Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Boundaries: Good or Bad?

Think about the Empire State Building. You know that rail that surrounds the viewing deck? Obviously, it's a fence. It's a clear, immovable boundary. But it gives us freedom. Freedom to move easily, without fear, knowing that we're safe. Without it we would feel vulnerable, exposed, and lost. Or, even worse, we'd not even try something that feels a tiny bit dangerous.

Does everyone benefit from a rail of the same height? Obviously not. Some people would be perfectly safe with just a short, light railing, since they're not dare devils and go through life methodically - a tall rail would obscure their view and they'd feel penned in. Others need not just a strong, tall rail but instead a totally enclosed cage to feel safe. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, needing a fence that we know is secure - low enough to see over but strong enough to catch us if we slip.

When many people first hear about attachment parenting, they think of permissive parenting. They think that being attached means that the child calls all the shots and the parent is at the mercy of the kid's whims. They picture a haggard mom trailing along behind her preschooler, letting him dip grimy hands into the bulk bins of candy at the grocery store and buying him any cheap plastic toy that he spies, simply because "that's what he wants."

Granted there are a handful of families that follow this approach, but it's not at all what attachment parenting is about. If you look at the principles of attachment parenting (feeding with respect, positive discipline, etc.), you'll see that the current that runs through all of them is respect. Even the last principle, balance, has at its core the basic tenet of respect: respect for not only our children but also ourselves and our family.

When I hear new moms talk about not wanting to place boundaries on their child's exploration of the world, I can totally understand their fundamental wish. But I also want to say that all humans require boundaries to feel safe. We find boundaries in our "tribes," our social expectations, and our personal interactions. Without boundaries, would we feel safe? I personally wouldn't feel safe with my child if a stranger came and sat an inch away from me on a bench in an otherwise deserted park. My internal boundaries would say Danger!, and I'd feel threatened. 

The restrictions or expectations that we raise for ourselves and society raises for us are set in place for a reason. Without them, anything goes, so we feel like we're floundering.

Imagine how it must feel to a child to have available a huge world that's new, unfamiliar, and (sometimes) scary, but without the help of guidance from a parent as to what's safe and what's not. Often, when I've seen a child "acting out," that behavior stems from a fear of not knowing what expected, not feeling comfortable in a situation, or feeling out of control.

So is the answer to set up a long list of what's acceptable and what's not ... a list of rules, perhaps? No, that's not it either. 

Every child will have different boundaries that work best. The key is to find out what boundaries best fit your child's personality. With my oldest, he needs lots of unambiguous, clear-cut rules in order to feel safe; anything less makes him feel like his environment is out of control. With my daughter, she needs fewer, more nebulous boundaries. If we give her too many rules, she pushes back, because she has a fierce need to be independent. With my youngest, he's pretty comfortable with just about any level of boundaries, but they have to make sense to him. If they seem arbitrary, he'll balk.

For each of my kids, that rail at the top of the Empire State Building would be at a different height. That's my challenge ... having boundaries that work best for each of them, all at the same time.
If you liked this post,  you might like What I've Learned As a Parent

Photo by carlduniii from here


  1. Good point. I think my oldest is somewhat like yours in that the boundaries need to be very clear, and it actually does really help him to have things in writing (rules, morning routine, etc.) Maybe this is one aspect of why the credit system works pretty well for our family -- both the expectations AND his successes are spelled out clearly.
    Hey, the fence thing even works for our chickens! :-)

  2. I really like the analogy you use here. I'm still figuring out my own personal boundaries, and I think they change depending on the situation. And of course, each of my children have their own as well. Thanks for the link, too...great food for thought!