Teaching Kids About Boundaries

November 23rd, 2011

20th century child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim said,

The question for a child is not “Do I want to be good?” but “Who do I want to be like?”

In other words, children learn by example- our example. What an awesome responsibility. Safety, self respect, inner tuition (Italian for intuition), healthy boundaries, appropriate trust, and so much more BEGINS AT HOME, begins with you and me. Our kids need a variety of healthy adults in their lives. Again, that’s you and me, parents or not, taking responsibility for the safety of the child. That means being discerning about which adults you invite into your life, and being the type of adult that can be safely invited into kids’ lives. This is part 3 in a series on protecting kids. Part 1 looked at developing wise trust in kids.  Part 2 looked at the need to protect children more than institutions.

By speaking up and standing up for your kids, you teach them how to do the same for themselves. We learnt about this in our home when a teacher started to take too much interest in one of our kids. At first we were grateful and our son seemed to appreciate the attention. But then an alarm went off, an inner protective instinct. He had gone too far in his concern when he wanted to tutor our son one on one in a subject that he was doing fine in. We spoke to the school and no one could give us any good reason why he needed this tutoring. He was meeting our son one on one and behind closed doors. We became convinced that he was grooming our son for abuse.

We set up a meeting with this man, the class teacher and principle of the school. In the meeting, a force that felt like it came from beyond me took over. I looked the man straight in his eyes and told him that I didn’t trust him, that I never wanted him alone with our son and that there was no reason for him to tutor our son. The words came out of my mouth with an intensity that surprised even me.

To this day, our son assures us that nothing happened with this man, and yet I have never doubted that we did the right thing. It was an uncomfortable meeting, but the safety of children is more important than the sensitivity of adults. There is always the risk of conflict, the possibility that you’re wrong, the likelihood of personal offense and the messy business of trying to explain the whole situation to your kids. But none of these risks trumps the protection of children.

We had to trust our instincts, and over the years we’ve had many great opportunities to talk to our kids about their instincts, about trusting intuition and about healthy boundaries.

What About Doubt?

Being a whistleblower requires incredible courage and clarity of purpose. Get to know the sound of your instinct. When it comes to this issue, my inner whistleblower sounds a lot like Meryl Streep in the movie Doubt. She was the head nun who suspected the parish priest of inappropriate behavior with a young boy. They had this conversation- (read on for more about Doubt and signs of predatory behavior)

Father Flynn– You haven’t the slightest proof of anything.

Sister Aloysius– But I have my certainty. And armed with that, I’ll go to your last parish and the one before that. If necessary, I’ll find a parent. Trust me, Father Flynn, I will.

Father Flynn– You have no right to act on your own! You have taken vows, obedience being one! You answer to us! You have no right to step outside the church!

Sister Aloysius– I will step outside the church if that’s what needs to be done, though the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I’m damned to hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me.

The movie Doubt leaves the question open as to whether the priest was guilty or not. What do you do if you’re really not sure, but have even moderate suspicion about someone in your child’s life? You watch closely and set clear boundaries.

Specifically, watch for adults with some of these patterns. They:

–          Ignore physical or emotional boundaries.

–          Put kids down to stop them from expressing themselves.

–          Insist on being physical with kids even when the kids don’t want it.

–          Frequently walk in on kids in bathrooms.

–          Share too much personal information with kids.

–          Talk about secrets with children.

–          Insist on being alone with children.

–          Seem too good to be true, offering free babysitting or gifts for no reason.

–          Tell sexual jokes/ stories around kids.

–          Talk too much about the sexual development of children or dating habits.

These are some of the behaviors you might see from an abuser. The important thing is to act before you have proof, when you have “reasonable cause” based on unusual behavior. In the end, whistleblowers need to be ahead of tragedy, trusting instinct while also verifying assumptions. Adults need to build the same clarity and courage in kids that they themselves have learned, keeping people and systems accountable and being visible advocates for the most vulnerable.

Albert Einstein said,

The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.

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  1. […] like the church and college football cultures of this disgusting abuse of power? How do we learn to see the signs of abuse and what is the best way to act on what we see? How do we forgive ourselves when we see the signs […]

  2. […] the second part in a series on protecting children in the light of the Penn State abuse scandal. Part 3 looks at how to teach kids about healthy […]

  3. This article was spot-on. As a mother of 2 teen girls I have been on the alert since they were small, and this was just as important to read as a reinforcement to what I already know now as it would have been when they were small. Thank you.

  4. Tryn Rose says:

    Spot on, indeed. Thank you for writing this extremely clear post. It rings true for me and my life experiences, and I look forward to reading your other articles in this series. For all the barriers and blocks technology can sometimes be, technology also provides ways to bring abuse issues to light and share out this perspective that’s been needed for decades, centuries. Thanks again.

  5. This information is extremely important because it is the case that our children are in danger and always have been. I find it so sad that human beings have to protect themselves from their own species. Unless in the very near future, their is some type of quantum evolution of consciousness to wipe out the root cause of this problem which is only one of its effects, and the fact that the effects are getting worse as we become more ‘intelligent’, I fear that we may not have any children to take care of. I am convinced that we are all suffering from the same psychological virus which projects itself in many different ways. Humanity has the problem not the individual. We are not separate. Pointing the finger out, is just another effect. But you are right: in the midst of this problem we still have to protect our children however we can.

  6. Stephanie says:

    This is so very important for parents .. If parents will allays allow themselves the right to trust that,”gut feeling, insight, uncomfortable thought(s), or what one may call insight – 6th sense” .. They will come away with knowing that they are their own child’s best advocate and will always know what’s best for their own child. Don’t ever question that feeling allow yourself to trust it.. It’s there for a reason. I’m writing as a parent of two boys and as an educator for 24 years. ~~

  7. Thank goodness there is one less child in the world who has reason to fear, because his parents loved and protected him, no matter the cost.  I cannot say how touch I am to hear your story.  Standing ovation from this audience member!
    Your son will be able to trust his own instincts because he has a healthy sense of himself, his love and his boundaries, so he will be able to show his own children the same, thus stopping the terribly cycle that could have started.
    Good Job, Dad!

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