When Do I Draw the Line?

Parents who want to leave the reward and punishment methods behind often have a hard time letting go fully and embracing a truly connective relationship with their children.

When my child won’t do what has to be done, I have to draw the line, don’t I?
I try to be empathic and listen, but where do I draw the line?

What does “Drawing the line” mean? Making your child stop? Not being empathic anymore? Maintaining your authority as a parent? I think it’s worth figuring out what this phrase means as it runs endlessly in the minds of well-intentioned parents trying their best to change old ways.

“Drawing the line” is one of the last bastions of the reward and punishment mindset. It comes out of the frustrated parent dealing with a defiant or resistant child. But what do you do when you draw the line? Is this line similar to a “line in the sand” beyond which one cannot cross? Does that mean you and your child are separated by a line preventing both of you from getting to each other? Is it a boundary mark that determines the end of your attempt at connection and the beginning of punitive measures?

“Drawing the line” probably happens when you don’t know what to do next. Perhaps you’re thinking, He’s got to learn; She can’t get away with this; I will not tolerate that kind of talk; He’s becoming a video addict. Your resources are used up, patience is thin, and you fall back on old standards. You take away privileges, you threaten, you yell, you lose control. And the cycle starts all over.

Of course, you get frustrated and don’t know what to do. No parent alive has ever avoided this state of mind. The problem is you think you should never have to feel this way and should know what to do to make sure your child never pushes you to this point. So if he does, he’s got to learn who’s boss.

But when he plays by whatever method of drawing the line you use, he’s back into anger: feeling revengeful, misunderstood, powerless, wrong. Then his behavior accelerates, and you get to that line-drawing place more and more often.

So instead of “drawing a line”, what do you do when that moment hits when your child is behaving unacceptably and you don’t know what to do?

This is the moment to drop into Being instead of focusing on Doing.

Just Being

The state of Being means that you expect to enter that zone of not knowing what to do when your child seems to have the upper hand. The state of Being means that you accept yourself and also accept your child for pushing you to try to get what he wants — after all that is his job.

But for many parents this unknowing place is unacceptable. You must Do something right now to stop this. It feels as if your child is walking all over you and you are her doormat. That is only true if you remain on the floor.

When you don’t know what to do, do nothing. Of course, if there is hitting, throwing, some kind of violent behavior, that must be stopped. But stopping it means restraint or getting between two angry people. It does not mean lecturing about how many times you have told him blah, blah. It does not mean yelling at your child, which indicates you have lost control and become more of a target for an angry child. It does not mean using coercive tactics to make your child wrong.

Much of the time, the behavior that pushes you over the edge into not knowing what to do is resistance or refusal to do something you have asked, throwing jabs or punches at you or a sibling, calling names. None of this is okay. But instead of thinking I have to draw the line, think I need to create a boundary.

A boundary is a psychological protection for both you and your child.

Holding a strong boundary means that no one is allowed to abuse you in any form and that your wishes are as important as anyone else’s. You take care of you instead of using your power to control your child and prevent him from doing something (although sometimes you need to use restraint to keep yourself from being hit). A boundary means, I take care of myself and insure that I am okay — exactly what you want to teach your child to do.

A boundary means you can say:

   This is not okay with me.

            I will not allow anyone to hit me (and I hope you never allow anyone to hit you).

            I don’t like it when this happens.

Holding a boundaryYou work out problems with your child through relationship. In a relationship you do not exert your power over another. Nor do you ever need to do that with your child in order to gain cooperation.

What do you do if a friend, co-worker or spouse does something unacceptable to you? You probably don’t take away a privilege. Yelling never accomplishes anything worthwhile, and letting it pass sends the message you are okay with it. The relationship is what is at risk. That is what needs tending — if you want to maintain the relationship.

Most often you are caught off-guard by your child’s offending behavior. Your emotions flood your brain and you go into reactive mode. But reacting in that mode means defensive, retaliatory behavior that only breaks connection and will never lead to cooperation. IT IS ALWAYS BEST TO DO NOTHING.

Stop, breathe, and wait until your emotions are cooled and your thinking brain comes back online — when you can be rational again.

Go back to your child, own your part of the situation, name the problem, and work it out.

“You really hated what I asked you to do. I probably said it with a frustrated tone. I do have a problem here that I need your help with. It is my job as your parent to get you to bed on time. I get very frustrated and impatient especially when I’m tired at the end of the day and want things to go smoothly. And of course you don’t want to go to bed. You want to keep playing. So we have to work this out so we are both okay with it. Is there something you can think of that would help getting to bed easier so we don’t have to fight about it every night?”

This re-do of the situation is considerate of your child’s agenda, it accepts your child’s natural desires at her stage of development, it shows responsibility by owning your part, and it acknowledges your job and desire. When your child does not feel blamed, she is far more likely to cooperate with you because she doesn’t have to defend herself against your blame. When you own what is yours—in this case it is your desire to get your child to bed—your child feels more understood and is more willing to work it out.

You do not need to go into this every night, but if you take the time to invest in your relationship, and you can be trusted not to flip back to “drawing a line”, you will rarely have to have this type of conversation with your child. But when new stages of development arise, when your child is thinking differently, when you are particularly needy, going back to the problem-solving drawing board is always the best way to preserve a strong, loving relationship.

Related Articles:

How To set Limits Effectively

Can You Be Friends With Your Child?