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Around Our Town...Family

Parenting Our Children through "Structure" and "Nurture"

08/01/2005 - In this third article on the importance of structure and nurture in the area of parenting, I will again be relying heavily on the book Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children by Jean Illsley Clark and Connie Dawson (Hazelden, Center City, Minnesota, 1998). In this column, we will take a look at the specifics of the structuring aspect of parenting: what it is, why kids need it, and how to provide it in an affirming and effective manner. In next month's column, we will finish out the series with a more thorough discussing of nurturing.


As adults, we have varying degrees of self-discipline or self-control. This is often referred to as "internal structure". When we are talking about parenting, we are providing "external structure" (rules, values, guidelines, and boundaries) that will help children create their own internal structure (self-discipline) as they grow and mature. Children crave certainty and predictability at some level. Parents who give their children appropriate structure meet these needs; parents who do not provide structure create an environment of chaos and confusion. A large part of helping children in the area of structure is by making rules, enforcing them, and evaluating whether they build self-confidence and a sense of competence or whether they cause children to feel shameful and doubt their own abilities.

Another area that relates to structure is establishing boundaries. Boundaries that are appropriate (not too flexible or too rigid) help children to know they are loved and cared for, give them permission to explore within an area that is safe, and help them to know what they can and cannot do. If you watch children play within a fenced area, generally, they will go to the outer edges where the boundaries are. If they are in an unfenced area, they tend to keep closer to the center of the yard where it is safe. They really do want and need for us to tell them how far they can go even though they may push the limits and argue about the boundaries we set!

The following is a chart that helps define what are healthy and unhealthy ways of establishing structure in a child's life. Following the chart is a description of each method that parents may use in an attempt to provide structure.

Rigidity: the strictest form of discipline and structure. This end of the continuum involves giving priority to following the rules over the welfare of the child. The rules are enforced without regard to the child's needs. It can involve getting compliance through intimidating the child.

Criticism: a little more flexible than rigidity, but involves ridicule, name-calling, put-downs, and predicting that the child will fail.

Nonnegotiable rules: these rules establish for children what they need to do to be safe, successful, and moral. They are always going to be enforced in the context of this particular family and no deviation will be permitted. For example, "lying will not be tolerated" this is a rule that will always be in effect, represents a value that is constant, and will have consistent consequences when violated.

Negotiable rules: these rules can change with a child's age and responsibility. They help children to begin to think for themselves, set their own boundaries, and give them a chance to accept increasing responsibility as they mature.

Marshmallow parenting: this type of parent gives in to the demands of the child. It teaches children that they don't have to follow the rules or accept responsibility for their actions.

Abandonment: parents fail to make and enforce rules that protect children and do not give children the opportunity to learn skills that are appropriate to their age.

To summarize this chart, only the two center categories negotiable rules and nonnegotiable rules are appropriate in providing structure for children. In their book, Clark and Dawson give examples of each and describe the way to adapt the negotiable rules to each developmental stage of the child. It is again important to emphasize that no parent is perfect. However, it is helpful to have a model to look at and to evaluate where we are on the continuum and where we need to improve.

Please join us next month as we look more closely at the nurturing aspect of parenting.

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