Thursday, December 13, 2012

Controlling Behavior: Rules & Boundaries

This is the third in an occasional series on control. Click the links for parts one and two.

Part of our charge as parents is to train up a child in the way he should go. We want to rear our children in righteousness. We hold Family Home Evening, family prayer, family scripture study and family counsel in the hopes that our children will feel the love that surrounds them and grow up sharing our gospel-centered values and our love of the Lord.

The stakes are high for us, and often we are tempted to try to control our children so much that their outward behavior complies with our image of what it should be. In our hearts we know we shouldn’t do that; we know that it is more like the Adversary’s plan to force us all back home. We know our children need to learn to choose the right, but sometimes we just want them to sit quietly in church!

As a parent, I’m better off focusing on what I can control. I can establish rules and I can establish boundaries, and I can enforce consequences in the event that rules are broken or boundaries are crossed. Rules and boundaries are not the same thing to me, though they may look similar.

A rule is there to control behavior: a speed limit is a rule; “no hitting” is a rule; “do your homework before watching TV” is a rule. These all are there to control behavior, and the consequences will either punish violations or reward compliance. All ordered societies, including families, have rules. And every member of the society gets to choose whether to obey the rules or not. When someone disobeys a rule, he suffers a consequence; when he obeys, he gains a reward.

Consequences for violating or adhering to rules are best when they are proximate, consistent and clearly related to the rule. I had friends when I was growing up who had to help with the dishes in their home after dinner. A favorite trick was to let Sister wash while Brother (my friend) played outside, and then Brother would come in and put the dishes away after they had air-dried. Sister and, more importantly, Mom found this creative solution at odds with the idea that Brother and Sister were to work together. So if Mom saw the dishes air drying in the rack, she’d call Brother to the kitchen and then pour a pan of water over the air-dried dishes so he could have the full experience of drying and putting them away. The consequence was clearly related to the rule; it was linked in time to the offense, and it could be implemented with minimal drama on the part of Mom.

An unhealthy alternative to Mom’s dousing of the dishes might include Mom’s calling Brother to the back porch and loudly enumerating all the times that day or week he had skipped out of his chores with a promise to administer a “real” punishment when Dad got home later in the evening or grounding him for days at a time. Brother would quickly learn to let the yelling go over his head before he returned to play. And he could count on Mom’s forgetting that he was grounded within a day, or that the promised more serious punishment from Dad would never come.

Mom’s plan of action to douse the dishes, however, gives her something positive to do instead of losing her cool. And the consequences so administered are more meaningful. He gets to choose what he does, but he also chooses the consequences.

Boundaries are different: they are there to protect the person who sets them. And they are all about what the boundary setter will do in the event the boundary is crossed. A boundary is particularly important for a person who is a victim of abuse or a person who has an addict in the family. The boundary is not an expression of what the other person must do. It is instead a positive statement of what the boundary setter needs, and what the boundary setter will do if the need is not met.

For instance, a parent of a teenager may say, “I need to go to bed early tonight so I can be ready for a meeting tomorrow. For that reason, I need you home by 10 pm. At 10 pm I am locking the door, and if you are not home, you’ll need to spend the night somewhere else.” Or: “If you don’t have the car home by 10, then you may not use it this weekend.” A spouse who is tired of verbal abuse can say, “I need to have people speak to me with respect. If you cannot meet that need, then I will exit the conversation. I will go to another room until we can talk more calmly. If I need to, I will lock the door.”

Boundaries are much more difficult to administer in my view, because when someone crosses the boundary, the stakes are often much higher than when a child breaks a family rule about washing dishes or cleaning a room. And our actions that we have power to take are really limited. But understanding what we really do control is also liberating. I will never be able to control my teenager’s mood. I cannot force him to agree with me, nor can I ensure that he is happy with what I want him to do. If I release myself from that expectation, then I am free. It will, ironically, be easier for me to remain calm and inviting without the expectation that he react in a certain way, and so I am more likely to get the reaction I want (but wisely no longer expect).

I can make rules and I can set boundaries. I can be consistent in my behavior. I can meet out consequences in an even-handed and fair way. I can say what I mean, mean what I say, and not say it meanly. The twin concepts of rules and boundaries can provide me a hedge against assuming a false sense of control that will only frustrate me.

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