The Boundary Needs of Children
Are you helping your kids set healthy boundaries?
The book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend is a must-read for parents at all stages of parenthood. This excerpt uses powerful examples to illustrate the importance of boundaries in the lives of children. Keep reading—it’s never too late to make a positive change!
Have you ever seen anything more helpless than the human infant? Human babies are less able to take care of themselves than animal babies. God designed the newborn months as a means for the mother and father (or another caregiver) to connect deeply with their infant, knowing that without their minute-by-minute care, the baby would not survive. All this time and energy translates into an enduring attachment, in which the child learns to feel safe in the world.
God’s program of maturation, however, doesn’t stop there. Mom and Dad can’t always be there to care and provide. The task of protection needs to ultimately pass on to the children. When they grow up, they need to protect themselves.
Boundaries are our way of protecting and safeguarding our souls. Boundaries are designed to keep the good in and the bad out. And skills such as saying no, telling the truth, and maintaining physical distance need to be developed in the family structure to allow the child to take on the responsibility of self-protection.
Consider the following two 12-year-old boys:
Jimmy is talking with his parents at the dinner table. “Guess what—some kids wanted me to smoke pot with them. When I told them I didn’t want to, they said I was a sissy. I told them they were dumb. I like some of them, but if they can’t like me because I don’t smoke pot, I guess they aren’t really my friends.”
Paul comes home after school with red eyes, slurred speech, and coordination difficulties. When asked by his concerned parents what is wrong, he denies everything until, finally, he blurts out, “Everybody’s doing it. Why do you hate my friends?”
Both Jimmy and Paul come from Christian homes with lots of love and an adherence to biblical values. Why did they turn out so differently? Jimmy’s family allowed disagreements between parent and child and gave him practice in the skill of boundary setting, even with them. Jimmy’s mom would be holding and hugging her two-year-old when he would get fidgety. He’d say, “Down,” meaning, “Let me get a little breathing space, Ma.” Fighting her own impulses to hold on to her child, she would set him down on the floor and say, “Wanna play with your trucks?”
Jimmy’s dad used the same philosophy. When wrestling with his son on the floor, he tried to pay attention to Jimmy’s limits. When the going got too rough, or when Jimmy was tired, he could say, “Stop, Daddy,” and Dad would get up. They’d go to another game.
Jimmy was receiving boundary training. He was learning that when he was scared, in discomfort, or wanted to change things, he could say no. This little word gave him a sense of power in his life. It took him out of a helpless or compliant position. And Jimmy could say it without receiving an angry and hurt response, or a manipulative countermove, such as, “But Jimmy, Mommy needs to hold you now, okay?”
Jimmy learned from infancy on that his boundaries were good and that he could use them to protect himself. He learned to resist things that weren’t good for him.
A hallmark of Jimmy’s family was permission to disagree. When, for example, Jimmy would fight his parents about his bedtime, they never withdrew or punished him for disagreeing. Instead, they would listen to his reasoning, and, if it seemed appropriate, they would change their minds. If not, they would maintain their boundaries.
Jimmy was also given a vote in some family matters. When family night out would come up, his parents listened to his opinion on whether they should go to a movie, play board games, or play basketball. Was this a family with no limits? On the contrary! It was a family who took boundary setting seriously—as a skill to develop in its children.
This was good practice for resisting in the evil day (Ephesians 5:16), when some of Jimmy’s friends turned on him and pressured him to take drugs. How was Jimmy able to refuse? Because by then, he’d had 10 or 11 years of practice disagreeing with people who were important to him without losing their love. He didn’t fear abandonment in standing up against his friends. He’d done it many times successfully with his family with no loss of love.
Paul, on the other hand, came from a different family setting. In his home, no had two different responses. His mom would be hurt and withdraw and pout. She would send guilt messages, such as “How can you say no to your mom who loves you?” His dad would get angry, threaten him, and say things like, “Don’t talk back to me, Mister.”
It didn’t take long for Paul to learn that to have his way, he had to be externally compliant. He developed a strong yes on the outside, seeming to agree with his family’s values and control. Whatever he thought about a subject—the dinner menu, TV restrictions, church choices, clothes, or curfews—he stuffed inside.
Once, when he had tried to resist his mother’s hug, she had immediately withdrawn from him, pushing him away with the words, “Someday you’ll feel sorry for hurting your mother’s feelings like that.” Day by day, Paul was being trained to not set limits.
As a result of his learned boundarylessness, Paul seemed to be a content, respectful son. The teens, however, are a crucible for kids. We find out what kind of character has actually been built into our children during this difficult passage.
Paul folded. He gave in to his friends’ pressure. Is it any wonder that the first people he said no to were his parents—at 12 years old? Resentment and the years of not having boundaries were beginning to erode the compliant, easy-to-live-with false self he’d developed to survive.
(Taken from Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend Copyright © 2001 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com)