Establishing Boundaries with Children

How do you establish boundaries with your children?

Interpersonal boundaries may be defined as invisible lines, or “bubbles,” which separate people or groups of people. A healthy family is one in which each member can be loved and be himself or herself at the same time. The boundary around each family member protects his right to be himself. Each child, each adult, and each relationship within the family needs a protective boundary around it. Establishing boundaries begins with establishing family values. The Golden Rule is the basic value of all cultures : Treat others the way you would like them to treat you. A kids’ version is “Your freedom to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.” Boundaries are essential for healthy families. Within the safety of boundaries established by the parents, a child can develop his own sense of self. Because that self has been protected by boundaries, the child can feel he is loved for himself, and can love others while respecting their right to be who they are and make their own choices.

Teaching Children to Respect Others’ Boundaries : As children are naturally egocentric, they have to be taught where others’ boundaries are. A two year old may not know he is actually causing pain to the person he hits; he only knows that he gets a reaction. Similarly, a teenager may have no idea of how stressful it is when she adds to an adult’s work load; she has to be taught. Limits are statements of people’s boundaries. It is not “selfish” of a parent to set limits for a child around respecting the parent’s own needs : for example, the need for sleep, or the need to not have to clean up all the time, or the need for some time to herself. These limits teach the child about others’ boundaries and about the Golden Rule. As the child gets older, you can establish family values which flow out of the Golden Rule, such as respect for persons, respect for others’ property, respect for body privacy, gentleness with weak, kindness to animals. Sometimes limits need to be enforced with consequences. However, empathy training (helping the child think through what it must be like for the person who has been harmed) is much more effective than scolding or punishing a child when he or she harms someone. It also helps to let the child make amends if he is truly sorry (but don’t teach him to make lying apologies).

Respecting Children’s Boundaries : Boundaries are really about respect, and it’s amazing how often we expect children to respect us, yet we don’t respect them. If an older child doesn’t respect others’ boundaries, it’s often because his own boundaries haven’t been respected. For example, children who steal from their parents frequently have parents who don’t respect their private property. If you want your child to respect your ownership of the money in your wallet and the jewelery in your room, you need to respect his private ownership of his toys (don’t force him to share) and his money (don’t tell him how to spend his allowance.) If you don’t want your child to walk in on you without knocking, don’t do it to him. It’s important also to respect your child’s choice of clothing, activities and friends, as long as none of those are seriously damaging. Don’t barge in on his private conversations. Don’t intervene in his disputes with other children unless someone is getting seriously hurt. Don’t interrupt him 5 minutes before the end of his favourite TV show. If you don’t want him to call other people “idiot” and “stupid,” don’t call him “irresponsible” and “lazy.” Children learn most from our example, and they learn about boundaries when their boundaries are respected by us, and when we insist that other people respect their and our boundaries.