Learning to Draw the Line

Robert Frost once said that good fences make good neighbors. Right now I am thinking of those fences in terms of boundaries, and I have to say I agree. One of the things that parents should teach children is to have boundaries. Adults are good at giving children boundaries – bedtime, how far from the house they can play, what they eat. But we need them to learn how to establish their own boundaries for their lives. Setting boundaries and learning how to express them and maintain them will have many benefits,

I was playing with my granddaughter one day a few years ago and I tickled her.  She said I should stop and I tickled her one more time.  She looked me in the eye – at a ripe old age around 5 – and said, “Grammy, no means no.”  I stopped immediately, apologized to her, and told her that she was absolutely right.  I am so glad that her parents have taught her this!  She needs to have ownership and proprietary rights over her body.  (The fact that all people should have this and the recent Supreme Court decision are matters for a different discussion than this one.)

We are more and more being educated about setting sexual boundaries or physical boundaries in regard to our bodies.  In addition to who can touch her body and in what way, I hope that they are also teaching my granddaughter to set boundaries in relationships and decisions that affect her everyday life.  This means not using guilt trips.  It means allowing her to decide what she likes, what she wants to be, who she wants to hang out with, what activities she decides to join.  It means not feeling pressured to go along with a project or activity she doesn’t want to do.  It means not having to participate or to like the same things as everyone else.  It means she doesn’t always have to be in a good mood.  She should be allowed to own her feelings and express them, and this is the hard part, even if she is angry, disappointed, or hurt by them.  She also should be taught to verbalize and maintain those boundaries when pressured or when it may make someone else upset with you.

I’ve been reading a number of things about setting boundaries because I have realized that I have not been clear in what mine are (even with myself sometimes) and that I have often prioritized everyone else to my own detriment because I don’t have a limit, a boundary that is clear and known.  René Brooks of Black Girl Lost Keys blog and now podcast has a mantra that is important.  Guard Your Yes. Don’t say yes to everyone and everything just to fit in, be liked, and keep others satisfied at the expense of your own life.  We need to set boundaries in all aspects of life.  According to thehealthy.com, there are six basic types of boundaries.  These include material, physical, mental, emotional, sexual, and spiritual.  We need to determine what our boundaries are in each of these.

Material:  My things are mine.  I get to decide if I want to share them, give them away, sell them, or throw them out.  You cannot help yourself to my stuff and I cannot just help myself to yours.  When people are in my home, I often say, “If you’re hungry or thirsty, help yourself to anything.”  But I decided that.  If someone just walked in and took over the fridge, I would be put out, not because they took food but because they didn’t wait to be invited to do that or ask if it was okay.  

As a child I was, of course, taught to share.  I learned over time that sharing my possessions made other people happy.  I am the eternal people-pleaser.  I am constantly giving away things or buying things for others.  It is partly because I enjoy giving gifts and making others feel pleased, feel special.  However, there is a darker side to this in my life.  Part of the people pleasing makes me feel guilty if I don’t do this.  I feel that I won’t be liked without doing it.  I need to determine a boundary within myself regarding what I share, give away, or buy for someone else as well as how often, on what occasions, or how much I can spend.

Physical:  Within our culture there are norms for how close we position ourselves in relation to others.  These unwritten rules are based on relationships and situations.  If a two-year-old suddenly throws his arms around me and gives me a hug, I will always welcome that.  If a forty-two-year-old does that, I better have a close relationship with that person.  It is not okay for people to get too close or to touch another person’s body without their permission.  Don’t touch a pregnant woman’s belly, reach out and feel someone’s hair, constantly touch someone you don’t really know well.  People may do these things quite often but it isn’t okay and can violate a person’s privacy.  Sometimes we tell children to go and hug Aunt Mildred when the child has no idea who the strange woman is.  Aunt Mildred may have come too close too fast and scared the child.  It’s perfectly fine for the child to say no.  It’s okay for you too.

Many years ago I had a sales representative for a yearbook publisher who worked with my staff of kids.  This man was a “close talker” and made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t say anything to him at first but set up obstacles to him getting that close.  He also made my teenaged staff uncomfortable.  My co-editors each came to me saying he was putting the moves on them or trying to pick them up.  One of my editors was a girl and the other a boy.  They didn’t understand what he was doing or why.  That didn’t matter.  He needed to back off!  I should have communicated that to him for myself and for those kids.  Instead, I finally lost it and told him that anyone sitting that close to me better be planning on kissing me – and that if he planned that, he better also plan to be slapped into next week!  

Mental:  Mental boundaries “establish your right to have your own thoughts, values, beliefs, and opinions, even if they don’t align with someone else’s belief system.”  We should teach children to think for themselves.  We also need to teach them to be able to have a conversation with someone else – someone who might not agree – and to do so respectfully and with reason.  I don’t respect someone’s opinion when the sole reason for it is “because I said so” or “it doesn’t matter what the facts are because it’s my opinion.” I won’t engage with them if I can help it. I want my grandchildren to be able to say, “This is what I believe, and here are my reasons for thinking that way.”  I want them to read, learn, and be open.  But then I want them to stand up politely but firmly for their values and beliefs without wavering just because someone disagrees.  Conscience isn’t ruled by public opinion.  

I get flustered in conversations when I am faced with people who assume they know what I believe or what I should believe.  I have trouble responding to those who cannot see how anyone could disagree with them.  I’m good at putting my values and opinions into writing, but often I’m not good at standing up in a conversation.  I especially have trouble when it is someone close to me who is screaming about how wrong those “fucking assholes are” who then adds “even though I know you agree with them.” (Personal example from yesterday – yeah, still pissed off that he said that and more so that I didn’t stop him cold with, “do not speak to me that way.”)

My inability to voice my thoughts, values, beliefs, and opinions in conversations and maintain my train of thought when met with confrontation started in childhood with the way I was raised.  This comes from never being allowed to question what my parents believed. I vividly remember being told “there’s no talking to you” as I tried to express myself. It also comes from belonging to churches where disagreement was often (and is still often) met with “you can’t be a Christian” with a different point of view, way of voting, political affiliation, if you have a drink…. 

Emotional: Our emotions belong to us.  We need to own them and feel them.  We all react to things in our own way whether it is grief, pain, joy, boredom, anger, or any other emotion.  We need to teach our children that there is nothing wrong with experiencing emotions and expressing them in healthy ways.  When our children are tired, anxious, angry, or just plain cranky, we need to let them feel those things, and we need to teach them ways to express them that aren’t violent or harmful. We want them to realize that mom or dad can have a bad mood.  We need to do the same for them.

I remember one time having a conversation where I was trying to make a man see how upset and hurt his wife was over some things he had said and done.  She had taken the children and fled because she was frightened.  He wouldn’t admit he was wrong to God let alone me.  He told me, or actually spat out, over and over that she just shouldn’t feel that way – her feelings were just wrong.  I have no trouble standing up for others so I had no trouble telling him that he didn’t get to choose how she felt. 

Sexual:  As my granddaughter said, no means no. Every person has a right to say no and to expect that to be honored and respected.  We know that too often it isn’t.  So we have to explain to our daughters how to protect themselves.  We give them instructions in safety, in how not to dress, to protect their drinks, not to talk to strangers.  We need to also give instruction to our sons that girls have the same rights to their bodies and wishes as the boys do.  We need to teach all of our children to respect others regardless of gender, race, creed, ethnicity, or whatever else people arbitrarily decide should divide us.

This is particularly hard to do when so much of our society is so divided, angry, and violent. But we need to lead by example and teach overtly as well.

Spiritual:  It has become more and more difficult to keep your own relationship with God these days and not let the noise from all corners defeat and deflate you or to change you into something you are not.  We need to teach our children to understand and respect people of other faiths.  We can teach our children about our own faith and hope they follow it, but we cannot force it on them. 

We can teach them to love their neighbors as they love themselves – something my faith tradition espouses but to which many extremists have not adhered.  I saw something recently that called for the separation of “church and hate,” and all I could say was, “Amen!”  Too many people have their own interpretations of the Bible or the Koran or whatever tenets they follow.  Wars have been started, genocide has been committed, parents have shunned their children, and people have been rejected by the church for interpreting those tenets differently or for living in a way that someone doesn’t like.  We need to teach our children to set boundaries about what it means for someone to go too far in forcing a religious belief on them and where to draw the line when someone has overstepped.

My spiritual life is between my God and me.  It isn’t up to anyone else to judge.  I read my Bible and know what I have read and how I interpret it.  My own beliefs can be summed up in what Jesus said were the two main laws – love God and love your neighbors.  I believe that if your beliefs make you hate someone, then we won’t agree on that faith and I will have to distance myself from you.  So I find myself at odds with members of my congregation or my Bible study group when they tell me not to be accepting of others or when I’m told by them which political party is the only one a Christian can belong to. I see the hatred and the bitterness expressed by people in the name of God to be sinful.  And I’m concerned by those who seem to believe that the only sins today are abortion and homosexuality. Many biblical quotes about homosexuality are often taken out of their historical context. 

All I can know for sure is that Jesus was very clear about loving everyone.  It isn’t my place to make anyone feel “other” – unwanted, rejected, unlovable.  Likewise I should not allow others to belittle those who believe like I do.  I’ve had two long=time friends sit in my home and demean Christians as stupid, uneducated, and foolish.  I’m sorry to say that I chose peace over maintaining a boundary and respect for me in my own home.  I did have the courage later to send one of them a note about how it made me feel, but that isn’t the same as having boundaries and enforcing them for my own mental well-being.

I’m writing this hoping that these are the things the children I love will be taught so that they know that they are entitled to their own boundaries.  It’s hard to set up and enforce boundaries after a history with people.  I’m a senior citizen but there are so many times that I still have not set the boundaries for myself and have betrayed who I am in an effort to please others.  I have been taken advantage of in so many ways through only my own fault because I am the one who kept saying yes when I wanted to say no.  I have let people come into my home who disrespect my opinions, my beliefs, my way of living.  I’ve let them turn me into milquetoast and instead of speaking up for myself, I’ve turned into a servant making meals, cleaning up after, entertaining, and whatever else is necessary to keep them happy.  I’ve allowed people to speak to me with little respect and in ways that suck out my spirit all in the name of keeping the peace.  As a friend often reminded me, “you won’t learn it any younger.” So I guess I need to take these words and the advice in the picture to heart and get my backbone straight and my skin a little thicker because as long as I allow this, I will always fall into the depression and anxiety version of who I am.

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