Single mother has to learn how to set limits

Child Life

March 16, 1997|By Beverly Mills | Beverly Mills,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As a single mother, I am very close to my 9-year-old son. My son sometimes treats me more like a sibling than a parent. My son respects authority, but there's always a debate when I ask him to do something. How can I impress upon him that there are boundaries?


Virginia Beach, Va.

Your son needs a mother, not a sparring partner. Adolescence is looming, but it's not too late for the two of you to develop consistent rules, rewards and consequences that should reduce the back talk.

"This child has got to have at least one parent who is setting limits," says Leif Terdal, co-author of "Raising Sons Without Fathers" (Birch Lane Press, $19.95). "The parent should not reinforce the sibling-like relationship."

Your child is more likely to cooperate if you develop the guidelines together, parents and experts say. A routine that clearly puts you in a supervisory role will give the child security.

"We went through this with our daughter a few years ago, and we found that it helped if we sat down with her and wrote down the limits, with her input," says Kathi Polanek, of Wheaton, Ill.

Using fast-food lunches and nail polish as rewards worked well, while consequences for offenses included limits on television.

As another approach, parents can shift the focus away from the 9-year-old's behavior, says Evonne Weinhaus, co-author of "Stop Struggling With Your Child," (Harper Perennial $7.95).

"Rather than set boundaries for him, begin to set boundaries for yourself," Weinhaus says.

Let's say you want your child to get a good night's sleep, and you need time for yourself. Instead of nagging, switch the focus by saying, "I'm off-duty at 9 o'clock." Follow through by not reading stories, for example, after 9 p.m.

Giving the child a seemingly endless flow of directions only creates tension between the parent and child, Weinhaus writes in her book. Silence your day-to-day harping by setting up structure ahead of time.

Sticking to a routine can be tougher on a single mother, but her guidance is crucial. Reader Renee Somers, of Chesapeake, Va., recalls boundary problems she had with her three sons, ages 15, 17 and 21, because she was afraid to discipline.

"I felt guilty because the children did not have the financial security they would have if I had remained married to their father," Somers says. "I didn't want the children to be angry with me."

Somers realized that her responsibilities as a mother needed to prevail over her role as a friend, even if her decisions made her kids unhappy.

"Single mothers can have a lot of guilt," Weinhaus says. "It's extremely important to find positive time together so that when they need to discipline, they don't feel sorry for the kid."

When it comes time to follow through on limits, try wording things in a positive way and using conditions, Terdal says. For example, if your son wants to play ball but hasn't finished his homework, say: "You can play as soon as you finish your homework." There's a limit and a condition, and you haven't said no. Acknowledge the child's point of view, but reinforce the connection between homework first and playtime later.

If a father is involved in raising the child, he should help reinforce limits. If the father is not involved, the mother has a bigger burden. She can expect her youngster to require more closeness for about one year after a divorce, but she should help him expand and brighten his world through a mentor, sports or Boy Scouts, Terdal says.

"I believe women can raise sons just fine," he says. "You don't need to be aggressive, but you do need to set limits that follow normal guidelines."

Whether a child has one parent or two, he's sure to balk about the rules.

If you're tempted to join him in a debate, try to recall these handy tips from "Stop Struggling With Your Child":

Don't use your mouth, use your routine.

Follow up with follow- through.

Stay grounded with ground rules.

Create rules with your children, not just for them.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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