|Image credit muffet68 on Flickr|
Like fences, boundaries work both to protect them and to protect others. They are a healthy barrier for both.
The first one we teach them is physical boundaries. Their bodies belong to them. No one is allowed to hurt them or make them feel yucky (unwanted tickling or touching them inappropriately). From the time they are toddlers, we give them the script, "Stop or I'll tell!" (and teach them to tell us anyway, even if it stops). I highly recommend Protecting the Gift by Gavin DeBecker.
But all the words won't make much difference unless we back it up with our actions. If we teach them that adults are allowed to violate their body boundaries by spanking or other actions against them, then our words become very weak. Along with being careful in our own actions, we must also make sure that other people respect their limits when our children are powerless to enforce them. I believe that the only time that it is OK for us to violate their body boundaries is in holding them if we must to protect someone, and that they should be released once everyone is safe. (Car seats fall into this category of safety and protection, IMO. Correct use of car seats is non-negotiable).
In the same way, they are not allowed to hurt others to express their big emotions. If they feel like hitting, or kicking or whatever, they need to find safe ways to do that. We teach them to dance, play the pushing game, or exercise or other physical activity to release angry feelings. They can also draw, go to a comfort corner to cool down or take deep breaths and squeeze their palms together--anything that allows them to let go and regain control.
In a related note, it is important to teach them emotional/verbal boundaries, and how to use words to express themselves and protect themselves. Hurtful words and name-calling are not allowed. Non-Violent Communication is one of my favorite resources, and I want to order their book for children soon. It involves teaching them how to identify feelings, and how to express to others how they feel without shaming or blaming. "When x happens, I feel y." We also work on scripts for how to handle difficult situations.
A difficult balance, especially for my little Betazoid, is learning how to understand and care about other people's feelings without taking responsibility for keeping other people happy at all times. We have to remind her sometimes that it is OK to let her brother or sister cope with their own emotions and that she does not have to sacrifice her own boundaries in order to please them. We had a lot of conversations about that, and I can see it getting easier for her to say no when she should.
Again, modeling is key here. Do they see me demonstrating healthy boundaries? Do I take appropriate responsibility for owning my own feelings, or do I blame them on others ("You make me feel so...!" )? Do I say no when I need to and allow others to be responsible for their own feelings? Do I correct or enforce boundaries without shaming and blaming? (In case you are wondering, the answer to all of these is that I am working on it. I am trying to learn these skills as an adult, and am very much a work in progress.)
Property boundaries are important, too. Most things in our house belong to everyone, but there are a few items that are the sole property of the individual. We don't force sharing if it is something that belongs to the child (I certainly have possessions that I do not share!). They have been really open to waiting for someone to finish and then using it. As long as they know that they will get an opportunity to have something and use it until they finish, disputes are rare. They also know that violence means that they do not get it.
In modeling healthy property boundaries, we try not to snatch things from them unless it is extremely dangerous. Even our little ones will bring a different toy to offer the baby if she grabs something of theirs. Another way to maintain healthy boundaries here is to give everyone space where their belongings are protected and to make sure that others do not touch them without permission. I am working on teaching them to not touch things that don't belong to them, but like I said, it is so rarely an issue in our home that I haven't given them enough practice. It is a work in progress, but we are working and there is progress. :)
Someone recently pointed out that these are some pretty high expectations for little people. After all, a huge number of adults have issues with boundaries. That is true, and I am one of those adults who is still learning! The key is that this is a practicum, not a final exam. This is about teaching and learning, not judging and punishing for failure. These skills take a lifetime, and all of us are growing together. So it really isn't about expectations and judgments, just about loving, equipping and growing. I want to teach my children how to build fences in their own lives, and how to respect the fences of others.