How, and Why, I Learned to Think in Boundaries

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How, and Why, I Learned to Think in Boundaries

by Marc Robinson,
Boundaries Parenting

When my son was 11, and I was divorced, my girlfriend said to me, with exasperation, “Your son is out of control.” Soon after, I was without a girlfriend.  

That became one of the best moments of my life, because a light went on in my head.  

I suddenly understood there’s an actual reason for control in a child’s life. For the first time, I could see an actual purpose. 

The purpose isn’t to raise a kid with good manners or keep myself from going insane. The purpose of a controlled environment is to help kids grow up with confidence, security, and self-sufficiency. I’d never even stopped to think about that before.  

It also dawned on me why parents need to set boundaries. For one thing, there’s no such thing as a controlled environment if there aren’t any boundaries. I honestly had never made the connection before.  

Beyond that, we set boundaries to help people navigate the world. Boundaries are signals. They tell us where we are. They give us perspective. They also signal what we can and can’t (or should and shouldn’t) do.  

Kids need to learn about signals. No wonder parents need to create clear and consistent boundaries. If the boundaries constantly waver, or appear and disappear, kids will only be confused, or worse.  

I Still Had a Big Problem 

As enlightening as these discoveries were, I still had a big problem. Setting and enforcing boundaries consistently was very difficult, especially on the fly. 

I particularly had trouble with behavioral boundaries. Being psychological, not physical, they are intangible; and intangibles are harder to see, never mind enforce.  

Trying to be vigilant all the time was exhausting.  

Then, one day, in a moment I remember vividly, some very simple rules about boundaries popped out at me. I felt like I’d been shown the secret to a magic trick. I could see a simple pattern to how the world works and I saw how to apply it to parenting. It gave me a simple way to explain boundaries, and thus, a lot about the world, to my kids in simple ways they could understand and apply for themselves. 

Just like that, I went from being a fairly clueless parent with no sense of how to raise a confident, secure, self-sufficient child to a parent who felt like the job almost came naturally. 

Today, both my kids, in their mid-20s, both are pretty confident people. They are comfortable—often excited—taking life’s risks. They’re respectful of others’ feelings. They give you space. In short, they recognize boundaries, know what they mean, and know how to deal with them. 

Here are my simple rules for one of the magic tricks of parenting. Maybe they’ll help you like they helped me.

How I Solved the Problem

As I said, there was this moment. It was late in my son’s childhood, but apparently not too late. He was 14.

He was in a band that played sometimes at clubs in Hollywood. I remember saying he shouldn’t be out late at night in Los Angeles, definitely not after midnight, and definitely not in Hollywood.  

He asked, why not? I could’ve said, “because it’s not safe,” or, “I said so,” or “it makes me nervous and I’ll be worried.” But, this time, I didn’t. 

Instead, I explained that the later you get into the night, the more likely you are to run into trouble. As the night goes on, more and more people go home, which means that a higher percentage of the people still out will either create trouble or stumble into it. The later it gets, especially in places you don’t normally go, the more you head into unfamiliar territory. And, if you’re confronted by a situation, there will be few places to get away, because most places will be closed.  

I remember that conversation crystal clearly, because right after, I had two huge epiphanies. 

First, I realized every boundary, whether physical or psychological, is about time or space or both. It all comes down to when is it OK/Not OK and where is it OK/Not OK? It’s OK to cross the street here but not there, just not right now. It’s OK to act that way here, but not there. It’s OK sometimes, but now is not the time. And so on.  

 I had just given him (and myself) the first lesson about boundaries: They’re easy to spot, if you think of them in terms of time and space. Midnight made for an easy first lesson illustrating time. The club scene of Hollywood was an easy lesson about space.  

I’d just come up with a simple technique for figuring out where to set boundaries and how to recognize them in real time: Pay attention to the patterns of time and space. It felt like a magic trick.  

My second epiphany was about how to be a consistent enforcer. Since boundaries are about time and space, they suddenly felt tangible to me, even for behavior. So I started thinking of every boundary as a wall. Walls are placed where they are for a reason. Walls don’t move. They don’t respond to persuasion. They don’t need patience. They simply are there, and that’s it. My boundaries became so much easier to enforce, because they were walls; and walls are the epitome of consistency.  

Parenting started getting easier. I would remind myself why I was giving my children clear, solid boundaries: to give them a controlled environmentphysical or psychological—in which to feel safe and secure. I could picture myself moving a wall a little further out when my child was ready. I could move it a little in, too, if need be.

In fact, thinking in boundaries actually became enjoyable and stimulating, because I realized I was growing from the challenge of figuring it all out right along with them. Learning boundaries was, in ways, as much an exercise for me as for them. 

This was the secret behind the magic trick of parenting. My job was to figure out the rules, apply them consistently, and explain it to my kids. They could then test the placement and strength of the boundaries and learn from that 

I gradually learned to trust my boundary setting. If the boundaries move or disappear, because of my inconsistency, a child becomes confused and is forced to start worrying about risks and dangers. S/he loses confidence that the boundary will protect him/her, or perhaps that it was ever real at all. 

Conversely, I gradually saw that the more that kids learn to think in boundaries, even if subconsciously, the more they learn to let go of the fear of feeling unprotected in some mysterious, unpredictable, boundless territory.