This has been a crazy, stressful week, and this will be a short parenting blog, so a short topic–a simple one. What is the difference between an ultimatum and a boundary?
A boundary describes your action. An ultimatum describes what another person must do. They can both have consequences, but in the boundary you don’t set up the defensiveness and pushback that the ultimatum does.
An ultimatum says, “You must… and sounds very controlling and demanding. A boundary says I’m going to… if you don’t honor my rule, my need, etc.
In the one you are demanding compliance; in the other you are informing of your possible forth-coming action pursuant to their action. For example, if you want your child to honor the curfew, stated as an ultimatum it is: “Be home by 10:00 or you won’t go out this weekend.” Stated as a boundary it would sound more like, “Remember your curfew is 10:00. If you don’t honor it, you won’t be using the car this weekend.” Not a huge difference, but it feels a lot different.
A boundary puts responsibility on the other person but takes responsibility for your action. It is more likely to evoke cooperation than an ultimatum, which usually makes people feel rebellious.
An adult situation where ultimatums are often used is affairs, “If you don’t stop seeing the other woman/man I’m leaving.” Stated as a boundary, “I can’t live like this; it’s too hard. If you want to keep seeing her/him then I have to go.” One produces angst and rebellion, the other will more likely elicit compassion and responsibility.
When it comes to children, yes, you want them to do what you want, and respect your authority and rules, so make it as easy as you can. It doesn’t have to be a test. In fact if you treat them respectfully, it will foster their respect for you which is the best way to parent.
If it feels like you are always challenging them to a dual, or at least a power struggle, you aren’t teaching cooperation but rebellion, sneaking, or defiance. Programming like that sets up a child to suffer poor relationships–likely having problems with authority (bosses, the law, and of course spouses). Teaching cooperation sets up good will and greases the wheels of social interaction. Modeling and teaching respect will help your child all through life–make it easier.
If you were set up that way–resisting and challenging everyone, expecting to be defensive, you will find it hard to parent differently. You will have to go back and look at where your tendency came from, have to forgive whoever taught you, and practice being mindful and doing it differently.
If you start young with your children, it’s easier. When they are young they truly want to please you and win your approval. Every parent knows that if you could get them to want what you want, parenting is easy. But they won’t always, and they have to separate, so make it as easy and respectful as possible. At the same time, do NOT let them do whatever they want to. As I’ve been saying for weeks that is really hard on kids.
I know it is in vogue not to say no to your kids, but it’s wrong. I hear all the time how schools and preschools are not using no, that is so bad for boundaries which, I will say again, give children security. They want and need boundaries. No is a very important word to healthy child development. It creates a boundary of safety that feels loved, even when your teenager hates it.