Tag Archives: saying no to your child

Boundaries VS. Ultimatums

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.

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Love is NOT Getting Everything You Want

So here is the rest of my story. Alone, and adjusting to a divorce, I knew a small group was what I needed. Somewhere to feel safe and loved. So I called a friend and we started one.

One night we met at my friend’s house, and afterwards he took me aside and said, “You are turning your daughter into a monster. She is obnoxious and it isn’t her fault. You give her all your power, and very soon no one will want to be around her.”

Ouch! But I knew Herb to be caring and honest, to say what he thought without glossing it. Of course I said, “You don’t understand…”

But he replied, “She needs to know that you are in control.” I actually don’t remember what else he said or how long it took me to change my behavior, but I know his words had a profound effect.

I remember telling her (I think she was five) that from now on things were going to be different. That I had made a mistake, and I was sorry and was going to correct it, that I would be making our decisions and she would be expected to obey, so she could relax and enjoy being a kid.  And from then on I really struggled to make all of our decisions.

What scares me now is that in doing that I think I changed our relationship. I must not have known how to stay affectionate, available, and loving while setting and holding firm boundaries. How sad.

I think that because a couple of weeks ago, before leaving her house, I asked her (now 38) what feelings she has of her childhood. She said almost none–a scary thing. But she did remember me feeling distant. So I shared what I have just shared here, and she said “Maybe that’s when it started.”

I know when I became a stepmom five years later that I tried very hard to be the same with all three of them, so they wouldn’t be jealous of her. Of course they were anyway, so all I did was rob her. Too bad I couldn’t have just shown more affection to all of them. I didn’t know how then. I came from a non-demonstrative family, and my processing and decision-making took me to self-protection instead. But I thought I was protecting her and them! Sad!

I’d been noticing a distancing in our relationship, and had learned over the past two years that I hadn’t taught her how to be sweet and affectionate. I guess I just always thought she knew what I felt. I only just realized this. I backed off of everyone.

But what I saw at her house was a three-year-old painfully favored and in need of boundaries from a dad doing the same as I had as an early parent, unfortunately getting the same results. However, he was doing the opposite of my behavior as a step-mom, and I thought well, I’ll get to see how this works.  I confided in my daughter and they are addressing it.

I am so glad our relationship is a sharing one. At the same time it was very scary to ask the questions I needed and wanted to ask about our relationship. And it was hard to hear, but nothing changes until it becomes real. And the reality of seeing yourself, especially in parenting, often comes too late to spare the damage to your child.

I hope you have a friend, mom, spouse, you can ask, who will confirm your need to change, if you are on this same trajectory and can’t see it. And God will give you the strength and wisdom to see yourself. Your child deserves it.

It is way too hard on a child to have all the power in a system. Your limits or boundaries provide them with security. They can relax and develop the way they are meant to, and with respect. By seven we need to realize that we are no longer the center of the universe. Some people never do. We call them narcissists. It’s so sad for them.

I actually witnessed a mother asking her three year old if she could visit us, and confirming it twice that he was ok with it. It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut–not the place or time to correct. I felt sorry for that three-yr-old too! It is way too much responsibility to be responsible for your parents! It makes children crazy.

And we are seeing more and more of it. Poor parenting tends to duplicate itself becoming either harder or softer. The ditches on either side of the road are very full. The road is love that is both hard and soft–firmness with gentleness.

Firmness and gentleness provide a great balance. It allows all the affection they need and requires the respect they also need to develop. You are the parent, you make the rules, and you follow through. You don’t have to be harsh, that is not required or desired, you only have to make sure that your word is law. No anger is required either. You shouldn’t allow yourself to discipline in anger. They are learning, they will make mistakes, even defy you. But you matter-of-factly hold the boundaries, letting the consequences follow naturally and appropriately for learning not hurting. The best consequences are losing something they want and making the connection of cause and effect. Delight follows obedience.

Obedience should be established by two years old. It is important to their growth and development. And it hopefully comes from a desire to please you so that it is forever linked with delight. God defines obedience as delight. And only asks it of us to protect our happiness. A broken world offers many confusing choices to inexperienced people. And being in a war between good and evil where deception is rampant makes it even harder.

Till next time…

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