For ages, I’ve been hearing about how important “boundaries” were, and I’ve never been quite sure what people even meant by the word. A while back I went to parenting discussion about boundaries, and I think I finally figured out what the word means! (To me, that is. I’m not sure everyone agrees on how boundaries work.)
The word “boundaries” always bugged me because it was vague, and seemed to include some assumptions that I wasn’t sure I agreed with. One such assumption was the idea that good boundaries were bright lines. (Now I think it depends.) “Boundaries” also sounded like the sort of thing I was supposed be very careful to respect, more so than mere “preferences”, and I was confused about exactly why.
What are boundaries?
We create boundaries around things we think are worth protecting.
It’s good for us to have boundaries around stuff when there’s a big payoff to our having the final say about them and when cultural, material, and social factors make them practical to defend. It’s pretty easy for me to defend my boundary about not having random strangers come into my house. There are laws backing me up, everyone’s social intuitions agree this is a good rule, and I have a lock on my door. I have pretty strong boundaries around people touching my babies, but they’re harder to defend. I tend to be physically near my babies almost all the time, but collective social intuitions aren’t solidly in agreement with me. I’m not very afraid of conflict, but I do have boundaries about how much I’m willing to rock the boat, and that boundary sometimes comes into conflict with my boundaries about how I want people touching my kids.
Defending a boundary can include asking people not to do something, strongly telling them not to, and leaving situations that make us uncomfortable.
Boundaries around what?
In this day and age it’s mostly practical for us (as adults) to have pretty strong boundaries around what happens to our physical bodies. There’s a fair amount of cultural and legal support for the idea, and we’re typically already monitoring our bodies.
It’s very important to me to maintain a strong boundary around my internal experience of the world, so people can’t write over it without my consent. It’s vital for me to keep track what I like, what matters to me, and how I think the world works. It used to be hard for me to remember all that in the presence of certain people. I since upgraded my mental OS to the point where I haven’t worried about reality distortion fields in years.
(As an aside, an immune system is a great complement to a boundary. When things that do get in but are tagged as nonnative, I don’t mind having them there.)
I have better boundaries around my time than I used to too. When people ask me to do a thing, I usually check in with my priorities and my schedule before answering. This seems like an obvious procedure, but I didn’t used to do it. Attention is also a resource worth protecting, and I have heuristics in place to help with that.
It seems like lots of boundaries are at least partially about protecting our bodies, time, attention, or self-concept.
How do boundaries work with little kids?
“Having boundaries” with kids is a popular topic, since kids by default tend to do a bunch of stuff that makes regular adult life inconvenient. And it’s also common for parents to lose track of their own preferences to the point where they start to resent taking care of kids.
There’s a lot of advice aimed at getting parents to do what they say they’re going to do. I think sometimes the advice can help people, but only sometimes in “fake it till you make it” kind of way. As I see it, the problem isn’t that parents aren’t following through on what they say, it’s that they aren’t sure what they care about.
I sympathize with parents who aren’t sure what they care about. I’m sometimes there myself. Parenting my daughter as a young toddler brought up all sorts of questions. How much should I care about her messing stuff my up? How much does it matter that she wants to do this thing that makes a big mess? What are some other things she could do that might fill the same need? What (if anything) can I do to get her to stop trying to touch this dangerous thing?
In some cases I wasn’t sure what outcomes I really wanted, and at first I definitely wasn’t sure how things would play out if I tried different approaches. I read books about toddlers and asked people about toddlers, and that helped, but piecing it all together was slow going. (I had spent almost no time around toddlers before having one.)
And the situation was especially hard because below a certain age, which will depend on the kid, the feedback loops about what they’re going to respond to are pretty long. With an adult, a ten year old, or Lydia as a three year old, when I say stuff like I mean it they tend to respond right away. Not so when she was a year old.
Lydia as an eighteen month old understood lots of words, but usually wasn’t in a position to have them influence her behavior when she was very tempted by something. And at eighteen months, she’d been crawling and getting into stuff for more than a year! And eventually I did have moments where I realized she had been processing what I was saying, even before she was able to change her behavior. Like the time she said “careful” when she was playing with the mirror–which was newly available to play with after having been stashed away for months (since she kept banging on it). At the time it seemed to have no effect that I was telling her to be careful, but she was remembering it after all.
And it’s even harder than just that, because little kids often have really strong, inflexible boundaries around stuff that adults wouldn’t. Lydia still finds it very hard to handle when other people change her physical environment, even when the stuff involved isn’t hers. She doesn’t like it when we move the chairs around for the party. She didn’t like it when a guest of ours took a book off our shelf and moved it. She has a boundary about stuff staying where she thinks it should be unless she’s the one to move it. (Though this is less true than it was just a few months ago!)
She’s also had stages where she’s insistent about knowing stuff, even when she’s factually wrong. Like that she’s faster than her friend, or that she pees out of her butt :-).
I only have guesses about why those things bother her, but by watching her responses I’m confident she experiences them as boundary violations. It’s much easier for her to function when she can expect stuff to stay where she leaves it. It’s not practical for her to have this boundary, though we accommodate it as best we can, and we empathize otherwise. And she’s just beginning to trust her own sense of epistemic confidence, and I think she correctly perceives that it’ll screw up that process if she just defers to trusted adults.
What are good boundaries, and how can we help kids have them?
As I see it, “good” boundaries strike the right balance between being worthwhile to defend and protecting the things that are important to us. As a parent, I see a few things I can do to help my kids learn to have good boundaries.
I can model having good boundaries myself, respect my kids’ boundaries when possible, help them defend the boundaries they have that they’re too little to defend themselves, and let them grieve and regroup when their boundaries are violated.
It’s tough, though, because the first item can conflict with all the rest.
Maybe as a new parent I have a boundary about being able to take a shower by myself every morning, but my baby has a boundary about not being more than a few inches away from me.
Maybe I have a boundary around not challenging people who are older than I am and seem authoritative, but my friend’s mom is being forceful about hugging my child.
Maybe my kid is screaming and crying about some way that her boundaries have been violated… and I have boundaries around how much emotional expression I can handle and still feel capable of being responsible for caring for my kid in a way that meets the standards I’ve set for myself.
Maybe I develop a new boundary around not going a full day without anyone around to help hold the baby while I shower… which works until my husband goes out of town and I feel out of sorts all day. Maybe I think it through and decide my reasons for showering every day aren’t as compelling as I thought they were.
Maybe I develop a boundary around not being around older authoritative people with my baby… and maybe then I notice this is very costly and now I feel confused about what to do next. Maybe I practice expressing what I want more clearly… and notice it’s still hard.
Maybe I realize that I can handle much more of my kid’s emotional expression when I can call a friend afterwards to process, and wish I could have a boundary around my kid only getting very upset when my friends are around to talk to me afterwards… and then try to accept that this boundary is impractical… and decide to make a heroic effort to stay present with my kid’s feelings and then lower my parenting standards for the rest of the day.
There aren’t always easy answers. But if we notice which boundary conflicts keep coming up, at least we know some high leverage areas to work on.
One day maybe I’ll write a different post that explores why some resources need defending more than others, why some boundaries are more rigid than others, and how boundaries and immune systems interact with each other.