Boundaries: How to help your child feel secure

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This post is mainly  my notes form a lecture given by Nancy Foster, a master Waldorf early childhood teacher and teacher trainer. She has given me permission to share these, and to embellish with my own thoughts. It’s long, but I think worth it to read…. Please let me know your thoughts!

We give children boundaries to strengthen a child’s  sense of security. If a little child grows up without appropriate boundaries, that child feels the effects throughout life. It’s like a premature baby who doesn’t get the full time in the protective womb. Boundaries are how we experience personal space. Skin is a boundary.

Boundaries are a loving gesture. Like a hug, an embrace. Young children need to be safely held physically, and with our love.

Rudolf Steiner said that the child has different needs at different developmental levels–from birth to age 7, the child needs to experience “the world is good”.  Boundaries are one of the things that let the child feel secure and that all is well–that the world is good.

Sometimes, we lose patience, we flounder around because we don’t know what to do. We stop and say ‘is this really me? Is this the best I can do?”

I can’t tell you which boundaries to set—it’s your family’s culture. Think of boundaries as a human embrace you want an embrace that is warm and protective but not restrictive. You have to consider the whole family—consider your own needs– it’s no good if you are feeling frazzled. I offer you 4 proverbs to guide us when working with children.

  1. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (or a stitch in time saves nine).

You have clear expectations and can communicate them when you see something beginning to happen—not wait until it is a crisis.

You structure something so that it is not a problem. For instance giving small helpings at mealtimes.

Rhythm– every day has a particular flow from one activity to another.-This makes the child feel secure—they know what to expect. Regular rhythm avoids trouble as the child can ‘rest in the flow of time’ Its helps to just say “it’s time to go to bed” or “it’s time to wash your hands” instead of “I want you to wash your hands now” This takes it out of the personal power realm and into stating the rhythm.–if every day before dinner we wash hands, then there is a hand washing time—its just what happens—its in the flow of time.

  1. Out of the mouths of babes.

Children can teach you what they need. Not necessarily by what they say. Observe them—you will learn what they need. It is good to give them what they need even if they protest. For example, you observe that they are tired, but they are screaming that they don’t want to go to bed.

Our goal is not to seek for them to love us. They do love us. It is egotistical to seek their acceptance.

Observe your child. For example, through observation, you learn that a particular child doesn’t handle crowds very well. So you can then plan accordingly by avoiding as much as possible taking this child to big, crowded events.

Observe, then act.

  1. Honey catches more flies than vinegar.

Tell young children what to do, not what not to do. If you tell them to stop doing something, they are left empty—not knowing what to do. For example, a child who is helping stir cake batter suddenly starts waving the spoon around, and batter starts to fly. This is where the adult’s self discipline comes in– maybe our first reaction is wanting to say in a loud voice “stop! You’re making a mess!” But instead, we say in a firm, kind, but dispassionate tone: “the spoon is for stirring” then gently guide the spoon back into the bowl and stir with them a couple times.

“Lets” is a magic word here.. It is aligning yourself with the child. Then you do accompany the child. [You want to be on their side to accompany them on their journey –not putting yourself in opposition to them]. “Let’s put our hats on “ “Lets wash our hands” “lets have a nice rest”

Also, don’t wait to respond to your child until they are whining.

  1. As you sow, so shall you reap.

This has to do with being prepared. First of all, it is important to know what kind of seeds you’re planting, and what kind of blossoms you hope for.

Set aside some time each evening to review how things are going—what went well, when did you feel good? “Timmy was upset getting into his car seat again—he probably will tomorrow” So then you can plan for tomorrow. It feels better when you know you have a plan—you are on top of the situation—even if what you try doesn’t work. Then the next evening, you can say—“well that didn’t work, is it worth trying a few more times, or should I try something else?”

The benefit is that since you have a plan, you don’t lose your patience. That in itself helps because your child doesn’t feel you getting upset.

This kind of self discipline is a great example for your child.

Self discipline aligned with regular rhythm can help retain that feeling of warm embrace of boundaries.

  1. Bonus Proverb: Don’t cry over spilled milk.

It is your striving that really means the most to children. (Rudolf Steiner said this to the first Waldorf teachers) Don’t lament all your parenting mistakes, just keep striving to be better.

Picture an angelic image of your child sleeping peacefully. They feel totally secure and at peace. We as adults need the same feeling– to rest, feel taken care of.

If we hold a loving, peaceful image of our child before we go to sleep, we can wake up with an idea or inspiration of how to support them.

Notes on some of Nancy’s answers to parent questions:

Sometimes doing things the way you know is best and healthiest is so hard, we wonder if it is worth it. [For example, leaving the store immediately when the child is in a tantrum or otherwise ‘out of themselves'(eg: yelling, demanding, whining). This means we don’t get our shopping done, but it is best for the child—they are over stimulated.]

Concerning ‘melt downs’: They are out of themselves. There is nothing much you can say to a child in the middle of a tantrum. Some children you can pick up and hold tightly in your lap in the rocking chair. Other children need to be left alone.

One parent asked about respect. That a lot of psychologists are saying we need to talk to children to find out what they are feeling that this is respect.

Nancy said again they cant hear you, or speak about it when in tantrum, and then they are ready to move on.. it’s not good to bring them back to talking about it.

Liz’s 2 cents on this topic of respect:

I agree with Nancy that it is not fruitful to try to talk to or reason with a young child in the middle of a tantrum. An adult can show even more respect with non-verbal communication. Holding them and rocking them, or just accompanying them with our grounded presence helps them feel less out of control, and then they come back ‘into themselves’ we can move on to the next thing “now we can have our snack” or “now we can look at a book”. They may say something about the tantrum-listen don’t dig, or maybe you can say ‘I wonder what was so upsetting’ and wait to see if they say anything—listen and accept what they say if you dig for more information, it could prolong the upset. For them, the storm is over, the sun is out and all is well. It is your job as the adult to use your observations to discover the possible reasons for the tantrum.


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