Boundaries With Kids: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Children
a book by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
By: Delana H Stewart
In order to develop character and instill values, parents must be intentional about raising their children. The book Boundaries with Kids teaches ten laws or “boundary principles” by which parents should bring up their children: “sowing and reaping, responsibility, power, respect, motivation, evaluation, proactivity, envy, activity, and exposure” (Cloud and Townsend, 1998). While all of these laws play a significant role in the transforming process of children becoming healthy adults, five stand out as absolutely essential.
The Big Five
Sowing and Reaping
“Those who sow in tears Shall reap in joy.” Psalm 126:5 (NKJV)
Though the “Law of Sowing and Reaping” deals with helping children understand that they will reap what they sow, the point is not missed that parents must endure difficulties, hatred, and tears in the process of helping children develop boundaries. The reward, however, will be great when in the end there is rejoicing over a child becoming a healthy adult. The concept of reaping and sowing helps a person learn that mistakes cost them. When a child understands this, then he changes his behavior. Cloud and Townsend explain that when a child faces consequences for his actions, the responsibility is shifted from parent to child. Thus, the problem becomes the child’s and not the parent’s (1998, p. 61). If a parent allows the child’s problem to become the parent’s problem, then consequences no longer exist to motivate the child to do his own problem-solving. Parents innately desire to bail children out—not allowing them to face the natural consequences (p. 65). Dr. Foster Cline and Jim Fay, in their book Parenting with Love and Logic, suggest that “parents who take on their kids’ problems do them a great disservice.” They say that in so doing, parents remove from their children the opportunities necessary for growing into responsible adults (1990, p. 49). Instead, parents should keep the future in mind. Focusing on what characteristics the child should possess when entering adulthood encourages a parent to allow the child to suffer the pain, loss, or unpleasant discipline for his behavior.
Imagine the experience a roommate or future spouse would have entering a relationship with someone who never learned to pick up after himself. In being future-minded, parents should also consider their child’s future marketability in the work force. How important to an employer are the skills of punctuality, organization, prioritization, and respect? In his video lecture “Parenting with Love and Grace,” Mark Crawford lists ten characteristics of healthy independent adults. He recommends that parents make their own lists of characteristics so that they continually view their parenting through the lens of the end goal. Crawford suggests that parenting with this perspective is not unlike Stephen Covey’s popular teachings on beginning with the end in mind (2008, DVD 5). Though not on Crawford’s list of ten, this parent would include these three: 1) having a strong relationship with the Lord, 2) having a good understanding of scripture, and 3) being able to make wise financial decisions.
“For each one shall bear his own load.” Galatians 6:5 (NKJV)
The law of responsibility naturally follows an understanding of the cause and effect relationship of sowing and reaping. Cloud and Townsend suggest that “immature people experience life as victims and constantly want someone else to solve their problems” (1998, p. 74). They discuss the significant role that grief and forgiveness play in the ability for growth to occur through unfair situations. How a person responds to a given situation or environment greatly determines her character. The response, not the environment or situation itself, is the greater force (p. 74). The authors present three things for which children should learn to bear the responsibility: emotions, attitudes, and behavior (pp. 76-79). Children need to understand that their attitudes towards themselves, family, friends, God, school, and moral issues will not be like others’ attitudes. Parents need to help children understand that certain attitudes reap rewards and others reap undesirable consequences. Children need to be responsible for developing an attitude of respect and value for others. A person must take ownership in how she acts in public and private. The parent’s role in helping children take responsibility includes allowing them to experience logical or natural consequences, and allowing them to express their feelings (p. 79).
Mark Crawford, in his lecture “Parenting with Love and Grace,” explains two domains of the adolescent: behavior (conduct, actions, manners) and identity (opinions, beliefs, values). He explains that three basic rules guide an adolescent or child’s behavior: respect, responsibility, and risk. Children must learn to treat others around them (parents, siblings, and friends) with respect marked by courtesy and graciousness. An adolescent or child must learn to tend to his own responsibilities, which include chores at home and school work. Finally, children must learn to avoid “dangerous or potentially harmful activities.” He instructs parents to set and enforce limits through the use of pulling rank to provide safety and security for their children. Identity issues, on the other hand, respond better to the influence a parent has through a good relationship with the adolescent (2008, DVD 5).
Children naturally tend to neglect responsibility; to cure them of this tendency Cloud and Townsend teach parents to require that children take ownership. Children develop a sense of responsibility as an outflow of a parent who structures his/her “life around responsibility and reality” (1998, p. 82). Even in situations where a person is the victim of circumstance, that person still must take responsibility. The authors demonstrate this as follows: A person hit by a car still must take responsibility to get to the doctor, go to the insurance company, file a police report, get the car repaired, etc. A loved one dies or a close friend moves away, and the responsible person, the healthy person, seeks other friends with whom to entrust her heart (p. 83). Children need guidance in developing the ability to discern between helping a friend and bailing a friend out, as their friends also must learn to solve their own problems (p. 84). Parenting with Love and Logic (Cline and Fay, 1990) is a book devoted to helping parents teach children this law of responsibility:
- To help a child gain responsibility we must offer that child opportunities to be responsible (p. 32);
- These parents help their children understand that they can solve their own problems… [These parents] are sympathetic, but they don’t solve their kids’ problems (p. 32);
- …love enough to allow the children to fail…love enough to allow the consequences of their actions to teach them about responsibility… (p. 34).
- Parents who build on their kids’ strengths find their children growing in responsibility almost daily (p. 34).
Learning and applying the law of responsibility directly impacts a child’s view of himself or herself, which directly impacts a child’s behavior and output at school, home, and play.
“And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32 (NKJV)
As evidenced in Mark Crawford’s three rules, the laws of respect and responsibility go hand-in-hand (2008, DVD 5). According to Cloud and Townsend, children must learn five things regarding respect: not to hurt others, respect others when they say “no,” respect limits, appreciate others’ need for time apart, and learn to become “sad instead of mad when other people’s boundaries or limits prevent them from getting what they want” (1998, p. 104). When children are disrespectful, parents should empathize with how the child is feeling and correct the wrong; parents should provide consequences when a child chooses not to apologize, repent, and correct himself (p. 105). For example, a child might yell at his parents, “I hate you!” or use inappropriate language. The parents should express to the child (at a time when the child is no longer angry) that they understand that he was angry, and they may even want to ask him what made him so angry (if they do not already know). However, they should then instruct him in appropriate ways to express anger, telling him that it is not okay to say those words. If the child apologizes, repents, and corrects himself, then no consequences for the disrespect are necessary. When upholding an established limit, do not explain, defend, or shame; just enforce the limit and empathize with the child’s feelings. A child needs to know that her parents understand her pain or loss; according to Foster and Cline empathy solidifies the message. When parents get angry, they are tempted to punish a child rather than provide consequences. When anger is present, consequences do not retain their power; instead, the child becomes angry with the parent instead of being angry with the “lesson the consequences teach” (1990, p. 96). “[Children] have nobody to be angry with but themselves when [parents] show sadness” (p. 99).
Dr. Chap Clark in his lecture “Preparing for Adolescence” reminds parents the importance of listening to our children with respect and value. He emphasizes that the goal of pointing our kids to God is reachable through modeling authentic relationships and treating our children “with the respect Jesus Christ treats them with” (2008, DVD 3).
“And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men,” Colossians 3:23 (NKJV)
Although children must first learn to comply out of a desire to avoid consequences, later they need to develop right and pure motives for being responsible and being respectful. Love for family and a joy for helping others should drive a healthy person to do his job, to respect others, and to do good deeds; however, this does not mean that a child (or adult for that matter) has to enjoy the task. How many people really enjoy scrubbing a toilet, taking out the trash, or changing a diaper? The healthy adult will accept the task or burden “willingly and for the right reasons” (Cloud and Townsend, 1998, p. 123); therefore, helping children develop right motives becomes the higher goal in parenting. Cloud and Townsend explain motive development in four stages, stating that no one skips stages. The first stage—fearing consequences—teaches kids that they need to think about the possible costs before they act. When parents not only set limits and stick to those limits, but also empathize with their children, their children develop a fear of consequences rather than a fear of losing love, a fear of failure, or a fear of abandonment. Children need to fear loss of freedoms or desired items, and the possibility of pain (1998, pp. 126-128).
The second stage of motive development—immature conscience—provides the internalization which forms the foundation for a person’s ability to love, establish self-control, develop a system of morality and ethics, and generally become aware of right and wrong. During the third stage—the value and ethics stage—it is critical that parents avoid guilt and shame messages, but rather ask and encourage kids to ask “value-laden questions” that help a child see her choices as either going against what she and her parents believe or in line with what she and they believe (Cloud and Townsend, 1998, p. 132). If the parent uses guilt and shame a child may likely begin to believe that his values and beliefs, and his parents’ values and beliefs, are not really the same (p. 131). For example, out of anger or total amazement that her child would do something, a parent might exclaim to a child: “How can you call yourself a Christian!” Rather than make such a guilt-producing statement, Cloud and Townsend recommend guiding a child by saying, “That goes against what you and we believe” (1998, p. 132). Parents should encourage their adolescents to ask whether or not a particular word, movie, or game is a bad one. Then, when they ask, parents can take the opportunity to explain why they believe as they do, what the Bible says about it, and how one’s actions and words effect those around them.
After children develop values and ethics, then they move into the fourth stage—mature love, mature guilt. No longer do children just seek to do or not do something because of its rightness or wrongness; the highest motive—which is love—now comes to the foreground. Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is summed up in loving God and loving one’s neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). Scripture also teaches that love is the greatest gift (John 3:16), that it is the greatest spiritual gift (I Corinthians 13), and that the ability to love exists because God loved first (I John 4). Cloud and Townsend call love “the greatest motivator” (1998, p. 132). The person who has reached this level of motivation views his responsibilities and tasks and treatment of others through the lens of empathy, compassion, care, and consideration of what kind of effect his actions will have on others. Parents must guide kids to be motivated by compassion. To do this, parents should talk with their child about how things he does or says make another person feel, as well as provide their child with “many experiences for [the] child to internalize and own them for himself” (Cloud and Townsend, 1998, p. 132).
“…in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I Thess.5:15 (NKJV)
Surprisingly, the authors chose to present only one law with a negative label: the principle of envy. Perhaps it should have been titled the law of gratitude (the opposite of envy) for the purpose of reminding parents the importance of instilling gratitude into their children. Children need to know they reap what they sow; they need to develop characteristics of responsibility, respect, and pure motivation; and they need to foster gratitude and avoid envy. In order for children to grow into healthy adults, they need to move from “envy into acceptance, gratitude, and contentment” (Cloud and Townsend, 1998, p. 164). Envious people lack contentment; their lives feel empty: “nothing is good enough, nothing fulfills them” (Cloud and Townsend, 1998, p. 163). Envious people harbor a sense of entitlement (the feeling that others owe them things or special treatment). If they do not receive the privileges, special treatment, respect, love, or other wanted thing that they feel entitled to, then people with the character trait of entitlement believe that the one “not giving it to them is wrong” (Cloud and Townsend, 1998, p. 164). Just as children develop motivation in stages, entitlement also moves through phases: 1) entitled people exhibit a strong need for control; 2) they develop a sense of not needing to suffer, work, or follow others’ rules and limits; and then 3) they cultivate a feeling of being entitled to the things that others have. Dr. Michael Conner, in his article “You Owe Me!” (2008) teaches parents how to recognize and prevent entitlement:
Children must learn the difference between what they want and what they need. They must also learn the difference between “asking” and “demanding”. It is a good sign that children will grow up healthy and well adjusted if they learn to “give” to others and to “ask” for what they need. It is even better if they can find ways to express their disappointment in healthy ways when they don’t get what they want.
Gratitude, on the other hand, comes from an attitude of “thankfulness grounded in love” (Cloud and Townsend, 1998, p. 165). A person of gratitude realizes that she receive things because she has been graced with them, not because she deserves them. Thankful people appreciate and treasure what they receive rather than feeling cheated for having only what they have. Persons of gratitude feel blessed. Bitterness, resentment, and misery mark the life of an envious person: Joy glows from the countenance of a grateful person.
According to Cloud and Townsend, the thing or things a person receives has less impact on whether they are envious or grateful than does their character (1998, p. 164). Parents play a significant role in developing the character of their child:
If you give something to entitled, envious people, it profits them or you nothing. They just feel that you have finally paid your debt to them. If you give to grateful people, they feel overwhelmed with how fortunate they are and how good you are (Cloud and Townsend, 1998, p. 165).
In order for children to develop the character of gratitude, they must first experience frustration in learning that they can not have everything. Children who experience frustration learn that “they are not the center of the universe, that they are not owed whatever they want, and that others do not exist only for their needs” (Cloud and Townsend, 1998, p. 167). Children learn about gratification in having their needs met, and parents must develop three skills to balance gratification and frustration: giving, limiting, and containing (Cloud and Townsend, 1998, p. 167). Parents meet their children’s needs through encouragement, comfort, giving some control, and understanding a child’s feelings. Parents then set limits and boundaries, choices and consequences, and stick to them. Within this concept of limiting, a parent teaches a child to long for something, set goals to achieve it, and work to get there. Containing guides a child to internalize the limit. The child works through his feelings regarding a limit or boundary, while the parent adds love, understanding, and empathy. Children develop gratitude through experiences that require them to verbalize apologies and thanks, through periods of humility, and through the modeling of these characteristics by their parents (Cloud and Townsend, 1998, pp. 173-174). Even the thought processes between an envious person and a grateful person differ:
In a person not dominated by envy, the thought process goes like this: I see something out there I would like to have; I don’t like my current situation. This is my problem. What am I going to do to get from point a to point b? I’d better pray, listen to God, evaluate what is keeping me from getting there, and find out what I need to do to reach that goal(Cloud and Townsend, 1998, p. 176).
Recently, the opportunity to apply these principles and reflect upon their applicability arose in my relationship with my seven-year-old daughter. Two years ago, my husband and I adopted a five-year-old girl from an orphanage. Though I had experience applying similar principles in parenting my three teenage sons, I quickly learned that our daughter, who had learned to fight for survival, needed a fresh approach. Because major battles over seemingly minor things occurred daily, she needed structure, firmness, consistency, and a mom who would not fear her hatred or rejection. At first she could not speak or understand English, so I treated her as I would a two-year-old—though at times I became angry and unable to discipline her. After she developed an understanding of English, I could more easily apply the principles from Boundaries with Kids by Cloud and Townsend. Sometimes, when she throws herself onto the floor thrashing, screaming, and destroying things, the temptation to spank her arises; however, one night recently I found something ten times more effective.
Not long ago, I began paying my daughter the equivalent of a quarter a day to make her bed and dress herself each morning before school; it helped me to view this in terms of a temporary potty training/reward system that would develop in her confidence, a sense of responsibility, and a spirit of thankfulness (at least for earning money). While she possessed the ability to perform these tasks, she lacked confidence and experience and possessed a healthy sense of laziness as well; therefore, the daily tasks drained my energy because she turned them into battle times. Then, instead of a daily battle, I simply said, “You can choose to do this yourself and earn the money, or I will do it for you but you get nothing. Additionally, if when I do it you grumble, complain, or whine then there will be punishment (loss of video after school, etc.).” She began regularly choosing to do it herself and earn the money.
One night at bedtime she desired to stay up and watch a movie with her brothers, but because it was already her bedtime, I told her that she would have to wait until the next day. While she resorted to a meltdown (kicking and screaming on the floor), I calmly said, “You can quietly come with me for a shower and have the privilege of hearing chapter two in our story; or, I can carry you to the shower screaming and you can choose not to have a story tonight.” On the way to the bathroom with her kicking and screaming, I (only with God’s strength) calmly told her that I was so sad she had chosen not to have a story.
My daughter, quieting down enough to hear and register my words, said, “I’m really sorry Mommy…I want a story.” That made my next words extremely difficult, as I had to choose (for the greater cause and end goal) to remain consistent with the plan and not cave in the face of her sorrow. Pulling her into a hug, I praised her for apologizing for her meanness towards me.
Then, looking her right in the eyes, I calmly repeated, “I am sad, though, that you chose not to have our story tonight.” As soon as the light bulb lit in her head, she flung herself onto the bathroom floor kicking and screaming. I explained that I understood the loss of story time made her sad, but that it was not okay to kick and scream; and, I reminded her that she had another chance to make a good choice. Of course, at this point, I had to speak loudly over her wailing, maintaining that she must choose to stop kicking and screaming and nicely get into the shower or she would be choosing to give me one of her quarters for my time and feelings. She did not stop: I repeated the warning. When she chose not to comply, I reached into her bank for the treasured quarter; and, she ran to me pleading, “No, Mommy, please don’t, I will take a shower.”
Getting down on her level, I simply stated, “Sorry, Sweetie, you chose to give me a quarter rather than to obey me.” She tossed herself onto the floor for another fit, while I nicely repeated the instruction, warning her to stop kicking and screaming, and telling her to get into the shower or choose to give me another quarter. Two quarters later and still crying, sobbing, and red in the face, she walked herself to the bathroom for a shower. After the shower, I held her, rocked her, and listened to her share how mean I was to take her money; at least she was no longer shouting. I reminded her that she had chosen to give me her money…and chosen to give up story time. I also told her that it saddened me that she made bad choices and brought herself such sorrow.
Tucking her into bed, I expressed that she had another chance to make a good choice. Sometimes she refuses to allow me to pray for her; so, I told her she had a choice to have me pray with her, or have me leave the room without praying with her. I encouraged her to really think about her answer before choosing, and thankfully, she chose prayer. After apologizing again, she wanted to know if I would read her the story. My heart sensed her sincerity, but my mind acknowledged that everything we had gone through would be for nothing if I did not allow my original decision to stand. Holding her momentarily, I told her that I loved her and forgave her; and then, almost unwillingly, I repeated, “I am so sorry that you chose earlier not to have our story tonight. I really was looking forward to story time and am sad to have to miss it; I will look forward to reading to you tomorrow.” Out went the lights…and exhausted she fell asleep; but, for the first time of such a battle, I did not leave the fight fatigued! I was happy, content, completely relaxed and not frazzled, because the battle was all hers: I did not enter into it. I did not have to restrain her or wrestle with her; I only had to remain calm and keep stating the limits and choices, sticking by decisions she had made regarding the choices I had given her.
The battle and the war can be won by staying calm and letting natural and logical consequences stick. Helping children learn to be responsible and respectful, through setting limits and sticking to them, effectively teaches them that they will reap what they sow! Then, they can move on to an attitude of gratitude and serving others out of love.
Clark, Chap (Speaker). (2008). Caring for kids God’s way (DVD No. 3). Forest, VA: AACC.
Cline, Foster, MD, & Fay, Jim. (1990). Parenting with love and logic. Colorado Springs:
Cloud, Henry, & Townsend, John. (1998). Boundaries with kids. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Conner, Michael G., Psy.D, (2008). You owe me! Retrieved April 1, 2009, from http://www.crisiscounseling.com/Articles/YouOweMe.htm.
Crawford Mark. (2008). Parenting with love and grace (DVD No. 5). Forest, VA: AACC.