Jill Schafhauser, principal of a school for children with behavioral disorders, likes to remind parents and teachers that boundaries have to be taught. Since children don’t naturally know what is right, we have to explicitly teach the lines we expect them to stay inside.
For this post, I talked to teachers and parents in the U.S. and China about how they teach boundaries to children. Most of their methods seem to fall into the four categories below.
In Harmony in Boundaries, we talked about using questions to help children own their behavior when they’ve crossed a line. The parents/teachers I talked to also use questions to teach boundaries. A dad talked about how he found it useful to ask his 6-year-old to explain why she’d thrown a toy at her sister. Then, he knew how to proceed.
As children grow older, these discussions can become more involved. A mom described a conversation she had with her middle school son. She wanted him to figure out on his own that he was “falling in love with power.” (He’d been made a leader in his class.) So, she asked him questions to lead him around to appropriate conclusions. She was not only teaching him boundaries but also how to decide where lines should be drawn.
My informants also directly tell children where the lines are. They may give examples. They usually also tell why. Their whys are not about how the child’s behavior causes them to be 不好意思 (embarrassed), frustrated, or disappointed. Instead, their whys come from particular values they adhere to. In fact, they may teach children a proverb or a verse from the Bible as part of their reason why.
My informants gave examples of how they let children experience the consequences of their actions both for self and others. One dad described how he gave his toddler a cup of hot water (hot enough to sting a little but not to harm) so that she could experience why she should not touch or drink hot things.
Showing may also involve engaging children in practice-type activities. One teacher talked about how she might make students rehearse and then repeat something the right way when they’d said something disrespectful or unkind. My mom liked using role plays to show my sisters and me the consequences of our words and actions. She’d make us repeat what we said or did, and then she played the role of the child whose eyes welled up with tears because of our hurtful behavior. She also did things like mixing vinegar and baking soda together in order to illustrate what happens when emotions (like anger) get out of hand.
The parents and teachers I interviewed for this post are people I know personally. I chose them because they are not only trying hard to teach their children/students well, but they are also modeling the behavior they expect from them. Drawing on wisdom from different sources, they have each developed a set of values which they then live out in front of their children. In English we sometimes say “A picture is worth a thousand words.” By living out their values, my informants are providing a picture for children worth ten thousand words.