I’ve never been much good at boundaries. I think this stems from a deep-down feeling of guilt about even having them, and of constantly questioning and second-guessing their real point – is this boundary unfair on the children/my friend/this person? Does this boundary just serve me? Could I be more self-sacrificing? Should I be more generous? My feelings basically stemmed from a deep misapprehension of the role of boundaries; in fact I believed that boundaries meant putting up walls, giving up on empathy, being incapable of generosity, and that if I was a truly good person I wouldn’t need them.
I recently read something that changed this completely, and made me realise that boundaries don’t have to be put up at the last minute in desperation, leading to feelings of guilt and shame; and that we don’t have to make excuses for or explain the boundaries we choose to have in our own life as well as in our parenting.
This came from something social worker and academic Brene Brown wrote in her book Rising Strong:
“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
This made sudden, total sense to me. It explained why I found it so hard to say no to people and things and commitments and then found myself over-stretched, annoyed and bitter about actually having to deal with all the people and things and commitments.
Gradually, I’ve learned to figure out where my boundaries in the adult world lie, and to assert them gently but firmly. It has given me a much greater sense of control about my time and energy, but also a much greater capacity to feel empathy, compassion and generosity towards others. Because when I give, it’s truly freely given. Like Brene Brown says, I am more able to be “generous in my assumptions and intentions while standing solidly in my integrity and being clear about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable”
From a parenting perspective, it reinforces the Montessori idea that there can be no freedom without responsibility. This has always made sense to me and I have always (to varying degrees, and also varying degrees of success, I should add!) had set boundaries in my parenting. However, the idea that there can be no true compassion without boundaries has given me an even greater push to stand firm about “what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”
The concept of freedom in Montessori classrooms is often misunderstood and likened to a run-wild, no limits, no rules kind of setting. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and is not what Montessori herself intended at all. Order and discipline are crucial within the Montessori classroom, and the children are only free in the context of an extremely ordered and thought-out “prepared environment”, and specific ground rules. Montessori’s version of freedom is not boundless chaos, but rather freedom within concrete and predictable boundaries.
I think this is a great way to embody freedom in general to children; the idea that they are free to choose their own work but also expected to take care of it, and tidy it up when finished; the rule that they must wait their turn to use materials if another member of the community is using them; the expectation that they dress themselves, clean up after themselves, and take responsibility for their actions.
The child’s freedom ends when the freedom of another is impacted; Montessori wrote that “the liberty of the child should have as its limit the collective interest.” This is not only important within a school community, but is such a valuable life lesson for children. All their lives, they will be coming up against other people’s freedom as a limit to their own. All their lives, they will need to set boundaries so that other people’s freedom doesn’t impact their own.
Here’s a recent personal experience that has helped me discuss and explain freedom to my children, who are 5 and 7 years old. This summer we’re spending a month on an island off the coast of Siciliy. We are with family, but other than that it is a very basic, rugged place, with really not much to do aside from go to the beach, play in the garden, ride bikes and have glorious meals. The first few days we were here I noticed there was a lot of whining and complaining, and so after a good think I told the kids we could each have a day that was our individual day to make all the decisions, to have complete freedom about where to go, what to do, where to have lunch, etc. Sounds great, in theory right? They were thrilled. I thought I’d figured everything out and this would be the end of all the complaining. In fact, we all learned an essential lesson: there is no such thing as complete freedom.
My daughter quickly realized that her freedom was constrained by the weather, the heat (we can’t go cycling at 2pm under the hot son), money (we can’t afford to have meals out twice a day every day), transport (I have to take her places), other family member’s decisions, and so on. I developed a little mantra that my children enthusiastically repeat now: With freedom comes responsibility. I feel that we all learned a good lesson about freedom and boundaries and why you can’t really have one without the other.
My definition of boundaries in a parenting/education realm is not arbitrary rules that adults have come up with for no apparent reason other than the fact they can, but rather limitations to individual freedom that are almost natural consequences of living in a family and a community.
Montessori makes a similar point about the classroom setting. She writes that “our aim is to discipline for activity, for work, for good; not for immobility, not for passivity, not for obedience(her italics).” I think what she means here is that the rules and boundaries that children will encounter are those that support their freedom, as well as that of others, to choose, move, learn and grow, rather than rules that simply require obedience but have no ulterior benefit to them.
So an example of an arbitrary rule or rule for obedience might be telling a child they need to sit still for a given amount of time simply to make things easier for the teacher or adult, or telling a child they cannot drink water or have a snack when they’re hungry because it’s just not snack or lunch time. These rules are fundamentally, solely about control and power. On the other hand, setting boundaries such as waiting your turn to play with a certain toy that’s being used by another child, or cleaning up after yourself if you spill water, makes logical sense because although the child’s freedom is being restricted in that moment, it’s clear this is happening in order to benefit communal living, and ultimately the freedom of all individuals within the community.
There is so much to say about boundaries and freedom and independence! I’ve been forever fascinated with these concepts, and I think it’s important to question rules and pick apart the why behind boundaries and limitations to our freedom, but equally I think the idea of freedom needs to be discussed because I find it means different things to different people. And although most people will agree they want their children to be independent, I’m not sure they would as enthusiastically agree they want them to be truly, 100% free, while at the same time possibly feeling uncomfortable with the idea of firm boundaries.
I haven’t even gotten into how powerful the idea of boundaries can be to teach children about respect for their bodies and other people’s bodies, and to discuss relationships. Although I have a ton of opinions on this (surprise!), I’m not an expert so if you’re interested in digging deeper, here is a really thoughtful post about encouraging consent and setting boundaries, and more specifically about supporting consent , and this is a good summary of how boundaries may work in parenting, what is developmentally-appropriate and respectful boundary-setting.
I’d like to finish by saying that this post was mainly about the reason-for-being of boundaries, which is something that is equally fascinating and problematic to me. I love that I now have a really meaningful way to think about boundaries in my life and in my parenting: as a necessary pre-requisite to compassion and empathy. Now I know that having boundaries with my children is as much about making sure I can stay calm and compassionate with them (instead of being pushed and pushed until I lose it), as it is about reflecting what living in the world is actually like.
I recognize that for many people it’s not about why or what the boundary is, but how it is held in place. Every family and group and community will have different rules, but how you enforce them is as important as why you have them and what they actually are. I’ll be talking about this more in a future post!
Thanks for reading, and happy boundary-setting!