I want you to have boundaries.

Dear Liam,

A few months ago, we were playing at the pool, and you were on the edge of the pool while I was in the water, waiting for you to jump to me. I outstretched my arms, awaiting your magnificent leap, but instead, something else caught your attention. On the pool deck were large  decorative stones, and they intrigued you. You picked one up, and before I could even ask you to put it down, you launched it into the pool, the rock whizzing past my head in the process. Judging from your Cheshire grin, you enjoyed this quite a lot.

I quickly explained how rocks are not toys, how they don't belong in the pool, and how throwing them could hurt people. To emphasize the seriousness of my point, I also added a consequence: "If you choose to pick up another rock, we will have to leave the pool immediately." A few minutes later, you picked up another stone. Before you had a chance to throw it, I immediately jumped out of the pool, took the rock from your hand, and started packing up our things. You didn't want to leave the pool, and expressed your frustration with crying and screaming.

After drying you off, I picked you up, held you in my arms, and told you I love you. You didn't stop crying, you didn't stop screaming, you didn't stop saying how you wanted to stay at the pool, and I didn't stop telling you I love you. Rachel and I even told you how we didn't want to leave the pool, either, but we had to because you decided to pick up the rock. I so badly wanted to stay and swim longer with you, and quell your tears by staying at the pool, but I knew we had to leave if I ever wanted you to establish healthy boundaries.

Boundaries, like fences in yards, delineate what is your responsibility and what is mine. Likewise, when you violate a boundary and trespass on someone else's property, there are consequences to endure. Often times, those consequences are painful. Since I hate seeing you in pain, my first instinct is to step in and prevent you from enduring any difficult consequences. While this may sound ideal for you in the short run, I know it will cause you even more pain over time. That's because experiencing consequences is required for forming boundaries, and boundaries are required for becoming an individual.

Without boundaries, we are susceptible to being controlled and manipulated by others. We can exhaust ourselves trying to please other people to the point we have no bandwidth to fully utilize our God-given talents and serve according to our calling. Instead of resting assured in how we are immensely loved by the Divine, we resort to finding our worth in how well we please other people. Our happiness is held hostage by the whims of the people we're trying to please. Allowing other people to have such control over our well-being is a miserable existence. I speak from experience.

For most of my life, I lived with an utter lack of boundaries. My parents told me what subjects I would study, in which activities I would participate, where I would go to college, where I would live, when I would get married, and what I would believe. Any time I deviated from their course even the slightest amount, I was met with contempt. Since I was a child in need of attachment to his parents, I resorted to pleasing them at all costs in order to avoid the debilitating detachment that came when I made my own decisions. I saw my worth only in how happy they were with me at any given moment. This made for some excellent grades in school, but an emotionally bankrupt soul.

This narrative continued into adulthood. In addition to my parents, I also had bosses and customers to please. I found my worth in how quickly I could get a promotion and the value I added to the company. If a manager so much as hinted at an area where I needed to improve, I would be emotionally devastated, thinking if they weren't pleased with me, then I wasn't worth very much. I was incapable of saying no to any task, crippled by the fear of their displeasure of my "no." This is the excruciating madness of a life without boundaries.

You'd think after experiencing so much pain due to a lack of boundaries, I would treat others the exact opposite way and respect their boundaries. Yet instead I repeated the harmful behavior I endured as a child. I refused to accept the "no" of my friends, and became an expert guilt-tripper. When someone told me she wouldn't be able to make it to the Bible study I was leading, I'd use a lot of weird religious language to make her feel like God would be mad at them for not attending. If a friend tried to tell me he didn't want to attend an event with me, I'd employ any number of passive-aggressive tactics in order to tug on his heart strings. All of these are examples of behaviors of an unsafe person who's not respecting the boundaries of others. I was continuing the cycle of abuse.

Yet when I came to terms with my brokenness, I was able to understand how my family's lack of boundaries had harmed me. It also gave me the humility to see how I had repeated the damaging behavior, and the strength to confess to and make amends with the people I had harmed. I've admitted my tendencies to neither establish boundaries of my own nor respect those of others, and I'm actively working to improve my skills with boundaries.

One resource that's been instrumental to my development in this area is the work of Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. They're the preeminent experts in this field, and their books Boundaries and Safe People have been especially monumental in changing the way I treat others and myself. In addition to teaching me how to set appropriate boundaries in my life, they've also shown me the enormous benefits of boundaries. When it comes to parenting, my favorite benefit is maintaining empathy while also following through with consequences.

When you picked up that second rock by the pool, I didn't yell at you, I didn't shame you, and I didn't get mad at you for making me leave the pool. Instead, I held you warmly, repeatedly told you I love you, and said: "I know it's not fun to have to leave the pool when you don't want to." I didn't give in to your tantrum, but I didn't exacerbate it with anger, either. I wanted to set a precedent with this kind of interaction between us. Both now and in the future, there will be times when you make mistakes, and sometimes you'll make flat-out bad decisions. At those times, there will be consequences you have to endure because of your choices. Sometimes, those consequences will be really, really hard. Yet even during those times, I'm going to be there with you, telling you how much I love you no matter what. I may not be able to take the consequences away, but I'll at least be there with you. I'll even try to empathize by sharing examples of my own about bad decisions I've made and how I had to deal with the consequences.

For the rest of the summer, every time we put on our swimsuits and started heading to the pool, you told me (on your own, without any prompting from me whatsoever): "I'm not going to pick up the rocks, okay?" You had endured a consequence, and on your own made a decision to not have to suffer that consequence again. The choice was yours 100% - no shaming or guilt-tripping from me. It made me smile to see you, even as a small child, begin to understand your own individuality and comprehend how you were in control of your decisions (albeit small ones as a 3 year old!). I know this will pay dividends in the future, and I look forward to seeing all the big, beautiful, unique decisions you make on your own.

I love you, God loves you, and you've got what it takes.

Love,
Dad       

     

Comments

  1. This is so tender!! I love that you write this blog! Thanks for sharing!!

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