Each New Year brings a fresh start, or at least the illusion of such. It is the springtime of the soul in many ways, lengthening daylight, burgeoning energy, the promise of new life. As the new year approaches I set my eagle-eyes on the future and ask for guidance — what is the theme of this next trip around the sun, what’s in store for me? The word that has settled in for 2015 is ‘guide.’ ‘Guide’ is rich and layered with meaning for me; one layer being specifically how I guide my children, another being how I guide myself.
Perhaps you are among a large number of parents who have resolved to make this the year of finding a way, once and for all, to leave behind those patterns of yelling, threats, punishments, even bribes and rewards. If so, my guess is that you are wondering how to effectively go about doing this. It is not only possible, but a joy to guide our children based on a set of values we hold dear to our hearts. I’m excited to share with you a powerful way to model healthy boundaries by setting peaceful limits that stick, based on a foundation of core values.
To effectively make change it is important to know where we are right now, and know where we are headed. There are basically two parenting paradigms in our current culture, the first being the Dominant Paradigm, the second being the Relationship-With Paradigm. The Dominant Paradigm is most familiar, and likely how you were raised, it is characterized by control-over tactics. The primary belief of the Dominant Paradigm is that the parent is the ultimate authority and the child is expected to comply.
Advanced studies in brain science have shown us that the way we communicate with our children has a profound affect on their developing brains. We now know that parenting in a control-over, Dominant Paradigm creates disconnected communication between parent and child. For a young child the feeling of being disconnected from their primary caregiver, their life support, elicits fear and triggers stress hormones to be released in the brain. Disconnection occurs when we use control-over parenting strategies of time-out, yelling, threatening and dismissing. Over time the exposure to stress hormones in the brain can cause patterns of disconnection leading to a less fulfilling life experience overall and higher instances of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
What we know now about parenting in Relationship-with our children is that we are sculpting their brains in a totally different way. When our children feel heard and accepted for who they are, and the experience they are having, their brains are bathed in a totally different set of hormones; hormones that create neural pathways for connection, empathy, and ultimately more life satisfaction and success, this is a major incentive to harness a new way of setting limits peacefully.
We live in a very exciting time; many parents are seeking ways of shifting their ingrained patterns of reactivity and looking to parent in Relationship-with their children. But let’s be honest here, parenting is hard work at times; our children are born with an uncanny knack for pushing our buttons. Most of my clients come to me in this time of trying to transition into the Relationship-with paradigm and yet they are bumping up against massive frustration in doing so effectively. So what do you do when you aren’t being heard, no one is listening, siblings are fighting, and you’re about to snap?
Parents often remark that they feel like they have been stripped of all their tools in the effort to shift into a Relationship-with paradigm. I want to assure you that parenting in Relationship-with your children does not necessitate permissive parenting. The good news is that it is fully possible to parent in Relationship-with while modeling healthy boundaries by setting limits. Children need to feel secure in the limits of their family, and know that there is a scaffolding to support them in their growth. Being a guide and having no tools for navigation is a set-up for disaster. Let’s explore three primary tools for setting peaceful limits that stick, so you are well prepared for this journey.
Step one: Unearthing your unique family values
Your unique family values are your beacon of light. Gaining full clarity about your core values is essential for the rest of this process to work. Your values are the tools that will allow you to navigate the sometimes tumultuous sea as a united family vessel. These values are the ones that you hold dear to your heart, not the ones that you think you should live by, but rather the ones that are at the core of who you are. If you are unsure what your values are, take some time to unearth them, I promise you have values that you hold dear.
A few questions to ask yourself in this quest for clarifying your values: Whodo you admire most in life? What do you admire about their character? These character traits are likely values of your own. I have deep love and admiration for my grandfather, he was a wildly creative thinker, fiercely dedicated to his family, and passionately engaged with life. It just so happens that, creativity, family, and living passionately engaged are three of my top values.
Another way to dig into this is by enquiring within; what stirs up heated anger in you? Personally, cruelty to animals and children makes my blood boil and my heart race; it stirs deep anger in me. Anger is a call for the restoration of boundaries. So I ask, “What do I need to restore boundaries in this situation of witnessing mistreatment of the innocents?” Kindness, yes, kindness is a core value of mine and by allowing mistreatment I am out of alignment with this value. The inconsistency that stirs agitation and even anger is often within us, hiding in our own lack of integrity around a particular situation, examining your source of anger can be a powerful tool for unearthing your values.
I encourage you to spend some time becoming crystal clear about what your personal values are, and then embark on the process of unearthing the values that you hold dear as a family. Keep in mind that it is common to have personal values that vary slightly from those of our beloveds. It is still possible to establish the top three to five values that are commonly held among all members of your family.
Step two: Aligning with your family values
Now that you are clear on what your top family values are, take a temperature reading. How are you aligned with these values right now? How can you live more fully aligned with your values? I might take a look at where I am showing up with kindness, and where I’m not. It is especially powerful for us, as parents, to point out where we are acting inconsistently with our values. In my case, if I were to raise my voice and act impatiently with my children this would be a perfect opportunity to call myself out on my inconsistent behavior by saying to my children, “Geez, that tone of voice really didn’t’ sound kind, did it? You know, kindness is really important to me and I wasn’t staying true to that value by using that tone.” In this way, we use our shortcomings as a powerful teaching opportunity.
Another way to explore our family values with young children is through story and everyday illustration. I’ll continue with my example of kindness as a value. There was a time when we were in need of language to use during a phase of, albeit, very age-appropriate, emotionally impulsive hitting. So, for two weeks we focused heavily on the illustration of kindness. Everywhere we went, I would make a big deal about the little acts of kindness we encountered. At bedtime, I would selectively choose stories where there was some illustration of kindness and I would talk about it at length. We created an alter of kindness, where we placed flowers among many other items that represented kindness to us. In this way, we built an understanding of what kindness is in the world, what it looks, sounds, and feels like.
Step three: Staying on course – Setting Peaceful Limits that Stick
To stay the course there will be times when limits need to be set for ourselves, and our children. Limits are carefully planned based on a solid understanding of our family values. A limit is set when there is a clear understanding of what family value is being upheld by doing so. If you find yourself setting limits from reactivity, rather than consistency with values, ask yourself, “What value am I trying to stay true to by setting this limit?” Be honest, it might be an old pattern of control, or a reaction based on fear, that is driving you. If you find yourself back in the Dominant-Paradigm, parenting with control-over methods switch to curiosity; get curious about what your child is needing and why this limit is important to you.
We set limits, not to have control, but rather to give our children a sense of being securely held in the family, to teach family values, and of course to keep our children safe. Setting limits is just the beginning of the conversation, contrary to the old ‘because I told you so, end of conversation’ motto. In the Relationship-with Paradigm, setting limits is the launching point for really exploring why we hold this value dear and how we go about living in alignment with it.