You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.
Today, we’re going to talk about something that sometimes makes parents a wee bit squeamish- and that’s BOUNDARIES.
If you’ve been hanging around here for any length of time- and if you haven’t, here’s the headline- I’m BIG on boundaries, and enforcing boundaries CONSISTENTLY. And that’s generally why parents tend to get a bit fidgety when I talk about boundaries because most parents know that boundaries are important, but they also know that they’re not very good at being consistent about their boundaries or that they have none at all. So, they don’t want to talk about it because it makes them uncomfortable and they know they’re going to have to change something. But if you’re here- chances are you KNOW you have to change something, you might just not know what. So let’s get down to it.
First- why are boundaries important?
I like to think of boundaries like swimming in a pool vs. swimming in the ocean. When we don’t give our kids reasonable, fair, consistent, and firm boundaries, it’s like dropping them into the middle of open water. No matter what direction you look in, all you see is more water, and as far as you’re concerned, you can swim anywhere and nothing is going to stop you. So you’re swimming along and suddenly out of nowhere, you hit land. You stand on it, you jump on it, you maybe explore it a bit, make sure that it’s really there. And then once you’re really convinced this is a THING and you’re not imagining it, you set off swimming in a different direction. And then eventually- BOOM, you hit land, and you do the same thing.
So now you have two boundaries.
You’re convinced they’re both real and permanent, so you hop back in the water to swim back to the original one and you can’t find it. It’s gone. It’s moved. YOU SWEAR IT WAS HERE. But okay, guess I was wrong. So you try to go back from whence you came and OMG that one is gone too. So now, you’re in the middle of the ocean, all you can see is water, and you have no idea which way is north south east or west, you have no idea where your boundaries are, and you’re freaking the fuck out. You’re confused. You SWORE these were a real thing and that it WAS HERE, but you can’t find it anymore. So you spin around, lost, and you swim in whatever direction you’re going in. You have no idea and eventually, YOU HIT LAND. But it doesn’t look like the land you hit before, it’s obviously different. This is a new boundary. So THIS TIME you’re going to make frigging sure it’s real. You’re going to push it, pull it, jump on it, pound on it. You’re going to TEST THIS SUCKER OUT. And as you’re doing that, poof, it disappears from under your feet. and you’re up to your neck in the water again.
TERRIFYING RIGHT? Confusing? Anxiety-inducing? Maybe even hints of gas-lighty. Is that a word? It is now. Would you feel safe under those conditions? That is exactly what it feels like to our kids when we’re inconsistent with our boundaries. They don’t know which way is left, right, front back. They’re adrift at sea with no sense of direction. They don’t trust that the boundaries we do set are a thing- because none of the others have been. It’s unstable. It’s unsettling. And it’s frustrating.
Versus being in a pool. In a pool, you have lots of room to swim around, but you can see the edges. And you know those bad boys aren’t going to up and disappear. You can see each of the edges from where you’re standing. When you hit one, it doesn’t move, and if you turn around, you can see the other edges haven’t either. You can kick em, jump on em, poke em, prod em, pound em. No matter what you throw at it, it’s going to hold. And you know EXACTLY when you are in the pool, and when you’re out of it. There’s none of this standing on land and it’s disappearing out from under your feet shit. When you’re out of the pool, you can see it clearly, and you know how to jump back in. You’re SAFE. You know where you stand, at all times but you still have a lot of space to move.
Boundaries help kids feel safe.
When we set a boundary and then go soft on it when our kids have an extinction burst, that’s TERRIFYING to them. It may be instantly gratifying the way it is when you jump into the water on a hot summer’s day, but after a minute you realize you’re in the ocean and you have no idea what to trust.
Many parents rationalize that they’re being nice by going soft on their boundaries. When their 5-year-old throws a fit because they want to sleep in your bed, and they seem to be looking for some comfort or not feeling well and you’re like okay, fine. And, don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to have exceptions to the rule. That’s when you KNOW you’re out of the pool. And that’s cool. Everybody gets out of the pool sometimes. BUT then the next night, they’re fine, and they freak out and insist on sleeping in your bed. And they’re pushing and pounding and crying and TESTING and you feel like an ass so you pull the island out from under them. Now they don’t know which way is up.
What if, instead of interpreting our children’s boundary-pushing as a comment on how mean we are and what they DON’T WANT, we saw it as asking for reassurance. A comment on what they DO want. Pounding on the edge of the pool to make sure it’s not a mirage. That they are safe, they aren’t in open water without a compass.
When we’re consistent with our boundaries, we’re giving our children a predictable, stable, familiar environment. Does that mean they’re always going to LOVE it? No. Being told you can’t do something sucks, no matter how you present it. BUT they will feel safe. And they won’t feel the need to test the same boundary OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER again to make sure that it’s not going anywhere because sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. That doesn’t mean you have to be a dick about it, and it doesn’t mean you can’t make exceptions for when they’re sick or hurt or as a special treat. But it’s the difference between being warned that the land mass you’re standing on is going to disappear for 24 hours and having it just randomly fall out from under you.
So please, I’m BEGGING YOU- stop feeling guilty about maintaining boundaries- even if your child gets upset. It’s okay, they’re allowed to be frustrated and angry. Nobody ever died from being frustrated that they had a boundary set. And being there, sitting with them in their upset, is a fantastic opportunity to show them that you really are there for them. You get it, it sucks. But boundaries keep us safe- both physically and mentally. Maintaining boundaries keeps us ALL SANE.
Now, if you’re sitting there with a red face thinking “GUILTY AS CHARGED”- it’s okay. You’re not screwed, and it’s never too late to start. If you need some help with how to set and enforce boundaries without being an asshole about it- check out my Scripts for Managing Crazy Making Behaviour below. They’re based off of principles pulled from ALL theories of child development, best practice, and research and they help you start to set boundaries around what my group- the Parenting Posse– told me were the Top 10 most crazy-making toddler and preschooler behaviors. There are 11 audio files, each one walks you through a misbehavior situation, and each comes with a transcript too if you prefer to read.