A Primer On Setting Boundaries With Kids
I’m a pessimist when it comes to kids and boundaries.
Long ago, I learned about boundaries. I learned that I could set them. I learned how to set them. I learned that I needed to set boundaries in order to maintain a sense of order in my life.
I wasn’t always aware of boundaries, though. Before I became aware of boundaries and what they were, I was setting them, but not very well. I was living alone at the time that I discovered them, so beyond locking my doors and drawing my shades, I didn’t really need them, or so I thought.
When my wife and I started living together, I had already known about boundaries but found that setting boundaries with someone I live with, someone I love, was hard. I learned in relationships that there was give and take. We both shared the same space so I didn’t worry so much about space as much as whether she could tolerate living with someone who has lived alone for a very long time.
After a few years of living together, I became very comfortable. We knew each other better, we thought about each other. We thought for each other. We could kind of tell what each other was thinking at times. And during that time, we never really had serious boundary issues. What was mine was hers and I was fine with that. I didn’t need to keep score and didn’t want to.
Then we had kids. And with kids came a new dimension in life. Kids don’t know what boundaries are. They aren’t born knowing how to respect them, either. They don’t know the meaning of the word “no”.
This is where I became pessimistic about setting boundaries. Kids like shiny sparkly things. Like cell phones. As my kids evolved from peanuts to toddlers, I learned how to set boundaries with them. I was a pessimist in setting boundaries with them. In other words, I anticipated that they wouldn’t know how to respect my boundaries so I had to be proactive about setting boundaries with them.
For example, instead of leaving my phone in a place where they could find it and play with it, I always put my phone in a place where they could not reach it. I put it in my pocket, on a shelf up high or simply out of sight. I decided not to tempt my kids with my possessions and punish them for touching them. I just made sure that if I didn’t want my kids playing with some of my belongings, I wasn’t going to leave them in a place where they could get them. That’s what I mean about being a pessimist when setting boundaries.
When my kids did happen to get their hands on something that I didn’t want them to have, my phone, a tablet, car keys, wallet or something dangerous, I calmly and politely asked them to return that thing to me. I didn’t make it a point of drama. If they got their hands on a knife, I calmly grasped their arm and removed the knife firmly but gently from their hands. Same thing with anything else they weren’t supposed to have. I did not punish them for that would only reinforce the behavior.
Kids love forbidden things. Not sure why, but they do. I suppose they get a little juice of adrenaline from apprehending something that they shouldn’t have and that can keep them coming back for more. So I avoid creating drama with a cycle of punishment. I assume that they don’t know better or they would do better. I assume that they lack the capacity to do better or they would do better. I’m not perfect at this, but I’m mindful of it. I don’t want to be the consequence of their actions. I just calmly tell them that they’re not allowed to play with certain things that belong to me. Then I set physical boundaries around my possessions so that I don’t have to spend a lot of time looking for my hearing aid, glasses, keys, wallet or my phone.
To teach the boundary, I repeated enforcement of the boundary over and over again, without drama. By avoiding the drama, being calm, and even reserving judgment, my kids could learn the boundary, not how to get the forbidden thing and then try to avoid punishment. With each incident, I was reinforcing the boundary, not the cycle of punishment and the strong feelings that go with the punishment. Over time, I didn’t have to enforce the boundary because my kids learned to respect the boundaries that I had set for my possessions. And because I set my boundaries without drama, we avoided getting addicted to the strong feelings that come with punishment.
This is how I build trust. I assume no trust first. I see trust as a continuum, so I start small and work my way up. I start by sharing a little and continue sharing while checking for acknowledgment and reciprocation. I keep going until we have a conflict. There will always be a point of conflict, or as I like to think of them, “power struggles”. In every relationship, there are power struggles. One person wants their own way and that may come at the expense of what the other person wants.
But every power struggle is a request for greater commitment. That’s how I see them. I can also see a power struggle as an expression of needs. Everyone has needs and sometimes, one person’s needs take priority over another. With my kids, I generally see their needs as a priority over mine. I am mindful of that when I set boundaries, too. So I try to balance their needs with my boundaries so that we can have some peace.
One other thing that I have learned about boundaries is that they evolve over time. As we grow older, we gain more experience and we build trust. Trust can’t be built with punishment. I’ve seen people try that and I’ve never seen it work to anyone’s satisfaction. If you want your kid to lie to you, punish them. If you want them to trust you, collaborate with them to solve the problems that they encounter.
One of those problems that kids encounter growing up is learning how to respect boundaries. And when I teach boundaries without emotion, without judgment, without punishment, I’m modeling that behavior for my kids so that they can have peace in their adult lives, too.