Parenting has a lot to do with setting boundaries. In fact, two of parenting’s biggest challenges are figuring out where to set the boundaries for our kids and deciding what the consequences of their crossing them will be.
Some of those decisions are easy. Telling our boys they shouldn’t stick dinner knives into the wall outlets didn’t require a lot of thought on our part. The boys, on the other hand, were instantly faced with a dilemma. They knew that doing so would result in grave consequences, but they didn’t know for sure if it might be worth it.
Life is full of choices.
We figured out early on that the whole discipline thing was much easier on us as parents if we just presented the boys with the consequences of their possible choices and left the decision to them. No threats or emotional pleas, just a matter-of-fact presentation of the options. “If you do this, then this will happen. If you do that, this other thing will happen.”
If they chose poorly, there was no reason for us to get all upset about it, or declare that we were “disappointed in them” (though, in all honesty, we sometimes did). We just followed through with our end of the bargain. After all, THEY CHOSE the consequences.
That was the beauty of this approach. We weren’t being mean by implementing the aforementioned consequences; they CHOSE them, fair and square. In most cases, we even provided cautionary words of wisdom before they decided. Sometimes our advice was heeded; sometimes it wasn’t.
When Gerrit was almost two years old we were living in Bitburg, Germany. Our second floor apartment in base housing had a balcony where we had set up our barbecue grill and one chair. It was a skinny little balcony. To get to the chair from the doorway you had to go around the grill.
One Sunday afternoon I was sitting out on the balcony, keeping an eye on our lunch, when Gerrit appeared at the door. He wanted to come out and sit with daddy. I told him that would be OK, but he needed to be careful, because the grill was “HOT”. He clearly knew what that meant. He repeated the word “hot”, made an impressive little grimace to demonstrate that he understood. Carefully, he started towards me, eyes locked on the grill, making great progress…until he was right in front of it. Then he just stopped and looked at me.
“Hot?” he asked.
“Yes, buddy. Very hot.”
He raised both hands, palms forward. “Hot?” he asked again.
“Don’t touch it, Gerrit. If you touch it, it will hurt.”
Then, with his eyes looking straight at me, he reached forward and touched his hands to the cover of the grill. They didn’t stay there for long and he was quite uninjured, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he started bawling.
This, of course, brought Karen running to the door. She asked what had happened and I recounted the scene for her, capping it off with a moving paternal assessment of the whole event:
“He’ll never do that again.”
Mama was not impressed. In fact she seemed inexplicably angry despite what I considered to be quite the milestone in Gerrit’s development! It was a good bet that he would never doubt me again when I warned him of the consequences for an action.
OK. If I had it to do all over again I probably would have stopped him. Thankfully the consequences of MY choice didn’t leave any lasting scars, either physical or psychological.
But he never did do it again.
originally published 9/1/11| next post Passing Gas