When we arrive at school, my boys and I clamber out of the car. My youngest likes me to come to his classroom with him but my eldest usually opts to say goodbye to us and run ahead to find his friends.
One recent morning, he wrapped his arms around my waist and gave me a squeeze in his usual way of saying goodbye. When he does this, he puts his head down and I can’t see his beautiful face or kiss it goodbye so I usually end up kissing the top of his head or, in the Summer, his sunhat.
But, on this particular morning, it occurred to me to ask, “Don’t you like kisses?”
“Not really”, he replied.
Images of all the mornings I had bestowed kisses on him flashed in my mind.
“What do you like? Is a hug ok?” I asked.
“Yeah, hugs are fine”.
So I gave him a tight one and watched him bound off, schoolbag bumping against his back.
How had I not realised earlier that he doesn’t like kisses?
The answer to this question was that he had never told me.
And the reason he had never told me he doesn’t like kisses was that he didn’t know he could stake a boundary. Further, he didn’t have the skills to do so.
Because I hadn’t taught him.
And I hadn’t taught him because, until recently, I didn’t know these things myself. I’ve only started over the last year to learn where my own boundaries are and how to stake them out. I’d heard people refer to setting boundaries many times but I never really understood what they were. I presumed it meant putting up walls, keeping people out – which went against my instinct to connect. I thought boundaries were for people who were hurt or bitter and over-protective of themselves. Now I understand that having boundaries is essential self-care and necessary for healthy relationships.
SO WHAT IS A BOUNDARY, THEN?
The way I understand a boundary is that it’s a limit that marks the distinction between behaviour that causes a person some degree of emotional harm and behaviour that feels safe. We all need to be able tell others where our boundaries are because they are very individual by nature. What upsets one person may not bother another at all.
Boundaries can be applied to any aspect of a relationship – physical, financial, emotional, intellectual, material… They can also be applied to any type of relationship, including our interactions with strangers.
TEACHING MY CHILDREN ABOUT BOUNDARIES
Given I’m relatively new to boundary setting myself, I don’t feel I’m particularly prepared for teaching my boys about it but we can learn together. Here’s how we’re getting started –
After learning of my son’s aversion to kisses, I realised that I needed to explicitly teach my boys about boundaries. I began over homemade pizza the following weekend, using the moat and drawbridge of a castle as an analogy. We talked about how the moat keeps unwanted things out (enemies, pillagers) and the drawbridge can be lowered to allow wanted things in (allies, supplies). Having the moat makes the people inside the castle feel safe and they get to choose who they are comfortable letting the drawbridge down for. Now that my boys and I have established our castle and moat analogy, we can use it to talk about boundaries in all kinds of situations, as they arise.
Developing the Internal Strength to Set Boundaries
Because I lacked them myself, I’ve recognised that my boys need two things before they can set a boundary –
– to know that they are worthy and have the right to assert boundaries.
– to be able to tune into their own feelings in order to identify where their boundaries are.
Any time that I reinforce my boys’ worth and help them to know themselves, I am building their strength to set boundaries, among other things.
Learning the Skills of Setting Boundaries
I can draw on the same tried and true parenting skills I use to teach my boys other personal and social skill to help them learn how to set a boundary –
- Be an example for them ( hopefully, I’ll get better at setting boundaries!)
- Notice when they are setting a boundary and label it for them – eg. “You just set a boundary with me, good for you!”
- Notice when others are setting a boundary for them and label it – eg. “Your brother just set a boundary with you, you need to respect that”.
- Role play to help them find the words for setting boundaries in specific situations they may find themselves in eg. My son and I have rehearsed what he might say to people who try to kiss him in future – ”I’m not really into kisses. How about a hug?”
WHY DO WE NEED TO TEACH BOUNDARIES?
Boundary setting is, first and foremost, self-care. My hope is that practising in everyday life will give my boys the confidence and skills for navigating the more significant or risky situations they may come across, especially as they get older. As well as fending off Mum’s kisses & hassles from their brother, they need to know how to insist on boundaries when interacting with strangers in the community, with people online and in intimate relationships, for example. At the dark end of the spectrum, being able to set a boundary is a skill that could enable them to protect themselves from abuse or from getting involved with online predators.
Boundaries also help us to have positive relationships. Historically, I haven’t set many boundaries in my relationships. As a result, I have suffered through situations I haven’t been comfortable or happy with. Sometimes, resentment has festered until I’ve blown my top or disconnected myself from the relationship. The people involved weren’t necessarily hurting me intentionally, most didn’t know they were doing so. The issues could’ve been avoided if I’d been able to speak up for myself in the first place. And that is what I want my boys to be able to do.
But relationships are a two-way street. My boys also need to know how to notice and respect another person’s boundaries. Understanding boundaries and knowing that everyone is entitled to set them will, I hope, help them to be respectful, considerate people that others enjoy relating with.
I will leave you with these wise words –
“Clear is kind”. – Brene Brown
In my effort to learn more about boundary setting, I am currently listening to Nancy Levin’s book Setting Boundaries Will Set You Free