Boundaries are like guardrails that teach others how to treat us, reinforcing our own worth and encouraging self-love.
I won’t let you…
…a simple, yet powerful phrase I first learned in a parenting context. I follow a parenting philosophy that centers relationships with our children built on trust, connection, and mutual respect rather than authority, power, and punishment. The philosophy is not the same as attachment parenting, nor permissive parenting. We set firm boundaries and have high expectations for children based on what is developmentally appropriate, we honor the needs of parents and children living in community together, and we value modeling who we want our children to become over explicit lessons and teachings. Excellent sources for anyone interested in this parenting philosophy can be found through Visible Child, Aha Parenting, Teacher Tom, and Janet Lansbury.
Before I adopted “Boundaries” as my word of the year, my attempt to set boundaries looked more like begging and pleading only to eventually give in. When my oldest was a toddler, she was always trying to go into the street, even though it was “against the rules.” I would sit—15 feet away—on the stoop of our student family housing apartment, repeating over and over again “don’t go in the street.” She’d stare back at me with that knowing look, testing me. She’d put a toe in, then a foot, and I’d repeat, “if you go in the street, then we have to go inside.” Then she’d dart into the street like a bat out of hell! I’d chase her down, and we’d go inside for a bit, but then we’d eventually be right back in the same power struggle a few hours later.
She knew the rule. What she was trying to figure out was me. And I was so confusing! I kept telling her that going into the street was against the rules, but I also kept letting her go into the street. The pattern formed in her brain was a constant repeating of the word “street,” the thrill of running into the street, the attention of me scooping her up out of the street, and then the task of convincing me, yet again, we could go back outside and she wouldn’t go into the street again—all to see how I would respond at each phase of the “street game” we played for years.
As my son became a toddler during my “Boundaries” year, I decided to get serious about setting appropriate boundaries and making the effort to hold them. To set an appropriate boundary, I learned, requires three things: (1) it should be stated in the positive (what to do) rather than the negative (what not to do), (2) it should be developmentally possible for the child to do it, and (3) it should be motivated by keeping the child safe rather than exerting control over the child.
(1) One reason the street game with my daughter was so frustrating for both of us was the way the rule was stated. When I would sit, repeating “don’t go in the street,” my daughter’s brain latched onto the word ‘street’ instead of ‘don’t,’ as most of our brains would. She would repeat the word ‘street’ over and over until she felt compelled to step in. A more effective boundary would be “stay on the sidewalk.” That focuses the brain on where to stay—the sidewalk—rather than becoming obsessed with the street. It’s simply easier to follow.
(2) Ought implies can. If we expect that our children should do something, it must be developmentally possible that they can do it. Or as my Grandmama Teague used to say, “If I keep a child up past their bedtime, then any difficult behavior that results is my fault.” As parents, we have a responsibility to learn about child development at different stages so we can match our expectations to their capabilities.
(3) Boundaries are powerful tools, and so they should be used sparingly. Setting too many boundaries around things that maybe you don’t like, or grate on your nerves, or make messes you have to clean up, or trigger shame from your childhood, or protect your partner’s feelings, can create a stifling environment for your child. I would often ask myself, what’s the worst that could happen if I let him jump in this puddle/climb on this structure/scream in the store/refuse to hug Grandpa/sleep on the bathroom floor/put his finger in his nose/and so on to all the creative and disgusting things kids do. Like most things in life, it’s all about discovering your priorities and finding balance, then intentionally setting only those boundaries that are highest on the list and that you can manage to hold. Then let the rest go.
It’s one thing to set a boundary and quite another to hold it. Holding boundaries requires so much work! It often requires being right there to block the action before it happens. If I could go back to that stoop in Auburn, Alabama, I would have gotten up from my Adirondack chair. I would have placed my body in front of my daughter’s, and I would have physically prevented her from ever stepping foot in the street. I would instead repeat, “let me help you stay on the sidewalk.” If the street game continued, I would know I was expecting more than what she was developmentally capable of, and so we wouldn’t hang out in the front yard anymore until she was older. We’d only hang out in the back to avoid the game altogether. To hold boundaries always requires us to get up, to be present, and often to rearrange our lives.
Setting and holding boundaries with other adults is much more complicated, and it’s a journey I’m definitely still on. Figuring out which boundaries to set is difficult because our expectations of other adults are often unreasonable. In some sense, being an adult just means being “fully developed,” and yet childhood experiences, trauma, personality differences, disabilities, mental illness, privilege, support systems, and so many other factors distinguish our actual capabilities. If I expect that my partner or parent should respect my boundary, and they don’t, does that mean they couldn’t or just chose not to? If they just chose not to, what should I do next? If they literally can’t, should I be the one to change my expectations and set different boundaries? Messy business indeed.
Holding boundaries means sometimes being willing to rearrange our lives. With children, this means playing out back instead of out front or eating in for a few years as they develop the capability to eat at a restaurant. With the other adults in our lives, however, holding a boundary might be more expensive. It could even mean going no contact with someone, quitting a job, or ending relationships with romantic partners, friends, or family. Saying “I won’t let you,” might mean losing a person who continues to cross the boundary you’ve set for yourself. And that’s really hard to do.
Tarot Card: Four of Wands
I queried, “what am I missing about boundaries? What am I not considering?” Tarot answered with the celebratory, uplifting card, the Four of Wands. My tarot deck guidebook describes the card as:
“The garden is growing luxuriously, and these two have wandered away from their stress and planning to have a little fun. It might be a surprise, but you’ve got some good times on the horizon! Take a break from your hard work and put all your energy into treating yourself.”
Listen, I’m all for having fun, and I’m looking forward to these good times in the future, for sure. But I wasn’t quite sure how this card fit with Boundaries, explicitly. So I looked up the Four of Wands on Biddy Tarot as well, and this is when it hit me, with a sentence: “the Four of Wands represents the personal gratification of a job well done, a goal attained, and a vision beginning to be realised. You should be proud!”
Ah, I see! What I’m missing is pride in my accomplishments. I’m so focused—too focused—on moving onward and upward in this journey that I rarely, if ever, stop to see how far I’ve come. Yeah, that’s right, tarot, I’ve come a long way, and I’ve grown so much, and my relationships with others and myself are so much better now than they were before my Yearly Meditations. I’ve learned to set some mother fucking boundaries, and I’m really, really proud of that. I’m grateful for the reminder to take time to celebrate the wonderful progress I’ve made.
And always, hit me up if you want to have a little fun! It is my future, I suppose 😉