When other kids encounter the way our family works, they sometimes get the impression that our family has absolutely no rules. And compared to traditional education and discipline practices, it’s kinda true. The kids do have an unprecedented amount of freedom. But no rules? Not exactly. We do have one rule. A big one. And it encompasses a lot.
Our rule: We do not cross other people’s boundaries.
Of course, for this to be our rule, boundaries have to be defined. So this is how we define them:
My boundaries extend to my body.
I choose who touches my body, and when.
This means that more traditional rules like ‘do not hit’ fit nicely under the ‘boundaries’ umbrella, but with a consent modifier tagged on. Cat is not allowed to hit her cousins unless she has their consent. In our situation, this is a very important modifier. Maya and Leo love playing rough and tumble type games, and Cat generally does not. So Maya and Leo are learning that they need to check in before executing a full-body tackle. Sometimes it’s welcome, and sometimes it really is not. And an unwelcome tackle crosses the other person’s boundaries. It is not allowed.
This also means that our rule about hugging is exactly the same as our rule about hitting. Hugging and hitting both involve touching someone else’s body. And both actions can cross a boundary if you don’t get prior consent.
This rule applies to adults as well as children. We do not tickle, snuggle, hug or kiss our kids unless we are reasonably certain we have their permission. And if they say to stop, we stop, immediately. And it goes both ways. It’s an ongoing learning process, but the kids are learning to do a quick check-in before climbing, tackling, or jumping on us, even though we are their favorite human jungle gyms.
I choose what touches my body, and when.
Projectiles follow the same rules as physical touching. The difference between a friendly game of catch and a painful assault by a flying toy lies in awareness and consent. So, our rule extends to throwing things at people or hitting them with objects. This includes sensory materials like water or sand. Sometimes splashing games are welcome, and sometimes they are not. We expect the kids to get an ‘ok’ before they splash someone else, spread shaving cream on their leg, or pour sand on their head.
I can feel safe in my body.
Any form of physical contact can cross boundaries if it’s happening without consent. But it’s possible for my boundaries to be crossed even if I’m never touched. Somebody threatening to hit me can be just as scary as someone actually hitting me. So, our boundary rules extend to threats of crossing a physical boundary. Cat is not allowed to hit another kid with a toy truck. And she is equally not allowed to hold up the truck in a menacing way.
This also includes actions like chasing, following, yelling, growling, or roaring at another person. Again, if the other person consents, it’s fine. Some kids love to be chased! But if it’s not welcome, it crosses their boundary, and it’s not allowed.
My boundaries extend to my possessions, my projects, and my creations
The kids have a broad array of materials and toys they are welcome to play with. And inevitably, conflicts arise. We use the concept of boundaries to resolve these sorts of conflicts. If Maya is using a particular toy or material, her boundaries extend to that toy or material for as long as she is using it. While she is using it, It is her turn. When she stops using the toy or material and walks away or does something else, her turn is over and another child is free to take their turn. This means that if she is actively using something, it is absolutely a boundary crossing if another child grabs the toy from her. But once she stops using it, her boundary claim is over.
Most of the toys and materials are technically ‘owned’ by the adults, and so turns are granted on a first-come-first-served sort of basis. Sometimes, the kids have a toy that explicitly belongs to them. Something they got as a gift or paid for with their own money. As a general rule, the expectation is that they put such things away when they’re not actively using them. If they leave them out in the common play area, they fall under the usual rules, and other kids are free to take a turn. We do make exceptions to this on a case-by-case basis.
There is a special circumstance that arises when a child creates or builds something. For example, if Leo draws a picture and then walks away to do something else, his art does not become ‘fair game’ in the same way that a toy truck would. Maya is not free to pick up a pencil and make her own additions to Leo’s drawing. When possible, we protect a child’s artistic and creative endeavours, even when they’re finished working.
Boundaries in Conversation
Another corollary to our boundary rule is what we refer to as the ‘first rule of conversation’. This rule states that no conversation happens without the consent of everyone involved in the conversation. Nobody ever has to participate in a conversation against their will. With the kids, this rule generally comes up when one child wants to play a certain game and another child does not. At no point is any child (or adult) ever required to play a game or participate in an activity. For us, this rule also applies when we want to talk to a child about behavior issues, expectations, that kind of thing. If Cat has crossed Maya’s boundary, I will usually call her over to talk about what happened. But perhaps Cat refuses to talk. She is not required to talk to me. In that instance, I will take some other action to protect Maya’s boundaries, and wait until Cat is ready to discuss the issue.
We respect the rules of the space that we’re in
This piece of our ‘boundaries’ rule is related to the rules about possessions. Since Dove and I own the house and the stuff in it, we make the rules about our space. So, we have made certain rules about the house. There are rooms that the kids cannot enter without permission. There are rules in place regarding how certain materials and tools can be used, and when. We explain our reasons behind these rules to the kids, and they’re free to try and negotiate, but ultimately the decisions about our space and our materials are up to us. Perhaps I tell Cat that she needs to leave the sharp kitchen knives alone. Or perhaps I tell Maya that she is free to play with the paints, but she must clean up after herself. All of these sorts of rules fall directly under the ‘boundaries’ rule. The house and most of the things in it belong to the adults, so the adults make the decisions about their use. And when we go to someone else’s space, we learn the rules of that space, and we follow them or we leave. In our house, Cat is allowed to jump on the couch. When she goes to her aunt’s house, she is not. Different house, different rules. And Cat can learn the differences. And now that Cat has begun earning money and buying things for herself, we honor her rules about her possessions in the same way we expect her to follow our rules.
Of course, this boundary rule has a glaring problem. Let’s say Cat is hitting Leo with a stick. Clearly a boundary crossing. I tell her to stop, and she says ‘no’. The only way to bring the assault on Leo to an end is for me to step in and physically stop Cat, and remove the stick. But doing so would be an act of crossing Cat’s boundaries, as defined above. So what do I do? I cross Cat’s boundaries. Under those circumstances, it is my aim to intervene as little as possible, but as much as necessary to bring the boundary crossing to an end. If the only way to restore Leo to safety is to take away the stick and bodily remove Cat from the situation, that is what I do.
The difference between protective force and punishment lies in intent. If my goal is to ‘teach Cat a lesson’ or ‘make her pay for what she’s done’, I’m punishing her. If my goal is to protect Leo’s boundaries and help everybody feel safe, I’m using protective force.
Protective force also frequently comes to play in the everyday care of young children. In our house, the general rule is that Cat is allowed to take risks that she has the capacity to understand. When she was a toddler, she would occasionally throw fits about her car seat. We expressed empathy for her feelings, but would use whatever degree of force was necessary to put her in the car seat. Did we cross her boundaries? Yes, when necessary. We did not believe that she was capable of understanding the risks she would run with no car seat, so we did what was necessary to buckle her in. The same concept applied to hygienic tasks like teeth brushing and diaper changing. Baby Cat could not understand the risks of diaper rashes or tooth decay, so sometimes such things happened by force, very much against her will. Any time we crossed her boundaries to protect her, we would do so calmly, with a full explanation of our reasons. And once she was able to understand, she agreed. And now, Cat is usually on our team. She has, on occasion, reminded us that we haven’t flossed her teeth yet, or that her car seat isn’t buckled all the way. She understands the risks.
My boundaries do not extend to what another person does with their body
Sometimes, the kids make the mistake of assuming that their boundaries extend to anything another child does that they don’t like.
Perhaps Cat sees Leo playing with his playdough in the wrong way.
“Mom – Leo is crossing my boundaries by doing that with the playdough!”
Or perhaps Cat has a game idea in mind, and Maya refuses to play.
“Maya, you’re crossing my boundaries if you don’t play my game with me!”
Or perhaps Maya is making a weird noise that Leo doesn’t particularly enjoy.
“Stop making that sound! It crosses my boundaries!”
In these moments, we gently remind the kids of what their boundaries are, and what they are not. If someone else is doing something that is causing their discomfort, but they can bring an end to the discomfort by looking away or walking away, then it’s not really about their boundaries. We will always do whatever we need to do to protect boundaries. But protecting boundaries is never about controlling how other people play, what they do, or what they say.