Boy Crisis Excerpt – Boundary Enforcement

1. Boundary Enforcement (Versus Boundary Setting)

Moms often ask me, “Why is it that when I speak, nothing happens, but when their dad speaks, the kids drop everything and obey? Is it his deeper voice?” It makes moms feel disrespected and taken for granted. But it’s not dad’s deeper voice. Dads who don’t enforce boundaries are also ignored.

Studies of single dads and single moms find that moms report themselves as considerably more stressed than dads—even though single moms are much more likely to receive financial assistance.[i]

Perhaps the most important reason is because moms are more likely to set boundaries, whereas dads are more likely to enforce boundaries. For example, although a mom is more likely to set an early bedtime, single moms are more than three times as likely as single dads to let younger kids get away with late or irregular bedtimes.[ii] One boy half-joked, “My mom warns and warns; it’s like she ‘cries wolf.’ My dad gives us one warning, and then he becomes the wolf.”

Getting to bed late obviously contributes to health problems. That may be why frequent headaches and stomachaches are two to three times more common among younger children living with only their moms (versus with only their dads).[iii]

Boys with poorly enforced boundaries also become boys with poor impulse control. When the University of Chicago Crime Lab examined why 610 Chicago public school students were shot by fellow students during a recent one-and-a-half-year period, they found that lack of impulse control and a lack of conflict resolution and social skills were characteristic of the boys involved.[iv] However, what the study missed was that impulse control and social skills are some of the gifts of father involvement—and these boys’ fathers were mostly absent.

We have seen that the amount of time a father spends with a child is “one of the strongest predictors of empathy in adulthood.”[v] Teaching a child to treat boundaries seriously teaches him or her to respect the needs of others. Respecting another’s needs contributes to empathy. Empathy doesn’t trigger shooting.

Here are some of the outcomes of father involvement that are related to boundary enforcement and impulse control:

  • Children living with dads are less likely to have discipline problems.[vi] This is despite the fact that dads are less likely than moms to use physical discipline.[vii]
  • Five- to eleven-year-old children with moms are 259 percent more likely to go to the hospital.[viii]

How does this mom-dad gap between setting boundaries and enforcing boundaries work in everyday life? Let’s go back to bedtime in theory versus bedtime in practice . . .

When Harry was asked by a therapist why he thought he got to bed later with his mom than his dad, he explained, “With mom, I can get away with it.”

“How?”

“With mom, I say, like ‘I need water’ or ‘I have a tummy ache.’”

“So you manipulate her?”

Harry grinned.

“Don’t those excuses get a bit old?”

Harry’s grin expanded, as if delighting in his cleverness. “I have a whole bunch of excuses. Like, ‘I have to get my homework done’ or ‘Just one more story.’ Or I tell her ‘I love it when you read me Where the Wild Things Are.’”

Harry paused, and then boasted, “I have a real sense of what will work. Sooner or later mom gives in.”

 “Do you use those ploys with dad?”

“No . . . They don’t work with him.”

“How’s that?”

“He doesn’t let me have any dessert or TV—or do anything fun—until I do my homework and chores.”

“So he’s more serious?”

“Well, sort of. He’ll announce that bedtime is 9:30. But I know that whatever time is left after I do my homework and get all ready for bed is wrestle time or I get a story, or pretty much whatever I want—except no sweets. So I rush to get everything done.”

“Doesn’t that tempt you to just do a rush job on your homework?”

“Yeah, it used to. But when I got a C once from Miss Ahearn—she’s real strict—then dad started checking it while I get ready for bed. If it’s OK, we get to wrestle or read. If it’s not, I gotta go back to homework. But when it’s 9:30, he gives me a big hug and kiss, and that’s it.”

Harry, like most kids, was like a prisoner vigilantly waiting for the guard to drop his guard, watching for a little crack in the prison door through which he could gain his freedom. Once Harry saw he could manipulate his mom for a better deal, it was just a matter of who had more energy. So Harry always won—and therefore lost: with a compromised immune system.

A weaker immune system also leads to a vicious cycle: Harry was absent from school, with a couple of trips to the emergency room, so his mom (and sometimes dad) became even more protective and guilty, allowing for more manipulation, and thus the cycle continued. But it all started with the more porous boundary.

What moms are more likely to bring to the family table is a deep-seated understanding that children need empathy (as does everyone). Dad’s contributions are more counterintuitive: first, that empathy is a virtue which, when it only goes from parent to child, and is not required of the child, becomes a vice. And second, that empathy for a child’s desires does not imply being controlled by the child’s desires.

That said, some dads give empathy too short shrift. When, then, do a child’s desires count? At all times before the setting of a boundary. In fact, before setting a boundary, treating a child’s input seriously and allowing him or her to have impact when appropriate, plus giving an empathetic explanation when it is not appropriate, are crucial to her or his development of empowering negotiating skills. Empowering negotiating skills are best understood in contrast with manipulative negotiating skills.

A child who learns that a boundary that’s been set is still negotiable develops manipulative negotiating skills. The child soon senses that if he or she doesn’t “win” right away, with enough persistence they can ultimately exhaust the parent and “win.” This second path is most frequently characterized by the exhausted mom finally yelling in frustration, “I said no!” The child then continues to press. The mom loses it and creates a punishment too big for the crime; then, feeling guilty, she fails to follow through on the anger-generated punishment, and in an effort to beg forgiveness, she bends over backward to please the child. The child soon detects exactly what worked to manipulate the mom into bending over backward and giving more than what was even asked for in the first place, and thus hones his or her art for the next iteration of the “cycle of the unenforced boundary.”

The outcome? A disrespect for both boundaries and the parent who sets them. When the cycle of the unenforced boundary becomes a pattern, the result is a coercive relationship with the parent, and the child’s disrespect becomes contempt. Just as important, the child “gets rid” of the parent who enforces boundaries—sticking with the parent he or she can manipulate. The child has won, and therefore lost. More on the cycle of the unenforced boundary in a chapter coming soon. But first . . .

How do dads enforce boundaries without their children wanting to “get rid” of them? It starts with his playing with the children. That play creates a bond. As we saw with Harry, the dad then often unconsciously uses that bond as leverage for boundary enforcement: “When you finish your homework and chores, and get ready for bed, we’ll do whatever you’d like before bedtime.”

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[i] Mogens Nygaard Christoffersen, “An Investigation of Fathers with 3 – 5-Year-Old Children” (paper presented at the Social Research-Institute, Ministerratskonferenz, Stockholm, Sweden, April 27–28, 1995), chart 2, “Parents Living Alone with 3- to 5-Year-Old Children.”

[ii]Mary Jo Coiro, Nicholas Zill, and Barbara Bloom, “Health of Our Nation’s Children,” US Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vital and Health Statistics, series 10, no. 191, December 1994. The National Health Interview Survey is based on a US Census Bureau sample of over 122,000 individuals, including over 17,000 children (table 16, p. 49). Nine percent of children with only biological fathers have late or irregular bedtimes; 33 percent of children with only biological mothers had late or irregular bedtimes.

[iii] Christoffersen, “ Investigation of Fathers,” chart 3.

[iv] University of Chicago “Becoming a Man,” Crime Lab, 2012, https://crimelab.uchicago.edu/page/becoming-man-bam-sports-edition-findings.

[v] Richard Koestner, C. Franz, and J. Weinberger, “The Family Origins of Empathic Concern: A Twenty-Six-Year Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58, no. 4 (April 1990): 709–17.

[vi] D. A. Luepnitz, Child Custody (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1982); cited in Richard A. Warshak, “Father Custody and Child Development: A Review and Analysis of Psychological Research,” Behavioral Sciences and the Law 4, no.2 (1986): 192.

[vii] Christoffersen, “Investigation of Fathers,” chart 2.

[viii] Coiro, Zill, and Bloom, “Health of Our Nation’s Children,” table 13, p. 43.

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