What Exactly Are Boundaries?


(Featured January 26, 2004)

Paul J. Ashton
Consultant on Adult Education


There is a lot of discussion these days about boundaries—in the workplace, at school, in relationships, and even in the real estate market. Webster’s defines boundaries as “something indicating a border or limit.” What exactly is that “something?” In the case of personal boundaries, that “something” is each person. Every person has the right to his or her own space. They have a right to the privacy of their space and the right to not have their space invaded by anyone else.

My first years of teaching were in a grammar school. I taught 7th and 8th grade and spent a good deal of time not so much teaching subjects as reinforcing values. I tried as well as I could to teach respect for each person. Much of the lack of respect that I witnessed centered on a lack of boundaries. This lack of respect ranged from kids pushing and shoving each other to calling each other names and telling inappropriate jokes.

One day, while observing the kindergarten teacher with her students, I heard her say “Everyone take your space!” Immediately all of the children put their arms out as if they were hugging the air. Each child created a little “space” for him or herself. And, students had to move away from each other in order to create that “space.”

How wonderful it would be if we could yell this directive aloud in a subway! There is often a lack of space, but we each must be assertive to make our own space and to be free to use our space for what we need and want to do.

Keeping appropriate boundaries requires respect. Respect is critical to any successful relationship. Below are a several examples of how we can respect each other’s space. Although this is a list of “Don’ts,” it is intended as a positive approach for respecting each other’s boundaries in the context of human relationships.

  • Do not shove, push, or inappropriately touch anyone for any reason—even if it is in humor.
  • Do not ask questions that are too personal. If a person doesn’t answer a question quickly, do not push them for an answer. Tell them “Never mind. I am sorry to be so personal.”
  • Be respectful of an individual’s “space.” Do not sit or stand so close to someone else that there is no breathing room between you and him or her.
  • Be respectful of a person’s body. See people as individuals no matter how different they are from you. Never ask a person about why their body looks different from yours.
  • Accept “No” as an answer. Do not push with further questions or statements of guilt to manipulate another person to change his or her answer to “Yes.”
  • Be mindful of your language. Do not curse, swear, or tell jokes that might be inappropriate to anyone present. Be careful of what you say. Words can cut deeply.
  • Respect silence. Each person has a right to his or her own private thoughts and feelings. Do not force others to speak in front of others or tell you what they are thinking or feeling.
  • Do not assume that your boundaries are the same as someone else’s. Each person has his or her own defined “space.” You can teach others to respect your boundaries by politely and clearly describing your boundaries. For example, if someone is telling a joke about national origin, you can say “I don’t want to embarrass you but, I make it a rule to neither tell nor listen to those kind of jokes, because one time I offended someone when I thought a particular joke was innocent humor.”
  • Be respectful of other people’s time. Do not be late, or too early. Don’t make others late because you are not adequately prepared.
  • Do not make others feel bad when they ask you a question or make a statement that is not accurate. Be courteous and careful when correcting others.
  • Be thoughtful and respectful about other people’s religious beliefs—no matter how different they are from your own.

In talking about boundaries with our children, we need to remind them about the possibility that others do not respect boundaries as much as we do. Teens must be taught to confront other teens or adults who cross their boundaries. By instilling values in our children, and in helping them to recognize and understand boundaries (including forming and protecting their own boundaries), we are teaching our children to recognize when others are violating someone’s boundaries.

Remember to teach your children that “no” means “no.” This important rule cannot be stressed enough. It is foundational in empowering our children of all ages to begin to confront those who might take advantage of them.

Teens, especially, are fearful of not being liked or cared about by others. Teens need to make sure that they have the right to call an adult to task when that adult is violating one of the teen’s boundaries. Teens and adults often feel that in saying “no,” they might hurt the other person’s feelings, might be viewed as selfish, or might risk the anger of the other person. Make sure teens understand that saying “no” to boundary violations is a way to demonstrate respect for themselves.

Bottom Line:

Boundary setting is not always easy, but an appropriate discussion with your teenager prepares him or her to deal more effectively with some of life’s difficulties—difficulties that might otherwise result in very serious consequences.

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