Quietly and firmly on setting boundaries by Danyah Miller

When I was growing up my parents set clear, unshakable boundaries which they maintained even as I became a teenager. I knew I couldn’t step over the line and their rules and expectations were so resolute that I struggled to find my freedom and my own voice. My relationship with my mum was, at best, frosty until I was well into my late forties.

As you might expect, I was determined to do things differently. When my daughter was born I wasn’t going to damage her sense of self by being domineering or inflexible, I swung in the opposite direction.

However, as my darling daughter, Sofie, approached three and a half I realised that I’d slipped into power struggles with her. Unintentionally I oscillated between gentle kindness and storming anger. I was reacting to my own upbringing and couldn’t seem to find alternatives, particularly at each moment of impact. I berated myself for being a terrible parent whilst negotiating by withholding - if you don’t do this, we won’t do that.

She became wild and less co-operative, hitting and biting other children as the power struggles between us increased. As she provoked me, I remember thinking ‘I’m an intelligent woman, brute physical force can’t possibly be the answer’ as I rammed her tiny arm into her coat. I could hear my mother's words spilling out of my mouth, words I swore I’d never say. ’If you don’t stop that now there’ll be no party for you this afternoon little madam.’

Trying to get her to wear her coat before going out into the park was a constant battle of wits. Resentment was building up on both sides. I was desperate not to perpetuate the negative cycle between mother and daughter in our family, but I was doing a pretty good job of preserving it. I needed help and I needed it urgently.

Within a few days of my eureka moment I spotted an advert in a magazine for a workshop entitled ‘The Art of Creative Discipline’ with Lourdes Callen, a parent educator. I knew I had to attend.

I was introduced to new ideas and reminded of ones that I’d dropped along the way. We explored how to implement discipline and boundaries respectfully, creating a safe and steady place for our children whilst giving them enough room to grow. It was this middle path, for which I’d been searching.

Three things that have stayed with me from the workshop and changed my parenting are:

1. Observation: We were encouraged to learn to really observe what’s happening with our child when they’re displaying what we might consider to be unacceptable behaviour. Lourdes suggested that we’re more likely to receive co-operation when our child's needs are understood and met. We discussed how to observe what’s actually happening in front of us in the moment, rather than implementing something we’ve read or heard from others, and thereby restore harmony

Between us we considered what young children are experiencing in the world at this time, for example: noise, speed, pollution, technology, contradictions, choices, violence. There’s so much change happening in the world that this can lead to confusion; loneliness, pressure, feeling rushed and potential exhaustion both for our children and for us as parents.

Each of us was asked to consider a specific scenario where we’d been frustrated and angry at our child’s behaviour. We were asked to put ourselves in their place to imagine how they might be feeling. By considering this, observing and understanding what they might be experiencing it’s easier for us to put it right quite quickly. This exercise helped me to see and understand my daughter’s tantrums and seemingly extreme behaviour.

2. Gentleness: We spoke about parenting being a balance between holding a child close and letting them go with the wisdom being able to judge when to do which of the two!
She asked us to trust our child’s steps and development. She said that sometimes parents fear that the child can’t let go, (eg: of a dummy, blanket, special toy). If we give this message to our child, either overtly or subliminally, we slow down their natural development, instead she encouraged us to be giving the message ‘you can do it, its OK to grow, trust this process’.

As Lourdes spoke it dawned on me that many of us, definitely me, have lost our gentleness with young children and want to reason with them too much, before this part of their brain has developed. I recognised myself in Lourdes’ description of a mother rushing; within the home to get ‘things done’, multi-tasking, to and from work, busy in my endeavour to make things ‘perfect’. In this state, Lourdes said quietly, we lose touch with love, hope and protection.

She urged us to create a space for childhood which is soft, unhurried and warm in our hearts, our homes and our schools as she believed that this in itself would dissolve many issues relating to discipline. She reminded me that the very best thing I can do for my child is to care for myself. Our children need our life forces and by keeping our own resources high they will blossom. This first 3 - 4 years of a child’s life is their foundation for life.

3. Intention: From the place of observation and gentleness we spoke about how important it is for us, as adults, to make clear and informed decisions for our child. Remember that we have more information, knowledge and wisdom than they do about what they might need ‘in the future’. This related directly to my example of the coat. Lourdes asked me to consider a number of questions before asking Sofie to wear her coat, for example:

a. What’s the weather like, will it get warmer or colder?
b. How long will we be out for?
c. Will she be cold during this time and therefore won’t enjoy the experience?
d. Can I carry the coat for a while until this point or does she need it now?

She then suggested that using these answers to make a decision about the coat I hold the information inwardly, not expressing it to my daughter, whilst imagining a clear light of ‘intention’ from above my head, through me and down into the ground - only then ask Sofie to wear the coat. This allowed me, as a parent, to be clear, kind and sure which, Lourdes assured me, transmits to the child. Lourdes advised us not to get swayed by our young child’s arguments and change our minds once we’ve requested something, as this causes them confusion and makes them feel unsafe. This was something I hadn’t previously considered but it made total sense. It was certainly a call to action for me to be sure of my guidance and to navigate well on my daughter’s behalf.

The next day, filled with new understanding and with some excellent tools, I was eager to put some of what I’d learned to the test. I felt calm and collected and most importantly much more clear about my ability to deal with situations firmly and kindly.

It was an icy autumn day. When Sofie saw me getting ready to leave, her hat and coat in hand, she ran off screaming, ‘I’m not going to wear my coat’. Instead of my usual combative reaction, I stood for a moment, quietly centring myself. I held the coat in front of me and breathed deeply. I searched inside: what did this situation require, what did she need in this moment? I knew it was too cold for her to be without a coat.

During this silence, Sofie came to a complete halt, looked at me quizzically and began to walk a few steps towards me. Very quietly, but firmly, I said ‘Mummy would really like you to put your coat on’.

To my absolute amazement she said breezily ‘OK mummy’ as she ran back towards me, arms outstretched and into the coat. We held hands and skipped off to the park.

I was dumbfounded. How could it be this easy! I wanted to tell everyone.

We never had any issues with coat wearing again, although I had a huge mountain to climb whilst learning a ‘middle way’ between my previous disciplinary and new-age parenting styles. It’s certainly been a journey of trial and error, with great support and love from many wise women along the way.

I’m delighted to say that I have a very special and precious relationship with Sofie, who’s now turning 21 year old. And, as a bonus, I cherish my relationship with my own mum too, although that’s another story….

Danyah is an award-winning storyteller, writer and trainer. Sign up to her newsletter for more information about her performances and storytelling workshops at www.danyahmillerstoryteller.co.uk or follow her on Facebook @danyahmillerstoryteller