In this series, I’ve talked about how our commitments to our children have to be strong and one-way. It is easy to conflate that truth into believing that we must unconditionally commit to our children. In reality, no emotionally healthy person ever makes a truly unconditional commitment to another. Even the strongest and most binding commitments have unspoken conditions. For example, my husband and I know that if one of us becomes abusive or starts running guns for the Mafia, our marriage is over. We were willing to commit to a marriage because we are secure in our knowledge of each other and in the belief that we never will have to confront those deal-breakers. We never had to verbalize those conditions; we just know that they are there.
Children, however, do not have enough life experiences to understand unspoken boundaries. Because they lack the ability to process the reasons their families fell apart, they live in a world where bad things happen for trivial and mysterious reasons. I once came home to a long and heartfelt letter from one of my foster daughters telling me that she had screwed up badly, but was very sorry and would never, ever do it again. The letter begged me not to send her to a different foster home. Her transgression? She had put the wrong pot into the oven and the knob on the lid had melted.
By that time, I had had foster children test a lot of rules. I had had conversations ranging from, “Who is this strange person in my house at midnight?” to “No, I will not pay for what you shoplifted. You will have to work it out with your probation officer.” A melted knob on an old pot simply did not register with me. But my daughter did not have that confidence and she needed more reassurance and clarity than I had been providing.
Even children whose only loss is divorce may be reluctant to trust our commitment to them. They already have seen relationships fall apart and cannot know what caused it or what could cause the next disruption in their lives. They need us to be crystal clear about the limits to our commitments. They need to know exactly what behavior will prompt which consequences.
It also is very important to help our children distinguish between who they are and what they do. That is harder than it sounds. Other people’s children come to us with a pre-existing narrative that garbles what we say. It is all too easy for a child to transform “you never clean up after yourself” into “you are a trashy person.” From there they leap to the conclusion that trashy people inevitably get kicked out of this house, so there is no point in trying. It takes a lot of therapy and commitment and time to help children change those narratives. In the meantime, we have to relentlessly focus on talking to them about narrow and specific actions.
Just as important, we need to be clear about what consequences will happen if they step over your boundaries. Whenever possible you need to have your spouse on board, or you children will instinctively exploit the space between you. If you have to go it alone, though, do not hesitate to impose consequences that you can control. For example, I don’t tolerate insults or profanity. My husband always backs me up, so it has never been a problem with my stepchildren. When I was a single foster parent, however, I learned to say, “We will finish this discussion later. And in the meantime, I don’t do favors for people who are rude to me.” It was always a short time later that the child wanted to go somewhere or asked what was for dinner. I could point out, “No, I don’t do nice things for people who are rude to me. Until we can finish that conversation in a civil manner, you’ll have to make sandwiches.”
Never feel guilty about setting boundaries on your commitments. Healthy boundaries are essential to healthy commitments. It will not help your kids if you are uncaring, but neither will it help if you are a doormat. They need to know that you are committed to them; they need just as badly to know that you will protect that commitment with strong boundaries.