For some of us, discussing our philosophies about discipline and setting boundaries happens before our kids are born; for other parents, they’re topics we avoid until our children reach a certain age or exhibit certain behavior.
While I don’t think there’s only one right way or ideal time to navigate these topics—in truth, I suspect that most of us revisit them multiple times over the course of our parenting careers—it’s important that, when we broach them, we take time to really explore them and adopt a team approach with spouses.
I’m a big believer in taking time to define what we mean by boundaries and discipline. If we don’t, we might assume we mean the same thing as our spouses—and, therefore, presume we share a philosophy—only to learn, while setting boundaries or disciplining children, that our definitions vary and our styles clash, which can cause relationship conflict and confuse our kids.
How do we best explore these topics? What kinds of questions do we ask of ourselves and our mates? Those that reveal our parenting “back-story,” that is, our parents’ approaches to setting boundaries and doling out discipline.
Why dredge up the past when we’re talking about how to parent in the present?
Because, like it or not, we often unconsciously replicate or rail against the parenting we received (or didn’t receive). So, we might end up parenting-by-reflex, which doesn’t serve us, our relationships, or our kids terribly well.
Here are questions to consider; bear in mind responses can vary depending on your kids’ ages, personalities, etc. The goal isn’t to provide answers that are set in stone, but to begin to seriously consider these topics.
(If you don’t have kids yet, think about the age at which you assume these subjects will become relevant and answer accordingly.)
How do I define setting boundaries for children? Think of some examples of what you consider acceptable and unacceptable ways of setting boundaries, either those you’ve witnessed or those you make up, to help illustrate your definition.
How do I define discipline? Think of some examples of disciplining kids in what you consider to be appropriate and inappropriate ways, to help illustrate your definition.
How did my parents define or set boundaries?
What do I like or dislike about my parents’ approach to boundaries?
How did my parents define or administer discipline?
What do I like or dislike about their approach to disciplining kids?
What’s my ideal vision of setting boundaries for kids?
What’s my ideal way to discipline kids?
If you can’t think of ideal scenarios, describe what you wouldn’t want setting boundaries or disciplining kids to look like as a parent.
Share your responses with your spouse and discuss your points of agreement and, especially, where you differ. I encourage you to listen with curiosity and compassion, so you truly hear what your spouse says without judgment or defensiveness.
If you and your spouse disagree, ask: What’s important to you about your approach? How do you think it’s helpful to children?
After hearing each other out, summarize your spouse’s opinion on these subjects and ask if s/he thinks your description is right. If not, ask your beloved to fill in any blanks or correct errors in your summary.
Now, discuss how you might craft a philosophy together that honors both your approaches, at least to a degree. Write it down and put it where you can access it, if you need to be reminded of details or if, in time, you want to make changes.
That’s right: Just because you agree now, doesn’t mean your current approach will always work for you as co-parents, or that it will be effective for your child/ren.
By the way, lots of parenting experts (including those whose expertise is being parents) have great ideas about setting boundaries and disciplining children. If you’re interested in what others have to say, read a range of those ideas. They can help you get clearer about what you do and don’t want for your kids.
But, first, ask yourself and your spouse the questions I pose about your parenting back-story, and about your definitions of setting boundaries and discipline.
Why? Because unless we’re keen on being a reflex-parent, letting each other (and ourselves) in on our histories and assumptions about setting boundaries and disciplining kids–and pretty much any other parenting topic–increases mutual understanding and respect, and helps us clarify and stay conscious about the kinds of parents we want to be individually and as a team.