Do You Need to Set Boundaries for your Children?

March 30, 2017

On the Facebook groups I'm on, I commonly see questions about setting boundaries for children. Some people want  to make sure their kids behave how they think they should, and others think that imposing structure on children is an antiquated, authoritarian method of parenting that isn't good for anyone.

Ultimately, I think, the goal of parenting should be to raise healthy, happy children who know and respect themselves, and who have the tools they need to achieve what they want in life. We want them to be the kind of people that we wish we could be. So the question remains--do you do this by controlling their behavior, or by getting out of the way and letting them just grow? 

Our mainstream culture, and many parents, operate from an authoritarian paradigm where they believe that boundaries are necessary for their own sake, that kids will never learn self-discipline if they are not bound by rules and enforced behaviors. Other parents argue the opposite, and say that forcing boundaries on children violates their integrity and instead of teaching self-discipline, teaches obedience in response to fear. Dayna Martin, a parenting coach, has a wonderful explanation of this in her book Radical Unschooling, which describes a method of parenting based on total respect and partnership.

In general, kids and parents thrive in this type of environment. Where I have seen people have difficulty in parenting this way is often in the knee-jerk response to the word "boundary" -- in the same way that the tarot Emperor can give us the heebie jeebies. Some kids are born with self-discipline and understanding of themselves, and can regulate well and respond to reason and empathy. Other kids, maybe due to sensory issues or just being incredibly new little beings, need some help.

Where I have seen people have difficulty in parenting this way is often in the knee-jerk response to the word "boundary" -- in the same way that the Emperor can give us the heebie jeebies. Some kids are born with self-discipline and understanding of themselves, and can regulate well and respond to reason and empathy. Other kids, maybe due to sensory issues or just being incredibly new little beings, need some help. It is incredibly useful for a child to be able to make mistakes, correct themselves, and develop sensible boundaries. But if a child is unable to do this themselves, they can end up feeling totally out of control.

A boundary in this case does not have to be an edict from on high; rather it can be a container. Being out of control does not feel good, and is in fact really scary to some kids. You can set a "boundary" as a container to hold your child so that they feel safe, and as long as you are willing to change it as they grow or no longer need it, there's nothing wrong with that. Also, some kids in various stages or development may need to feel a boundary to push against in order to get a strong sense of their own integrity. All kids are not the same.

An example of a "container" boundary might be creating a bedtime ritual. Some kids can be fine deciding when they go to bed and when they're tired. Others might not be able to modulate themselves and just be a mess, and benefit from gentle observation of what they need and making it just a thing you do with them at a certain time. If you trust your kids and treat them respectfully, they will grow in their ability to regulate themselves and let you know when their needs change -- and you will become better at it yourself.

Contrary to what many may think, parenting from a place of respect and partnership is not hands-off, permissive parenting. It's a freaking lot of work. Rules and boundaries as one-size-fits-all decrees are easy; they don't have to change or be tailored to anything. Meeting your children for who they are and what they need at any particular time, in an authentic manner that respects you both, is an ongoing and difficult challenge. Parenting from fear is quick: do what makes you look good and makes people think you're in charge. Acting from a place of love is harder, and usually involves a lot of faith, mistakes, and occasional sacrifice of personal ego. 

Ultimately, raising kids (and ourselves) is an art, not a science. A lot of growth, structure when needed, and heaps of love and respect. Balance is never easy, and rarely ever looks like balance at any one moment. But if we do it well, we end up liking our kids, and ourselves at the end. And hopefully the feeling is mutual.