What comes to mind when you read the word boundary?
Boundary, similar to force and power, has various meanings. Boundaries can speak to the borders between cities, states and countries. Boundaries can also communicate the sacredness of personal space or a line drawn in the sand to express an important limit we don’t want someone to cross. Regardless of what area of life we are looking at, boundary means a point of definition to be acknowledged and respected.
If I decide to jump off of a tall building, without special apparatus to do so safely, I will quickly violate the boundaries of my body. Similarly, if I jump into very deep water and don’t have the skills to swim – or a life preserver – I will quickly learn the boundaries of my body. If I bump into the boundary of another car while driving, the consequences can either be mildly irritating or life ending. Suffice it to say, boundaries are an important part of life.
In terms of parenting, boundaries often speak to limits – especially when it comes to defining them for our children. We start limiting our children when they are born through feeding and sleeping schedules, determining how much they need to be held and even assuming we know how they think and feel. These limitations continue in various ways as our children grow into adulthood. However, we are missing an important truth about boundaries when we make these choices.
We can only declare boundaries for ourselves.
I realize this may seem unbelievable, but it is one of the most important realizations to integrate along one’s parenting path. Why?
Three reasons. Please read all three.
First, personal power is the basis for declaring boundaries. As parents, the ability to choose and the responsibility to steward our young combine and lead us to define, declare, communicate and uphold boundaries. Personal power to direct our lives is not personal power to direct the lives of our children. Our personal power is not in making choices for our children. Our personal power is in making choices for ourselves so we can be response-able and model how to be decent human beings who our children will choose to trust.1 They’re going to model after us whether we like it or not – we get to use our personal power to choose what we model.
The boundaries we define, declare, communicate and uphold come from our own inner authority, which we may need to develop in the context of loving relationships, not in exercising this authority over others or even over ourselves.2 Boundaries are points of definition that don’t have to be sharp lines in the sand when we are truly exercising our own personal power to direct our lives. The process of defining, declaring, communicating and upholding boundaries transforms from an experience of power over to power with. We experience power with our children as we learn that we all have personal power and when utilized properly it does not need, nor is it helpful for it to be, expressed over anyone or anything.
Second, boundaries are really intentions. Although we often view boundaries as limits – what not to do or cross – there is a very vital flip side to boundaries. Boundaries communicate a need or desire to be fulfilled. As parents, it is helpful to think about, direct our attention to and focus on what we do want for our children and parenting experience.
When we open to seeing and experiencing boundaries in this light, an intention we want to nurture and bring about, we can release some heavy resistance and drawing of lines in the sand. We can reduce the drive to be powerful over our children and instead choose to work with them toward learning about the value and process of defining, declaring, communicating and upholding boundaries. We can set ourselves and our children free from the limits of limitations and enter the clarity and fullness of boundaries born to define and direct our lives.
For example, if my baby indicates that she would like to nurse I can pick her up, listen and consider quickly what I may want or need to be comfortable as we rest together (a glass of water, healthy snack or a book may be enjoyed by some nursing moms while they feed their babies). I talk to her and say, “I am going to read while we nurse so I am going to grab a book and then we will sit down.” She communicated, I listened and communicated something of value as well.
As we declare boundaries for ourselves we can be also affirming, sustaining and communicating societal boundaries. The one I communicated to my daughter in the same instant I met her need to be heard and fed was, “I must take care of myself before or as I take care of you.” It’s the oxygen mask rule on airplanes. In the airplane, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before your child because if you pass out you can’t help your child get it on. We all benefit when we take care of ourselves amidst our parenting responsibilities. We do this through taking care of ourselves, through declaring who we are, what we want in life and how we are going to parent.
Boundaries are two-fold at least in that we are declaring them for ourselves and we are upholding and sustaining societal boundaries that make sense for our family in ways that honor ourselves and our children. If we impose those boundaries through our will instead of seeing that they are for us and the well being of all people, then we tread into force which is not as easily received by our child. The child is not making a choice to respect the boundary; it is being imposed upon him. We are more willing to make choices and recognize that we have the ability to make a choice when things are offered to us from a space of, “This is helpful for you, for me, for everyone”.
Sense how easily we can go from “We cover our mouths when we cough” to “You’ve got to cover your mouth when you cough so you don’t spread germs”. “We cover our mouth when we cough because we respect the space of everyone.” Why? Some people don’t want another person’s cough on them and research indicates some germs are spread through the air and it could contribute to illness.
We can help ourselves by checking if we are moving from fear and control or with trust and understanding. Trust that our babies and our children can receive these messages and interact with these boundaries in a way that is not resistant, that accepts them as is – a natural, helpful aspect of life. Repetition is absolutely part of the process, our own resistance does factor in and we choose how we communicate these boundaries and whether we think that we need to resort to force or use force as a last resort. Boundaries don’t need force to be upheld; they can benefit from being viewed as intentions cultivated with trust in personal power and the ability to choose.
Third, we have a very important role and function to fulfill as stewards of children. We can all agree that we have two responsibilities: to keep our children safe and to guide them in appropriate actions. Even thoughts are actions so this includes guidance in how to choose the way we think. We are responsible for guiding our children in ways of thinking and acting that will help them succeed in life, that will help them contribute positively to their own lives and the lives of others as well. Whether or not we feel equipped to fulfill these responsibilities, we are already contributing simply by being parents. Boundaries are a huge aspect of our responsibility so clarifying how we nurture these intentions is like watering the seed of our harvest. If we are not clear we may reap some very interesting results as parents.
An invitation to check in.
This is a moment to step back and consider, “In what ways am I fulfilling my role? What ways do I feel completely lost and powerless or high on my mighty horse as if I have no room to grow?”
If we are trying to direct the lives of others without feeling like we can direct our own lives, we can be leading ourselves and our children into a space that’s not helpful. Parenting is full of declaring, communicating, learning and respecting boundaries for ourselves and our children. When we talk about counterwill, children are learning and declaring boundaries for themselves as well. When we push their boundaries we can experience this rise of counterwill. This is a healthy sign that our child is aware of his personal power – at least to some degree.
When we realize that our boundaries are really our boundaries, that we are declaring them for ourselves and that we can only declare them for ourselves, we anchor into the truth of our personal power in a way that helps us realize it is our responsibility to use our personal power in ways that create and affirm (rather than impose) safety and social guidelines for our children.
We do this, though, through exercising our power to direct our lives, not the lives of our children. We help them tune into the power to direct their lives, the power that is within them, guiding them, at the basis of their ability to choose.
We share the truth with our children that they are inherently powerful, that they are creative beings, that they are connected to infinite intelligence and awareness (if we believe this to be so), that they do have choices, that they can make choices and learn from them and choose again anew when they make choices that don’t work for them, that they are okay as they are, that it is the process of being human to make mistakes and start again, that their needs are honored and will be met, that they can declare boundaries and have them be respected – including with us. We allow them the space to direct their own lives so that they become so skilled at directing their lives that once they’re adults they can create what they want in life instead of muttering around feeling like they don’t know what to do, how to deal with challenges or how to achieve their goals.
We must feel this truth for ourselves first, though.
So, if we’re feeling lost as parents or if all of this is brand new to us, how do we start to access our own personal power to direct our own lives intentionally and on purpose? How do we realize we can choose the way we think, we can choose how we respond to our feelings, and we can choose our actions? As a matter of fact we are, we just may not be fully aware of it at this point.
What can we do if we are feeling lost right here and now and even reading this is an uncomfortable or frustrating experience? I know there will be people who come across this material and have various responses. I remember when I was first introduced to the depth of my power to choose my thoughts, responses and actions in life. I was skeptical, maddened and excited all at once. I also felt absolutely choice-less. I was locked in my own box of feeling like I had very little choice in life. As I saw it, for the most part, my life happened to me.
Start where you are.
Just begin noticing what choices you have and what boundaries you would like to create and uphold. Notice what you do and don’t want. Begin to recognize that you can start to declare and uphold boundaries in your life. Trust that helpful resources, people and experiences will show up in your life, that you will learn to discern between whether you are choosing force or power, that your relationships will appreciate the commitment and that you hold the power inside to direct your life in ways that benefit you, your family and the world.
Next, we’ll discuss trusting ourselves as we learn to discern.
Are you struggling as a parent? If so, I’d like to share something with you: a story and some hope.
The term “response-able” comes from one of my favorite parenting authors, Chick Moorman, and his book Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language That Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility. ↩