Boundaries and Yes Parenting – a quick guide

Focusing on saying ‘Yes’ more than ‘No’ does not mean that boundaries lack importance or presence. It means a shift in how we approach boundaries.

When I speak publicly about Yes Parenting I am often asked about boundaries. In the public environment of social media there are many tweets that assume that Yes Parenting means parenting without boundaries.

Let’s be absolutely clear here. Boundaries are essential to personal wellbeing and also integration into society. I have never said, and I doubt I ever would say, that boundaries are unnecessary or that I don’t agree with boundaries. What I disagree with is the way setting boundaries in parenting is often a subtle way to control our children.

Many of us find it challenging to responsibly set our own boundaries and live our lives with complete self-control. And yet we seek to mould our children into compliance from a very early age. It takes fifteen to twenty years for a human being to mature. Even after that time we are still no more than perfectly imperfect individuals. Mistakes are part of the dynamic process of lifelong learning.

Let’s talk a bit more about setting a boundary for a child compared to walking alongside a child while they develop the skills to set their own boundaries. A typical boundary might be “It’s not OK to hit someone”. I agree. It isn’t OK to hit someone…in most situations. However, there are definitely times when hitting someone is absolutely OK. Boxing, self-defence or acting are examples. This was brought home to me very clearly when my kids asked me if Batman was a Goodie or a Baddie. Of course I said I thought he was a Goodie. They replied “So why is it OK for him to hit people?”. Wow!

The other problem that presents itself is we might tell a small child who is regularly hitting others that it’s not OK to hit people. They shift their behaviour from hitting to pulling hair. The focus on the negative behaviour does not take into account the feelings and needs that underlie that behaviour. And why shouldn’t that child pull hair? Because, to them, it is an alternative response that doesn’t include hitting. The child is simply seeking to best communicate what’s going on for them.

We could make the boundary broader. We could set the boundary “It’s not OK to hurt people”. The threshold of pain and hurting varies remarkably between individuals. My youngest is tough as old ropes. It takes an extraordinary amount of force to hurt him. Conversely my eldest can experience hurt and pain even at the thought of something happening. So how does a child determine what it means to hurt another?

As we grow up we begin to see and understand the increased complexity of the world. The world is more complex now than ever before. I seek to help my children have a solid foundational understanding that means they can not only set their own boundaries but also respect the boundaries of others. And they are not yet ten years old.

Let’s say one of my sons hit the other. Rather than focussing on the act of hitting I talk with both boys to understand what happened at the very beginning and ultimately led to the hitting. Invariably I discover anger, frustration or sadness because key needs went unmet. Often these are needs are for fairness, power, being heard or safety. I look at the situation starting with the needs and how those unmet needs led to feelings that led to actions. This process of resolution leads to increased connection within all our relationships, and also increased understanding of the complexity of what it means to be a human living amongst many other humans who are all different.

Last summer we went on holiday and took one of the boys’ friends with us. Within the first day we had various conflicts. As a result of talking with the boys together it became clear that there were three very different core needs. In no particular order; safety, understanding and fairness. The best response to any conflicts arising wasn’t to set arbitrary boundaries but to meet each child where they were at according to their needs. By doing this together they had increased understanding of each other. Over the week’s holiday the conflicts decreased day by day and their approach to playing together became more inclusive and considerate.

These are the children I want. Children who exhibit compassion, understanding, adaptability and flexibility as they understand the people around them. They begin to set their own boundaries because an adult is showing them the way. Children who can set their own boundaries become teenagers who stand firm in their boundaries and then adults who make solid decisions based on respecting others but knowing who they are deep down to their core. Our core being is our first and most important boundary. This is where our focus needs to lie.

Tweet me with your thoughts about this. I’d love to hear from you.