they continue to nag you for it, they will not be allowed to use it when you’re done with it at all. That iPhone belongs to you, gosh darn it!! Don’t let them dictate when and if you can use it. You tell them when and if they can use it.
#3 If they are never allowed to use it…
Try not to be showy about it being out and around, but you don’t have to keep it hidden from them when you’d like to use it. That shows them that it really does belong to you and isn’t just something that you have to sneak or hide from them. And also that you set the rules regarding its use. No meant no and continues to mean no. But no doesn’t mean no for mom since it’s hers. Don’t let them trick you with that, “But you said I couldn’t use it, so why can you?” stuff. It belongs to me, that’s why I can use it.
With younger kids (toddlers and pre-schoolers), simply moving them away from things you’d like them not to touch or moving the things away from them is the way to go. That doesn’t mean that you should keep a breakable vase out just so you can use it as a teaching tool. But if you’d like them not to drool on or mangle a certain book, don’t always put the book on a high shelf. Keep it down on the floor with you and simply move it away from them when they get to it. Tell them that that’s not for them to touch, show them what they can touch, and let the book be. Repeat, repeat, repeat until they eventually get what you mean.
And just like that you have built some invisible fences that will help you keep the boundaries in your house in place.