Boundaries: When to stand firm, when to compromise, and when to let it go

June 20, 2012 · 10 comments

set boundaries for safety set boundaries for safety

Boundaries have always been a tricky thing for me.

I was raised in a rigid, authoritarian household, and never got the sense that boundaries can (and should be!) fluid, dynamic things. There are no hard and fast rules that apply to every family, and all rules should depend on individuals (both parents and children) and situations.

Setting boundaries that make sense requires a bit of thought and some flexibility, but more than anything else a willingness to honestly look at your own situation and create rules that make sense for you and your family.

When to stand firm

Some boundaries need to be unmoveable. We all need boundaries to feel secure, and children need to learn to respect others and social norms.  Not surprisingly, boundaries that have to do with safety fall into this category, but perhaps more suprisingly, so do “just because” rules.

Safety boundaries are the easiest to understand: no running into the street; no playing by the pool without an adult; no touching a hot stove; no climbing the bookshelves. These rules are the ones that keep our children from physical harm, and should be non-negotiable. Enforcing these rules requires either physical barriers like gates, fences, or doors, and often quite a bit of vigilance on our part.

There shouldn’t be too many of these boundaries. As a general rule, children need to be able to explore and test their limits — that’s part of childhood! If you’re spending too much time enforcing the safety rules, it’s probably time to reassess the environment and see if there’s anything that can be changed to make it easier on both you and your child. This isn’t compromising on safety, this is just creating an environment that makes sense. This article from Lisa Sunbury has some helpful tips on how to make this happen.

Also in the “stand firm” category of boundaries are “just because” boundaries. These are personal limits that don’t necessarily have any rhyme or reason — they’re just things we want to keep to ourselves and not share with our kids. For some people it’s the bathroom, for others the shower. I don’t want my kids in my clothes. There’s no safety reason, there’s no other real reason (sometimes my drawers are a mess all on my own) — I just don’t want them in there. So it’s a rule I enforce.

For all the “stand firm” boundaries, “I won’t let you” is my go-to phrase. My kids understand why these boundaries are in place, and we don’t fight about them. They can get upset, but those boundaries are there, and they’re not going to change.

When to compromise

I think any boundary deserves at least a consideration of why it should be broken. This can come from anywhere — your child, your partner, your parents, or friends. Listening to another viewpoint will either help you see a side you never considered before or strengthen your resolve for keeping something in place. But whether or not a compromise will work depends entirely on you.

We have a compromise situation that surprises some people — I don’t always make my boys hold my hand in parking lots. For whatever reason, asking my older son to told my hand while walking from the car into a store caused a mega-meltdown, every time.

I explained to him there were lots of cars, and he was short and difficult to see, and I didn’t want him to get hurt (explanations normally work very well with him, but it did nothing). He insisted he was big and didn’t want to hold my hand. Finally, I told him if he didn’t want to hold my hand he could hold my skirt, or keep his hand on the shopping cart. If he let go, it would be back to hand-holding. This worked for him, and we’ve walked into stores in peace ever since.

It was a good compromise for us, and accomplished what I needed (keeping him close by and safe in parking lots) while giving him what he wanted (a feeling that he was grown up). These types of win/win situations are part of growing a relationship, in my opinion. Things that bother me don’t always bother my kids, and they have quirks I can’t predict. Allowing them the space to speak up, and working with them to find solutions that work for both of us, strengthens our relationship and creates channels for mutual respect.

When to let it go

I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting rules or boundaries don’t make sense or just plain don’t work. For us, these have been things that require me to control my kids over things they need to learn on their own — manners, picking up, or choice of dress.

Now, this doesn’t mean I let my kids be rude, or my house become a pig sty, or that my children wear shorts in the middle of winter. But I’m not going to force them to say “thank you”, or pick up their toys, or wear corduroys when they want to wear jeans. In our home, manners are learned from modeling, my boys understand that it’s important to me to have a clean home, and that they have autonomy of their clothing choices as long as it’s appropriate for the weather.

These are things I’m not going to fight over because it just seems pointless. Yes, sometimes I feel embarrassed that my kids will take a sticker from the grocery store checker and not say “thank you”. So I say it instead. And it is frustrating to pick up toys while my boys continue to play. But they will have responsibility for their room in time, and until then, why fight about it? They help me as many times as they don’t. And as for clothes, well — it’s not my body. I buy them clothes that are appropriate for different situations but then let them choose. It’s not worth fighting over.

Boundaries and rules make the framework for our life, but I’ve found our life works much better when I keep an open mind about all of them. Yes, some boundaries need to be firmly set in place, but even these should be reevaluated as children grow and needs change — as should the flexible ones — it’s always a possibility that something that was once negotiable is no longer, perhaps with a new addition to a family or change in environment.

Above all, though, being clear about the status of boundaries, where they originate from, and why they’re in place keeps children feeling safe and parents sane.

Photo credit: ell brown on Flickr

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