The freedom of boundaries

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

We all want freedom.  Few people want to be made to do something they don’t want.

Our children are no different…but their ability to use their logical brain to weigh up the various sides of a given choice is more limited.  They need to learn how to deal with the freedom to choose.

With the lockdowns in place throughout the world at present, most parents are being confronted with children who are pushing against the boundaries imposed on them by others.  And with those pushes comes complaints…sometimes lots of them and it can get quite personal and frustrating for a parent.

It is worth remembering that boundaries are the “business” of parenting.  They are central to a child developing the ability to handle freedom and responsibility.  When you impose a boundary that is based on a clear set of values, with a clear rule, and a clear promise of what will happen if it is broken, it will only help your child.  Let me explain.

We all want our children to choose, to initiate, to have desires and wants and to have the freedom to choose a course of action.  But they do not have endless choices and unlimited freedoms.  There are constraints on what they can and cannot do.  By placing a clear boundary around what can and cannot be done, you are providing your child the opportunity to play with two wonderful freedoms.

If they choose to stay within those boundaries, they are free to do as they wish.  This provides them with a sense of security where they can try things, play with things, and learn from their play how the world works.  And most importantly, when they are within those boundaries, the parent does not have to become involved so whatever happens was the child’s responsibility.

If it went well, “it was me who succeeded” and it bolsters their sense of competence.

If it went badly, “it was me who stuffed up” and it teaches them a lesson.

When they choose to stay within the boundaries, they are responsible for whatever happens.  And less likely to complain about something going wrong.  If they do complain, you are less likely to take it personally as they have not broken any value that the boundary was based on.  You were not involved.  (Most parents are more or less anxious about their children choosing badly.  Clear boundaries has the added benefit of letting you stay out of it and not get involved except in a playful way, or to calmly and firmly enforce the promise if the boundary is broken.)

But the other wonderful aspect of boundaries is that your child also has the freedom to choose to break the boundaries you have set.  And then they are condemned to be responsible for the outcome of breaking those boundaries.  Not as a punishment, as a promise.  A deterrence.  The shop keeper saying, “Take what you want…and pay for it”.

All through their development your child will test the limits imposed on them.  We want our developing children to try new things, and to see what happens.  Sometimes they won’t go far enough and they will learn from that.  But sometimes they will go too far, a boundary will be broken, and the promise for breaking that boundary will be enforced.  And they will learn from that.

With clear boundaries set on explicit values, obvious rules, and definite promises, your child has the opportunity to freely choose to obey them and be free and responsible for their own actions.  Or to freely choose to break them, and to be responsible for their own actions.

Now, you will get push back from your children regarding this, some more and some less.  As an example, if you have a child who is temperamentally a high “novelty seeker”, or has ADHD or some other impulse control disorder, your boundaries will be tested more than usual.  But whatever your child’s strengths or difficulties and how easy or hard they are to parent, they will wish for the freedom to choose whatever they want, but without the responsibility to deal with the consequences.  We can easily understand this (don’t we all fantasise at times about freedom without responsibility).

But we don’t enable it as we know that our children will not be ours forever to protect from consequences.  They will grow and increasingly come up against the boundaries imposed by larger groups, and eventually by society as a whole.  They have to learn responsibility to deal with both the increasingly large amount of freedom they will get, and the increasingly large consequences for choosing well or badly.

It is our family boundaries that assist our children learn how to gradually manage freedom and responsibility.  It takes effort to create them and even more to enforce them, but your effort in doing this is a gift of love.  (And even if you do this well enough, there is no guarantee that your child will develop good choices in the future, as humans are complex and are influenced by more than just your family.  Though you were influenced by your own family upbringing, in the end you became yourself and were condemned to be responsible for your own choices.)

But with good enough boundaries you can be confident that you did what you could do to help your child develop freedom and responsibility.