Boundaries Are A Bad Idea

Don’t tell me that toddlers need boundaries. Boundaries are a bad metaphor, especially where young toddlers are concerned, because most things counted as boundaries would be better conceived as positive expectations.

Take for example, “No naked in the front yard.” This kind of prohibition gives the child freedom to put on clothes and be outside, or to decide to stay inside naked. But instead of presenting that choice or the positive expectation that your child will put clothes on, what you’ve actually presented is a puzzle. You have definite expectations about the right way to go out, but you’re asking the child to figure out potential alternatives instead of giving guidance directly. As advocates of positive discipline point out, it’s disingenuous and frustrating. Especially for a younger toddler, who’s still mastering daily routines and figuring out what clothes mean, wearing clothes outside isn’t a boundary. It’s an action, and thinking of it as anything else makes you less likely to present cultural expectations clearly.

Reframing boundaries as actions puts you in a more collaborative position toward your toddler. If you see wearing shoes on your walks as the right way to go, giving your toddler that knowledge is potentially empowering. Maybe knowing sidewalk etiquette gives kids a sense of security and accomplishment, but just as importantly, once the expectation or routine is established, kids can invoke it just as well as their parents can. If Rebecca wants to go to the playground, she can go get our shoes. In that sense, having active expectations is more like sharing a language than like setting boundaries you can’t cross.

Conversely, how does emphasizing boundaries effect the ways we react to our children? Does it make it easier to presume that you and your toddler aren’t really on the same side, and keep you in the mind frame of policing her? Does it encourage parents to stand firm on rules that curtail toddlers’ movement–like eating in a high chair or sitting in a stroller–instead of finding ways for kids to learn the right way to handle a situation? Does it subtly draw parents’ attention away from the motives behind their children’s behavior, by assuming that all they’re trying to learn is how firm boundaries are? Does it make it easier to assume that toddlers’ desires are inscrutable, unpredictable, and basically independent of and at odds with parental desires? I don’t know that these effects are necessary logical corollaries of the boundaries metaphor, but when I think about my parental role in terms of setting boundaries, it puts me into that mindset. What about you?

I suspect the boundary metaphor sets parents and children up for failure by underplaying the role of learning and overplaying power dynamics. Positive language like “acting competently” or “acting appropriately” makes it clearer that most of the behaviors we expect from toddlers involve a learning process, which might even involve some experimentation to find out why we do things the way we do. By contrast, “boundary” invokes the image of something static and obvious–not something you need to put much effort into mastering. People talk about “respecting” boundaries, not “learning” them. When people start invoking boundaries, overstepping them isn’t like making a mistake on a math problem, and it’s probably not an innocent experiment or a potentially legitimate preference that you might find a better outlet for. Whatever your kid is doing is now about your authority–maybe in your kid’s eyes as well as your own, unfortunately. The received wisdom on parenting holds that when kids test boundaries, you have to stand firm, so that “they learn that you mean it.” The learning involved gets displaced into a question of power. Not helpful.

The other problem with the conventional approach to learning boundaries is that it’s bad psychology. Rebecca enjoyed pouring water on the floor the first few weeks we let her drink from an open cup. She ran around trying to grab things the first few times we let her out of the grocery cart, too. When people get a new freedom, especially one they’re not sure of keeping, they usually do go a little wild with it at first. It’s a combination of previously deferred desires and developing schemas for navigating all the new possibilities. It’s also a predictable part of the learning process, which means you can plan for it; for example, by making shorter trips to the grocery store and avoiding the aisles with lots of breakables the first few times your toddler goes on foot. You act as a guide and point out mistakes. You keep on encouraging appropriate behavior and helping your toddler refine her shopping impulses into more constructive paths. But her exploration isn’t really about you, and your desires and hers aren’t really opposed.

Well, most of the time.

5 replies on “Boundaries Are A Bad Idea”

  1. As a footnote, I decided to be overly pat when I wrote this, because the piety I see around imposing boundaries on kids drives me nuts. If I were being less pat, I’d ask some more questions: When do parents who use multiple rhetorics about expectations / boundaries / routines (i.e. most parents) actually invoke boundaries, as opposed to other rhetorics? Might it be that boundary rhetoric often isn’t invoked unless parents feel they’re already in a power struggle? (Because in that case, the accusation that it turns things into a power struggle is misplaced, and the rhetoric’s real use is in legitimizing and maybe regularizing how parents use their power.) Also, do all forms of boundary-setting rhetoric have the same propensity to read kids’ behavior as power struggles?

  2. One day I was watching my daughter (she’s the same age as Rebecca, I think) check with the adults in the room to see if something was scary, and all of a sudden the phrase “children need consistency” made sense to me.

    Toddlers need to know that the things that are safe will ALWAYS be safe, and that they understand which things are dangerous. So consistent boundaries means (to me anyways) “You can NEVER touch the stove when it’s on.” “ALWAYS hold an adult’s hand while crossing the street.”

    This realization helped me so much, because my housemate tended to worry that if she was inconsistent it would cause problems, and we managed to work together to realize that what mattered were safety rules.

    “Rebecca enjoyed pouring water on the floor the first few weeks we let her drink from an open cup. ”

    When my daughter was doing this a lot of it seemed like she was trying to figure out how to keep water _in_ the cup. By experimentally determining all of the different ways to get water out of the cup. Upside down — water comes out. Knock it over — water comes out. Leave it on the couch and it rolls away — water comes out.

    I found you via Reproductive Rites and have been eagerly devouring your past blog entries. Thank you for such wonderful essays.

  3. Thanks for reading! And good point–safety is a place where boundary rhetoric doesn’t collapse into power struggles so much.

    Rebecca does like me to be consistent, true to form for a toddler. Sometimes lately she’ll make me go to the bathroom if I forget to do it on the way to the park, and one time she made her dad go back and put on shoes. However, differences in how I handle a situation versus how other people handle it don’t seem to phase her most of the time. I’m wondering if it’s similar to how bilingualism works when each parent speaks a different language with their child. She’s learning one behavioral language for crossing the street with me and a different one with her dad and our housemate. It sounds like that’s different from your experience, though?

    We don’t have many safety rules, because Rebecca tends to hang back and watch until she sees how to handle a situation (or maybe she watches more and is less secure because we don’t have many rules? I don’t know if that’s true, or if it’s good or bad if it is). No doubt that colors what I’m saying about boundaries, too. Instead of worrying about her touching the stove, usually I’m trying to encourage her to drop a noodle in boiling water and she’s telling me “no, hot.”

  4. Oh, and I wanted to add that Rebecca is 21 months now, but I’ve been writing this off and on for a while, so some of the examples may be slightly wonky for her age.

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