Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Boundary Setting For Parents

Why if our children can't handle disappointment, the fault lies with us

Photo: Mindaugas Danys
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A few months ago my son asked if he could have a candy bar after dinner for dessert. My wife and I reminded him that he'd already had candy two days before and that we have a "one candy per week rule" in our house, so we said no. So he asked again. So we said no again. Then he asked yet again. And we said no again. Then he started whining. "Please, please," he said. "You never let me have candy! I really want it!" Though we were both annoyed, neither my wife nor I became upset. We simply continued to say no. We didn't explain why. We didn't argue with him. We simply repeated the same message.

Eventually, he stopped whining—and then calmly and reasonably asked for a candy bar again. When we said no this time, he said—finally—"Okay." He was clearly still disappointed, but he just as clearly accepted our answer—and then happily got into his bath and began splashing and playing as he always does.

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When he was younger, he would sometimes completely melt down when we denied him something, especially if he was tired. Certainly, the temptation to end such tantrums by giving in was strong. But the few times we did, we quickly learned just how big a mistake we were making: it would practically guarantee another tantrum the very next time we said no. By giving in when he would throw a tantrum we were communicating that throwing a tantrum was an effective way for him to get what he wanted. So we stopped. And then so did his tantrums.

This isn't to say when parents hold their ground that their children will always stop throwing tantrums. But giving in to tantrums is a sure way to train children to keep having them. And one need only look around at the adults one knows who still throw tantrums when they don't get their way to understand that tantrum-throwing isn't an activity restricted only to children.

Sometimes saying no is easy: when the thing he wants is clearly inappropriate ("Can I eat a cookie instead of lunch?"). But sometimes we decide to say no after a split-second deliberation over something we might just as easily have said yes to: "Yes, you can skip your bath tonight," or "Yes, you watch an extra fifteen minutes of television." And he seems to be able to sense when we're not entirely convinced that we should be saying no with an insight that almost makes me believe in mental telepathy.

But as much as I dislike saying no to him, I recognize that it represents and important opportunity for me to teach him how to manage disappointment. In a world where so many adults seem not to have learned this lesson, I'm easily able to view the consequences of this particular kind of parental failure. As a result, I've come to realize the biggest obstacle to successfully raising a resilient child is a non-resilient parent.

Saying no to a child requires grit, self-control, and stamina. You have to know why you're saying no each and every time. It's easier if the reason seems like a good one. This is why I try not to say no impulsively. Instead, I try to pause when I'm not immediately sure if what he's asking for is okay and ask myself: Will it put him at risk for being harmed (not using a seatbelt in a car)? Is the lesson that saying no teaches a good one (you can't eat candy instead of dinner)? I don't always get it right, and I sometimes have reversed my decision. He's old enough now that when I explain why I've reversed my decision he understands and doesn't then subsequently continue to test the boundaries I've established for appropriate behavior.

Yes, saying no is harder than saying yes. But children who aren't taught boundaries often become tyrants. And children who become tyrants often grow up to become adults who are tyrants. An entire generation of parents seems to have failed to teach their children how to handle disappointment. I have no evidence that proves it, but from personal observation I'm inclined to believe that this is far more a failure of "nurture" than it is of "nature."

As parents, we must gird ourselves to be reasonable yet consistent in the way we refuse our children's wishes. It's not about being nice or mean, fair or unfair. It's about teaching a crucial life skill. We must accept that acting-out behavior is the price we must pay to teach it (the more consistent we are, the more likely such behavior will eventually be extinguished). The price of failure is a child who expects too much from the world, who never learns to manage his own disappointment, and who lacks the resilience to be successful in life. And that failure is ours.

 

Dr. Lickerman's book, The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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