The Boundaries Kids Really Need

Can I protect my own body and property? Duh. Can I offer my own perspective and experiences? Sure. Can I model my own values? Seems a super helpful thing to do. And in those ways, could I have an influence? Of course. But it is not within my scope to let my children do anything as long as it doesn’t infringe on another person’s ability to live autonomously too; again my permission is not required. “I’m Not a Permissive Parent”

I really dislike the concept of boundaries as it is often seen within the paradigm of parenting. It generally entails a parent projecting a boundary onto their child to “keep them safe” or to “ensure they grow into a kind, thoughtful human”. Essentially, the parent placates their fears and discomfort by controlling and restricting their child’s autonomy.

When we discuss boundaries outside of parenting, the focus becomes about each person protecting their own safety, well being and property, deciding what is and isn’t okay for themselves, not for others. Why then when the relationship becomes parent and child does this no longer make the most sense? Why do we suddenly focus on the child and their actions instead of our own?

I agree that children do need solid boundaries; their own.

In our family, nobody determines boundaries for another. We each have our own personal boundaries based on our ideals and preferences, feelings relating to our capabilities and our needs; they are not necessarily static.

In some circumstances we are comfortable with kisses, in others we are not. In some circumstances we are agreeable to another using one of our possessions, in others we are not. Sometimes we are happy to be splashed. Sometimes we want to stay dry. In each moment, it is up to the individual to determine what they are and are not comfortable with as it pertains to their domain (their mind, their body, their possessions, their spaces and so on) and to respect the decision of others relating to their domain.

Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.

I am a person who believes that people are kind, cooperative and driven to contribute as a standard, this is not something one needs to cultivate within another. I can’t actually imagine what point there would be to continuing the human race if I thought the opposite? Why are we having children if we think so poorly of humans and their potential when uncontrolled? It makes no sense to me that the only way to ensure people are kind, cooperative and contributing is through fear, shame, punishment and the expected obedience which follows.

And yet that is how society parents. A self-fulfilling prophecy in futility; if kindness is enforced nobody is experiencing kindness (it is not kind to force something of someone and it is not kindness when you are acting based on external influences) and then we view behaviour through that lens we’ve nurtured to continue justifying our actions. The collective actions have caused the symptoms that seem to necessitate those choices in the first place. Enough is enough.

What if we as a generation of parents decided to stop choosing them. What if we chose something different. What if we chose to trust; to use personal boundaries to protect ourselves but facilitated our children developing their own boundaries to protect them. If we each had the agency to decide what is and isn’t okay, if we each maintained our autonomy.

If you hit is it any real surprise when your child hits? If you yell is it any real surprise when your child yells? Children mimic, this is not new information. They come into this world looking for clues about how things work; what is okay and what is not. Your actions as their primary carers form a huge part of this understanding.

When they see your response to feeling anger is to yell, they imagine it must be okay for them to do the same. When you chastise them for that choice, they rethink the information and conclude that it is okay to yell when you are angry if you are bigger than the other person and they internalise this message as it continues to be reinforced with every future interaction. Until they are the parent. And it becomes a very hard thing to reject after all that experience giving weight to the beliefs. This goes for any form of punishment, any action of intimidation or fear or shame.

But there is hope too, it also means that when you work through negative experiences and emotions in a beneficial, healthy way your children are absorbing this. When you are kind, when you are co-operative, when you contribute; your children are growing to better know these things.

But what actually happens when there is conflict? It sounds too simple but we mostly just talk about it. Maybe you’re thinking that can’t be effective and yet it has helped us navigate so many issues.

Our children do not have specific bed times, we really do not want to interfere with their natural instincts or disconnect them from feeling and understanding the messages of their bodies. Recently though, after the acquirement of an iPad, Immy (6) was staying up later and later; playing, watching and listening to music.

We weren’t concerned, the iPad was new after all so of course of particular interest but the longer she stayed up at night, the longer she slept in the next day and we didn’t like missing so much time with her. We could also see signs that she wasn’t getting enough sleep. So we approached her with our thoughts.

“I’ve noticed you’ve been staying up later, your new iPad must be pretty exciting hey? We really miss seeing you in the morning and I’m not sure you’re getting enough sleep, how are you feeling?”

After some time to reflect on what we said she responded that it wasn’t exactly that she wanted to stay up, she was having trouble falling asleep.

“Do you think your body is getting a bit confused by you sitting in bed playing games? Maybe it doesn’t realise this is your time to settle into rest because you’re still being so active?”

Hmm, this made sense to her too. We decided together that playing her iPad would be better done elsewhere beforehand and once she got into bed it was for sleep.

“How could we help you with falling asleep? Would you like some company?”

The lure of the iPad hadn’t just affected her actions but our own. Now that she had something to focus on she didn’t seem as fussed to have our company and the whole sleep time had started to feel rushed as we re-invested that time into other things we would usually leave undone like the dishes (our kids needs being the priority of this season).

We wanted to bring back the times we would lay together and talk about the day and what was happening tomorrow, to answer those deeper questions that seem to emerge most in the dark (or from the back seat of the car) and she seemed to think that would help too.

The first few nights took some reminding but because she had come to these agreements herself, reminding is all it took. “Remember how you wanted to get to bed a bit earlier to catch up on sleep and rejoin us in the mornings?” “Remember how you said you didn’t want to bring your iPad to bed because it was distracting and keeping you awake?” “Remember, I’m not going anywhere as long as you need me.”

We have built up a strong relationship over her last 6 years, it has been a priority and so our opinions and observations are ones that she feels she can trust, she understands we are not just looking out for our own interests but hers. If we have a perspective built from experience, she wants to hear it.

A couple of years prior, when she was around 4, she asked for porridge for breakfast which I prepared for her. As I brought her the bowl she looked confused; “no, not that porridge, the brown one”. Oh, what she had actually wanted was a bowl of brown sugar. As much as I want my children to feel control over what they put into their body, I simply am not comfortable with providing her with a bowl of sugar. So I sat and I explained.

“Oh I understand what you mean now. You wanted a bowl full of brown sugar, that stuff we usually sprinkle on top?”

My assumption was confirmed.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get you what you asked for, I didn’t realise that was what you meant but now that I do, I also cannot get that for you. I’m sorry. You see brown sugar in large quantities is not something that would be good for anybody’s body, all those parts inside you cannot process it fast enough and it wouldn’t feel very nice while it happened.”

But she still wanted it. She said she understood but could handle it.

“You’re disappointed I won’t get you what you are asking for. But I really cannot feel comfortable providing you with that. If you really want brown sugar, you know where it is kept and I cannot stop you. I will sit with you while you feel how it feels.”

She thought for a bit before she asked for more information about how it would feel. When a child opens this door it can feel tempting to go over the top and freak them out but all you need to do is share honestly, we want them to trust our thoughts after all!

“I don’t know how it would feel for you exactly. When I have too much sugar I feel like things are on fast forward, it hurts my head trying to keep up. My heart feels like it is beating too big and too quickly. I feel dizzy and queasy. I usually want to sleep”

That didn’t sound very appealing. Okay she said, I’ll have the normal porridge which was luckily just perfectly cooled through the conversation.

When safety and health are of a concern that will not result in death or serious injury I find it important to express my opinion clearly but affirm their autonomy and offer to be with them. If it had been her about to walk across the road in front of a car? Of course I would physically prevent that, in the same way I would a friend or adult family member.

Protecting others from serious imminent danger that they haven’t personally perceived is a responsibility of a community but we need to be mindful of what imminent serious danger actually is; walking across the road in front of a car, yes. Walking across an empty road with no car in sight, not so much; a physical detainment is not necessary for a discussion to take place.

While there is a sense of security in having something to follow; a script or series of actions that will ensure you make the best choices in all situations, life with children and in general doesn’t work like that. It is fluid, it depends on ever-changing circumstances and it grows together — your first conversation might be long and back and forth and have a messy resolution, it is important to remember that you cannot control the outcome, only share your perspective and support them in living the decision of theirs.

In situations where actions and boundaries conflict, I find the following things are most important;

Invest in your relationship, constantly.

Do not wait for a situation to present itself to try and force your child to trust your opinion and respect your wishes. Build a strong connection with your child where they want to. Just imagine if a person who you valued (such as a close friend) came to you because they felt your actions were infringing on their boundaries — you’d feel apologetic and motivated to correct this imbalance without the need for punishment because you care about them and your relationship. It can be similar with our children.

Understand your boundaries.

This involves working through each individual one to discover if it is necessary, if it is influenced by flawed logic, if it is a priority. Being well versed in your boundaries will help you explain them to your child.

Be clear with your boundaries.

If a boundary is met, clearly express this. It might need to be explained several times or in a different way depending on the age of your child but do not assume a child is too young to understand; a child old enough to meet your boundaries, is old enough to know your boundaries whether or not they understand it fully in that moment it will form a foundation over time.

Listen to their perspective too.

Your child might try to object or justify themselves, listen to their opinion because they might have a valid point you hadn’t considered and even if it doesn’t alter your perspective, they deserve to be heard and empathised with.

Be present through your boundaries.

Affirm that whilst you cannot contribute to the action, you will still stand by your child. Be there while they process the emotions relating to your decision; you are allowed to decide what happens to your body and belongings but they are also allowed to feel however they feel about it, honouring their upset does not mean you need to negate your position.

Know that it is a process.

I feel as though empathy is quite instinctual but it still takes practice. We might want to see things from the perspective of others but actually doing so in a way that fully encompasses their circumstances takes an awareness that builds over time. Enacting personal boundaries will help our children in this but it is a constantly evolving process. If you feel you are unworthy of having personal boundaries (often resulting from how a person was treated as a child), it is going to be very difficult to have them in an effective manner; this is something that will take time and personal work to move past.

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  1. Love this sadly I don’t know many people that think this way and find that a really difficult thing to deal with so really great to read it here so well written thank you it’s a constant batte to be okay about parenting in this way as I myself was not ( love my parents by the way) any how thanks again

    1. Thank you. It is really difficult when it is currently countercultural and differing from what we have experienced ourselves. So glad my posts could help you feel less alone <3

  2. Wow this is profound. I wish I was there already and I think I have been finding my way quite well so far during my first 2.5 years of parenting. But these insights are taking it a step further. Thank you much.

  3. I deeply agree with the core values laid out here. I have a question about implementation. How do you protect boundaries when a child’s choice impacts your life/schedule? In the iPad example, Immy gets a chance to see the consequences of her actions in real life (feeling tired, not waking up with the family). This seems doable if your family doesn’t have a set schedule the next day. For those of us with full time work or kids in school, sleeping late is less an option. How do you have that conversation?

  4. How do you have a conversation with a 2 year old who doesn’t developmentally can’t understand risks or why things are a certain way? Like why can’t she have a bag of chocolate chips that we use to make cookies with in the morning for breakfast?

    1. Lots of empathy. Trying to find another satisfying option: maybe pancakes with chocolate chips in them? And explain still, try different ways, children understand more than we appreciate and even if they don’t completely it begins the building blocks of understanding and of your relationship.

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