A subject that comes up often in my conversations with parents or other caregivers is that of values or beliefs. I bring it up here as an asset in caregivers’ endeavors to set boundaries or limits for their children. One of the great features of this asset is that – as all of know who have relatives or close friends with different political or religious persuasions from our own – you can’t argue with someone’s values or beliefs. Therefore, when caregivers establish what their family values and beliefs are, they can use them to support whatever expectations they have of their children’s behavior.
For example, suppose one of your family values is to treat guests well – with politeness and generosity. In that case, if your child has a play date and gets into a conflict with his/her friend about sharing or who gets first choice, you know exactly what your position will be. The guest gets first choice of what to play with or which piece of cake. Now, as in all cases, this depends somewhat on the context. If you have a very young child or a child who has particular difficulties with sharing, for example, you will want to prepare for the play date by putting away special toys that could generate extreme proprietary reactions. However, there is no argument. If your child tries to argue, you simply respond, “In our family, that is the way we treat guests.”
The child may object, but you do not have to explain or elaborate. That is that. Now, let me be clear. I am not advocating the enforcement of rules in a rigid authoritarian manner, so that children cannot register their complaints or different perspectives on the matter. There are plenty of other opportunities to discuss these issues with children and many chances to listen to children’s objections or alternative points of view. What I am suggesting that one way for caregivers to avoid a struggle while trying to set a limit is to use family values as a basis for their decision.
Another time family values comes up is when siblings fight among themselves. If kindness and tolerance of differences is a value of your family (I am including children’s homes as “families”) you can also use those values to support your position in relation to the sibling conflict. If one child is criticizing the other, you can say simply, “In our family, we do not judge other people.” Or, “In our family, we do not talk to other people like that.” Sometimes, following that pronouncement, those words are enough. Other times, you have to take subsequent action, such as separating the two children or giving one or both of them a consequence.
The concept of family values is not a magic bullet, but it is important. That is because caregivers not infrequently become confused or ambivalent when challenged by the child. For example, “Why should Susie get to play with my new game when I want to go bike riding?” If the child is very persuasive or good as pressing his advantage, the caregiver might start to confuse considerations about the type of activity or the general issue of fairness with the main question – who should choose. In that case, the caregiver might hesitate, and that could lead to an argument. If, on the other hand, she has a simple rule to follow that supports her basic beliefs, she is clearer and more confident.The answer to this question might be something like, “I think you will have time to do both, but since Susie is your guest, we will play with the new game first.”
In another example, a child tells his sibling or playmate that he is stupid. The caregiver may say, “We don’t criticize others like that in our family (or home).” Even if the child who is criticizing does not retract the remark, the child who was criticized heard the caregiver pronounce the family values, and that is critically important.
In the next posting, I will talk about another issue in limit setting.