What is a boundary?
And how can it help keep my child safe?
by Pattie Fitzgerald
One of the most rewarding and fulfilling aspects of my job is when parents come up to me after a workshop and say thank you for teaching them something new that they would never have thought of as they talk to their kids about safety skills. Every workshop I present, whether it is the Parent Seminar or the Children’s Workshop, includes a lively discussion about Boundaries – physical and personal. It’s a straightforward concept, but one that often surprises parents in its’ effectiveness and simplicity. Teaching our children about boundaries is a great way to empower them as they grow and interact with other children, caregivers, and adults.
A boundary is a limit or a perimeter that defines us as individuals, separating us from others. It can be physical or personal. By teaching children about their own boundaries and the boundaries of others, we can help them understand when someone’s behavior may be inappropriate or unsafe.
A physical boundary is pretty clear-cut. Begin by reinforcing the fact that all of us, kids and adults, have bathing suit areas that are private. “Bathing suit areas” is a simple boundary concept to teach young children without getting too complicated.
It’s really no different when we’re teaching our kids how to stay safe. In fact, I’ve coined the child-friendly term “safe-smarts” and encourage parents to use that expression when they begin introducing safety concepts to their kids.
The basic rule is: “No one is allowed to touch your bathing suit area and you are not allowed to touch someone else’s.” (Remember molesters can work both ways).
A personal boundary involves teaching children that there are certain rules and behaviors that everyone we interact with must follow. Now, to put that in “parent-speak”:
1. Teach children that every grownup has a job with certain rules that go along with that job. Kids can easily understand the notion of jobs and rules just by the very nature of participating in school, playdates, sibling relationships, etc.
2. Make of list of the grownups and their jobs that your children come in contact with on a daily basis. Your child may have a Music Teacher, a Gymnastics or Sports Coach, or even a local, friendly adult service person like the Ice Cream Man at the park.
3. Once you have established which grownups interact with your child, you must clearly set up the very specific rules or boundaries that go along with that job.
A Music Teacher – Their job is to teach your child music (vocal or instrumental).
It is NOT their job to take your child to the movies or on an outing.
A Coach teaches sports skills – how to run, jump, catch a ball, kick, etc.
It is NOT their job to help dress your child, to take them out alone in their car or give them gifts.
The Ice Cream Man’s job is to sell you ice cream. You give him money; he gives you ice cream.
It is NOT his job to give your child free ice cream, or to take your child for a ride in his truck, or to make a child his “assistant salesman.”
Child molesters look for kids AND adults with blurry boundaries. It’s what they count on to start the “grooming” process of a child, sometimes long before they actually do something. Any activity that isn’t part of the “job description” of an adult must be evaluated and acted upon, especially if it makes you uncomfortable.
Ask yourself: “Why does Coach Jones always give my child extravagant gifts?” “Why does the Music Teacher often suggest taking my child to a concert without me?” “Why is this Ice Cream Man (or any adult for that matter) lavishing special treatment on my child?”
Once a child understands the boundaries that belong to a specific relationship, they will be able to identify if something feels “yucky or tricky” to them. Once a parent understands the boundaries of the adults our children interact with, they can be more aware and take action if something seems out of the ordinary. Our boundaries set us apart from everyone else. They function as a barometer of what is appropriate or inappropriate. And, it is our responsibility as parents to establish and model specific boundaries for our children.
Of course, there are certain nuances to teaching kids of different ages about boundaries, and everything cannot be covered in just one article. However, it’s never too early to start teaching healthy physical and personal boundaries to your kids. It can be one of the most effective and powerful skills we teach them.
For more information, or to book your own workshop, call 310-203-1330.