Unconditional Acceptance versus Boundaries
Each strategy is critical for different tasks: to regulate a child’s behavior and to build a child’s emotional health.
The lump under Adam’s blanket is Adam himself. He’s still as a rock, making no move to get up for school. His bus comes in 15 minutes.
“Get up!” his mother demands. “You better make that bus or else!” She doesn’t even know what to threaten. Nothing seems to motivate Adam to obey. He’s 11, he hates school, and he’d rather stay home and put up with whatever consequence that brings.
“I can’t,” Adam moans. “I’m so tired. I can’t moooove.”
Adam misses his bus. His mother leaves for work a half-hour later, with Adam still in bed. What on earth can she do to get her son to go with the program?
The situation is a new one for Adam and his mother. Up until sixth grade, he wouldn’t have dared to “decide” to stay home. His mother feels that she’s lost control of him. At 11 years of age, he’s calling the shots. He wants to stay home and he is, despite his mother’s adamant demand. Life has become an endless round of fights and half-true excuse notes to the school.
What’s needed here? There are two, diverse and equally passionate answers:
Strategy Number One – He needs unconditional acceptance. Don’t push him, yell at him and demand of him; step into his shoes and understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. Why is he so unhappy with school? He may be in pain, suffering from either academic failure, social rejection or some other issue that makes school unbearable for him. Every child essentially wants love and approval, and if he’s behaving in a way that earns just the opposite, there must be a good reason.
In this school of thought, a parent who “lays down the law” stands a good chance of alienating his child. The child feels that his parents are rejecting him. He feels more alone than ever, and more prone to look for love and acceptance among people whose standards are far lower. He becomes more secretive and harder for his parents to reach.
On the other hand, if the parents offer unconditional acceptance, the child can maintain an open, close relationship with them. He doesn’t have to hide what he’s doing, and therefore, the parents are in a better position to help him if he becomes involved in self-destructive activities. Further, if the parents maintain their home as his haven of love and acceptance, they create a far greater likelihood that even if a child veers off course, he’ll ultimately return to his family’s way of life.
Strategy Number Two – Set down a boundary for his behavior and a significant consequence for crossing that boundary. No matter what Adam’s feelings are about school, he must learn to do what is expected of him. The parents should certainly find the help he needs to get him over any underlying difficulties at school, but that doesn’t mean he gets to stay home. By indulging his emotions, the parents are helping him learn the delicate art of manipulation. “Just be upset enough and you get to do what you want.” This won’t help him in life. In fact, it will lead to all kinds of risky behavior and failure.
Furthermore, if parents empathize and accept their children’s misguided ideas, doesn’t that just give those ideas an endorsement?
Each of these schools of thought has its adherents. Each also has its success stories. There have been kids saved by boot camp and kids saved by pure, unfettered love and support. Parents often incline toward the style that best matches their own personalities and beliefs. The “no nonsense” type makes no room for the child’s emotions, while the emotional type puts the child’s feelings at the forefront.
Separate but Equal
The truth is there is no conflict between unconditional acceptance and boundaries. That’s because they are two separate tools that are effective for two separate tasks, like fork and spoon. A fork isn’t flawed because you can’t eat soup with it. Nor is a spoon a flawed because you can’t spear meat with it. Success comes from knowing what you’re trying to accomplish and reaching for the tool that can succeed at that task.
As parents, we have two equally vital tasks to accomplish with our children. The first one is regulating our child’s behavior. For Adam’s mother, in this case, her task is to make sure he attends school.
The second, just as important task, is building our child’s emotional health. It’s crucial that our children feel loved, respected, be able to trust themselves, and deal with emotions properly. For Adam, because of his noncompliance, this task is more vital than ever.
I can tell my child what to do, but I can’t tell him what to think or feel.
The tool to accomplish behavioral regulation is boundaries. The tool to build emotional health is unconditional acceptance. Neither has to conflict with the other. One way of keeping this division of tools in mind is the mantra “I can tell my child what to do, but I can’t tell him what to think or feel.”
Unconditional Love and Acceptance
Unconditional love and acceptance are provided through empathy and validation. Anything the child feels is real and true to him. If we negate or deny it, he loses trust in his own perceptions (I don’t really know what I feel) and/or a sense of connection to his parents (They don’t understand me).
Therefore, it’s extremely important to learn how to validate and empathize. We can do this by recapping what our child has told us, expressing sadness for his hurt, expounding on how he wishes things could be and even hoping with him that at some other time, things will be just that way.
“Adam, I see that you’re really tired and I’ll bet you wish you could just stay in bed under those nice warm covers. You must feel like you need all your strength just to get up. I’ll bet you wish you woke up and found out today was a vacation day.”
Giving the child a chance to vent the emotions he’s feeling releases tension and gives him leeway to move in the other direction.
Many parents fear that by validating their child’s perspective, they’ll add fuel to his fire. For example, Adam insists that he’s tired too tired to go to school, but his mother knows that he can certainly manage it, even if he’s not feeling up to par. In fact, he complains every day of being too tired to get up, and she’s reasonably sure it’s just an excuse. So what good does it do for her to echo his false narrative?
The answer is that it gives the child a chance to vent the emotions he’s feeling – to release the tension – and in doing so, give him some leeway to move in the other direction. Often, the harder you push against children, the more resistant they become. By validating them, you enable them to drop their defenses and on their own start admitting to the facts that they really do know to be true.
None of this, however, will get a child to do what we want him to do. Adam’s mother can empathize with him for days and it may never change the child’s behavior. That’s because empathy is not the right tool for that job.
In the clutch, while Adam is lying in bed, the bus is wending its way toward his bus stop and the clock is running out on his mother’s departure time for work, the task at hand is managing a child’s routines and behavior. Empathy alone won’t do it.
Adam has to know that if he doesn’t get up and get going, life will not just go on as usual. There will be a consequence to his action. This does not conflict with validation. Nobody has to convince him that he isn’t tired. Nor should his parents deny that there may be underlying issues that need correction. However, his parents can, and are, telling him that no matter what his complaints, he is 11 and belongs in school.
This is the same message parents can give the child who insists that he’s not hungry, and therefore shouldn’t have to come in for supper, or that he’s not cold and shouldn’t have to wear his coat, or that he already knows his material for tomorrow’s test and shouldn’t have to study.
Will my child benefit or suffer if I give in?
Sometimes, parents drop their expectations because they confuse leniency with love. We can tease out the truth by asking ourselves this question: Will my child benefit or suffer if I give in? If the answer is “suffer”, then the parents aren’t acting out of love for the child; they’re acting in order to spare themselves a tantrum, a fight, or the need to get up and take action. If they truly love their child and want to act for his benefit, they have to do something. But what?
If you’ve decided to meet a challenge, the first clue that you’re serious about your decision is that you apply thought and time to making a plan. Parents who want to make progress with their children need to hold a “business meeting” to agree upon what they want to accomplish, how they want to proceed and how they will measure success.
Adam’s father might be completely unaware of his wife’s daily duel. Or, he might hear about it in snatches many hours after the fact when he arrives home at night. The parents have to make time to focus on this and any other parenting issues they notice. They need to set aside real, uninterrupted time to strategize.
When the challenge is routines and behaviors, the strategy that works is to erect a boundary that tells the child how far he can go, and what happens if he goes beyond that limit. There are various ways boundaries can be set:
For a small child:
- The one-two-three method works well when it’s used consistently. That entails giving the child until the count of three to comply with a parent’s request. If he doesn’t, he goes to a time-out spot for a few minutes.
- Physically remove the child from a situation (i.e., a sibling with whom he is fighting) or remove an object from the child (i.e., something breakable or dangerous).
But what about children who are too old for outright physical intervention? There are other ways to set limits:
- Create a “family rule” that tells the children what is expected of them, coupled with a consequence for not complying and perhaps a reward for cooperation.
- Pre-set behavior. Discuss ahead of time a challenge that is upcoming, how you want the child to behave in that situation and what will happen if he does or doesn’t comply. You can even rehearse the scenario ahead of time, the more times the better, to get the child ready to spring into action when the challenge arises. This is a good strategy for a long family trip, special occasion or upcoming holiday.
Putting It All Together
Now let’s see how all these ideas can come together to handle Adam’s recalcitrance with proper measures of boundary-setting and empathy.
Adam’s parents decide to make a family rule: Anyone who misses the bus doesn’t get time to use the computer that day.
Ingrain the new rule into the fabric of the family so that it is not up for debate. Consistency is the key.
The parents sit the children down and tell them the new rule. They don’t single out Adam: It’s a rule that applies to everyone. The idea is to ingrain the new rule into the fabric of the family so that it is not up for debate. Consistency is the key.
Predictably, the next morning, Adam hunkers down in his bed, pretending he doesn’t hear his alarm clock. When she enters his room and sees the familiar lump, she says, “Adam, I can see that you’re really tired and don’t want to get up. And I’m reminding you that we have a new rule about missing buses and computer time.”
That’s the end of her reminders. She doesn’t nag. She doesn’t increase her volume. She doesn’t get angry. Her manner is no different than it would be if she were telling Adam, “Take an umbrella or you’ll get wet.”
Adam will of course test push against the new boundary to see if it cracks. He again misses his bus, and his mother calmly gets ready for work and leaves, having secured the computer with her password. Adam tries to log on, only to discover that the computer is locked. He calls his mother on her cell phone.
“Ma, the computer is locked. What’s the password?”
“I’m sorry Adam, there’s no computer today.”
“But I’m home with nothing to do! I’ll go crazy! You can change the password tonight if you want. Just give it to me now!” he says, becoming agitated and insistent.
“I can see that you’re not looking forward to being bored all day. It really is annoying when there’s nothing to do.” the mother says calmly, ignoring her son’s hostile tone of voice.
“It’s such a stupid rule! It’s not gonna make me go to school! You’re gonna be so sorry. There’s lots worse things I can do than play on the computer,” he threatens. Then he adds, “You don’t care about me at all,” hoping a little guilt will work.
“You feel that it’s a stupid rule that won’t do any good. And you also feel that if Daddy and I cared about you that we would let you use the computer. If I were in your shoes I would feel pretty upset and angry. I really wish you would be able to use the computer today. I also wish I could speak longer, and I have to get back to work now.”
Adam calls five more times during the day. Although his mother wonders if this new plan is making things better or worse, she sticks to it. Each time he calls, she validates his feelings but sticks to her boundary. She ignores his angry outbursts and focuses only on allowing him to express his emotions, while still maintaining the rule.
That day, Adam makes a discovery; his actions have consequences. The next day, Adam gets up on time and makes his bus. Once his attendance is re-established as a non-negotiable fact, the parents begin working on addressing underlying issues that were making school so hard for him to face.
There’s no magic when it comes to raising children. Every worthwhile method has one common feature: it requires work on the parents’ part. The question is, are we going to apply our efforts proactively or reactively?
We have to respect our kids and their inner world.
Erecting secure boundaries while simultaneously validating our children’s world-view gives us the opportunity to raise emotionally healthy, self-disciplined and confident children. But self-work is really the key to our success, because it’s only when we can “be the grown-up” that we can manage this balancing act.
That means we have to: Be serious and thoughtful about addressing our family’s issues; agree on strategies to handle our these issues; stay calm in the face of children’s inevitable push-back against our limits; do what we say we’re going to do, whether it’s a reward or a consequence, no matter how much easier it seems to let things slide.
Most important of all, we have to respect our kids and their inner world. The realm of behavior is the place for limits. But the realm of our love for our children – that’s where we have our golden opportunity to build a world that’s beyond limits.
Rabbi Yisrael Kleinman, LMSW is the author of the just-published “Parenting By Design” published by Artscroll that shares his incredibly effective technique to help us succeed as parents called Five-Level Parenting. It's an easy-to-implement and straightforward technique that gives us the tools to quickly examine and analyze our daily encounters with our young children, pinpoint our goal for specific behaviors, and respond appropriately.