Creating Boundaries for Children

Below is an article I wrote which appeared in an issue of Lilipoh magazine last year. It is a subject that I often speak and write about – one that often strikes deep chords in parents but which is surrounded by much ambivalence in our society. If what is written here interests you, do consider purchasing some of my audio downloads.

Recently, in church, I sat considering why it is that some parents do not insist that their children dress nicely for church. Obviously, this issue can be complex, but I do wonder if perhaps some parents just don’t think it’s an issue. Or that anyone who requires that their children dress neatly for special occasions is somehow out of date or out of touch.

Not giving a hoot whether I seem out of date, I consider issues like these. And, having two obstreperous and opinionated sons, I know exactly how difficult it can be to make such demands. But I also know that it is worth it – for parents and, especially, for the children

What does it mean to dress appropriately for a special occasion? It means that one has made an effort, put some thought into one’s appearance and risen above the everyday. It also means that one has given outer expression to an inner gesture. For me, dressing neatly and nicely for church has nothing to do with convention – it has to do with preparing to be receptive for a spiritual experience which does not happen every day. I have no problem with children dressing messily for everyday dress. But when something special is happening, the outer should be in line with the inner.

When as a family we have gone to see a play or a concert or when we go out for dinner, we make an effort. No jeans with holes. No t-shirts with silly slogans or pictures. Hat off at the table. Not the sneakers covered in mud, thank you…. and so on. My sons are teens now and even if they don’t always agree with what I and their father expect with regard to how they dress on these occasions, they respect us enough to acquiesce. And that too is an important life lesson.

  In addition to “best clothes” my sons have always also had “play clothes” or, as they got older, “everyday clothes.” Here is a boundary – you wear these clothes when you play out in the mud, and then when you are finished and come in, you wear these clothes. And these clothes are for special times – visits to grandma and so on.

Little children do not come into the world with boundaries – they need to learn these. They need to find out what one does when, how one does it, and who they are and who everyone else in their world is. Just as the  healthy rhythms of quiet and active times bring order and peace to her day, so the wearing of certain clothes for certain times constitutes another boundary, another way – without moralizing, shouting or nagging – for a child to learn appropriate behavior. If we are wearing our nice clothes, then we know that we use our quiet voice and it is not the time to climb trees. If we are wearing our play clothes, we know that pretty much anything goes.

 So many parenting problems stem from issues with boundaries and expectations. By establishing clear rules about clothing – including when the children are allowed to eventually make their own choices within the acceptable framework – then we side step so many areas where arguments and angst can fester.  And, critically, this helps set a boundary for children to push against.

Which is why I do not believe that one should abandon such expectations with ones teens. After toddlers, teens need boundaries to push against more than anyone! The boundaries are obviously different – and in-depth explanation and discussion with ones teens about these boundaries is enormously important whereas with a toddler life “just is as it is”, verbal discussion being positively harmful. Just as toddlers are exploring their world in their toddler-fashion, so teens are exploring their rather larger and very much scarier world. They too need boundaries – “I am sorry dear – that shirt is just too low cut to wear… put on a different one or put something over it.” And of course, one should at the right moment then have a conversation with one’s teen daughter about why she feels the need to display her breasts for all and sundry to observe!

There lies her boundary. She has something to push against instead of experiencing the void of the Parent With No Opinion. She is experimenting with her sexuality, with peer expectations and with her own boundaries. In order for her to fully consider these issues, she needs to know what her parents think and not to be left thrashing about with no guidance.  She needs – even if she gives no indication of appreciating – your calm but clear thoughts on how, in this example, she dresses. One must speak with respect, kindness and have unlimited patience and humor – but your teen needs to know what you think about such issues as revealing clothing and sexuality.  Phooey on all those popular notions of “that’s just what teens do” and “you’re disrespecting your teen if you question her choices”. Rubbish! She has not finished growing up and continues to need guidance – which at times needs to take the form of a non negotiable boundary. Obviously it’s sensitive – we’re talking about a gentle process here over time, not coming down like a ton of bricks on a girl who has decided to wear skimpy clothes.  We’re talking about respect and listening – but also of not absenting ones parental responsibilities.  There’s a conversation that needs to be had – probably several. And it takes great tact and patience to find the right time to have them. Further, listening into what your daughter says – as well as to what she does not say – is probably the most important part of this.

Finding oneself in relation to boundaries set by parents is a major part of growing up. We do our children no favors by depriving them of this.  We need to be brave and clear in our thinking and communication, whether we communicate pictorially with our little ones or in calm and thoughtful ways with our older children. We will not win all the popularity contests with our children and they will rage against us at times. But deep within, those parts of them which will determine their ability to eventually navigate a path in life as free adults, will be strengthened by our ability to set boundaries. The task of parenting – and of real education – is to help the child in the task of becoming more and more human, of developing into a fully formed human being. This isn’t to say that babies or children aren’t human beings (!!) but if one considers the term “human being” as more akin to a verb than a noun, of “becoming a human being” , as more of a process than a finished goal, then one can see what I mean. Learning social skills, learning what is and isn’t appropriate, learning how to behave, is a part of this. And setting boundaries is one way we do this as parents.

Posted on August 31, 2010 in Family Life and Parenting

  • C Watson says:

    Boundaries. How refreshing! Thank You.

  • Valerie says:

    I often wonder about how people in general dress for church! I’ve always been one to dress up for church. It took a little coaxing to get my husband to follow suit (even though I know his parents had to have required it of him). But now, my older children (nearly 5 & 3) will see us dressed up, and we rarely have need to be during the week, and ask us if we’re going to church. Usually we are, but it’s nice to see that they can notice the difference between everyday clothing and special clothing.
    Boundaries are important and need to be taught and upheld.

  • Emily says:

    May I offer a different perspective on the not-dressing-up-for-church observation?
    My family are Rel. Soc. of Friends (Quaker). Friends live simply, dress plainly, and never dress up for church (meeting). The reason given is that God sees you every day, in every way, and neither expects nor wants you to put on airs; dressing up is something we do for fellow church-members, not for God. We have homeless members and poor members, and our meeting house host refugees from foreign countries. We want everyone to feel welcome in their own skin. Clothes are superficial.
    So perhaps others in more mainstream churches have come to the same conclusion?

  • Malea says:

    I only found your blog recently and have to admit that we don’t go to church but I do expect my son to dress appropriately for daily activities as well as special outings. That includes hair care…the one area where he pushes the boundary. I don’t care how long his hair is. I don’t care how short his hair is. But, I do care that it be clean AND brushed or combed daily, even if we are staying in all day. Basic grooming is important for all of us. Great post!

  • Christine says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with creating boundaries for children, but I also agree with Emily above. I didn’t grow up in a Quaker family, but with a family that loved to seem lavish and important, especially through their style of dress… and this included dressing up for church every Sunday. I always jokingly tell my friends that my mom liked to dress me up as a present when I was a little girl. As I got older I realized how silly and non-genuine and hollow I felt dressing up for certain occasions “to impress”, as my family would put it. I also felt significantly separate from the poorer, simpler, or more humble folk. I wanted to be relatable with everyone, regardless of social status. So today simple dress is what I prefer for my little family on all occasions, though for sure properly cleaned and groomed for nicer occasions (no stains or mud, clean fingernails, we also never wear slogan or cartoon shirts – just plain or patterns, etc)…. But nothing fancy. Of course weddings and things of that nature are a different story.

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