Boundaries, consent and the value of a heartfelt yes

I was listening to a radio programme this morning and the topic of consent came up. The interviewer and their guest talked at length about how important it is that we teach young people to have strong boundaries. As they chatted, I found myself feeling like while the intention was spot on, they were also missing a point, which is that boundaries are created from the inside out, not from the outside in. When we are brought up in systems that don’t value us creating and asserting our own boundaries, but prize the conforming to someone else’s boundaries, then we shouldn’t be surprised by any resulting confusion or disempowerment.

Boundaries aren’t a set of rules to learn, but a complex system of ever-shifting personal guidelines that we create as we move through life. They are inseparable from our life experiences and beliefs, and change according to our state of mind, our circumstances and the people we are with. Most importantly, boundaries exist to keep us safe, like an early warning system that alerts us that we are moving into an uncomfortable zone, that we are getting out of our depth, that we are at risk of being violated emotionally or physically. They are so tightly integrated into our body’s autonomic nervous system that we often become aware of them as an intuitive physical response before they are clear thoughts in our minds. When this warning system works well and we are confident in our abilities to advocate for ourselves, we move away, we speak up, we avoid, or we shout no. We do whatever is needed to reach safe ground again, so we are no longer at risk of being inadvertently or purposefully hurt or taken advantage of.

Too often, we find it hard to understand or advocate for our own boundaries because they compete directly with social norms and expectations, or with our desire to be liked, accepted or approved of. So we say yes, even though our hearts are shouting no. This is the yes that leads to burnout, resentment or living out of synch with who we really are. This is the yes of disempowered consent—consent because we feel like we’re supposed to, because we feel guilty saying no, because we fear rejection, or because we are not sure if it’s even safe to say no.

Which brings me back to the radio programme and how we can help our children know and assert their own boundaries. The only way to really facilitate this process is by ensuring they have the space to develop and trust their own internal barometer, and to support their speaking up when the warning bells ring. That means staying present to the idea that when we override them because we think we know best, we may well be undermining their safety system. We are giving the message that their system is not to be trusted, or that they should not advocate for themselves. Rather than teaching, perhaps we just need to be trusting.

Unfortunately, children’s boundaries are frequently disregarded or ignored, in favour of making life more pleasing or peaceful for the adults. They’re told to hug people they’d prefer not to hug, to share toys with children they don’t know, to join in when they’re feeling painfully shy. The cost of refusing can be disapproval or shaming, and they can easily learn that pleasing others is more important than taking care of themselves. As toddlers, all of my children were loudly opposed to being talked to or touched by strangers. When my daughter was younger and we lived in Spain, people would frequently want to talk with her when we were out and about, sometimes even extending a hand to stroke her hair. She would pull back and refuse to smile or indulge them in any way, and they would often ask me why she was angry. “Enfadada!” they would exclaim loudly, asking what had happened to make her so cross. It was infuriating. I would explain that she wasn’t angry, she just didn’t like to talk to people she didn’t know, aware that my daughter was watching this interaction, and that I was her advocate. Sometimes I realised I sounded apologetic, which infuriated me further, and is a good example of my own poor boundaries. There’s really nothing to apologise for when our children are doing such a great job of keeping themselves safe. That’s far more valuable than a stranger’s ego.

I’ve spoken with many unschooling parents who lament that they are people-pleasers, and who have had a lifetime of struggling with boundaries. Now in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, they are engaged in the relentless work of learning how to engage with other people in a way that is authentic and healthy. Their children, on the other hand, have been given the freedom to explore and to set their own boundaries, and these parents are consistently astounded at their ability to recognise when a situation is uncomfortable for them and their confidence in advocating for themselves when they perceive that a boundary has been crossed. What these children are doing is no small feat. I remember numerous uncomfortable situations in my life, where I was unable to speak up for myself, to assert my boundaries, even though I knew they were being crossed. And I identify wholeheartedly with that people-pleasing group of parents who marvel at their children’s wisdom.

When people ask how unschooled children will fare in the ‘real world’, this is perhaps the place that my mind always comes back to. There is a notion that people who grow up with less external boundaries will have less ability to set their own boundaries. But, I think it is quite the opposite. In the real world that unschooled children inhabit, they make free choices on a daily basis. They are constantly feeling into their intuition about what is going on and how they feel about it. They develop an easy wisdom around people and environments and will defend that wisdom with everything they have. I’ve watched as my children’s boundaries have shifted over the years, allowing for more movement into the world, opening up to new people and situations as they feel their own resilience grow. I believe that their braveness in approaching new situations grows alongside their self confidence in advocating for themselves. And I’ve watched as my life has been made a little more complicated by children who have stood their ground, who have refused to adapt to someone else’s idea of what they should be, or what they should do. It hasn’t always made for an easy time, but my discomfort along the way has also been a necessary part of the journey.

As always, I learn from them as I go along. And in order to be a half decent role model, I have had to feel into some grey areas, to try to figure out where my boundaries lie and how I can healthily advocate for them. I find it challenging and often feel guilty when I express my need for quiet time, or say no to doing something because I really don’t want to do it. But, I don’t want their role model to be a resentful mother who can’t speak up for herself, who says yes, because she doesn’t know how to say no. They all instinctively help when I go astray. There’s something that often happens here that I used to find a bit tiring, but now I’ve realised its value. It goes like this. Someone asks if I’d like to do something with them, like watch a video, bake, or play something. I’m not really in the mood or I’m doing something else but I feel bad saying no, so I say yes. They spot a slight hesitation or weariness in my tone and ask if I really mean yes. If I insist that I do, but they don’t believe I’m sincere, they will refuse to have my company. At this point, and often feeling a bit exasperated by how complicated things have become, I either have to work really hard to show them that I’m fully on board, or admit that actually I would prefer to postpone the activity til later. It is essentially like some kind of advanced class in boundary setting and consent, and any outcome is considered an improvement on an inauthentic yes. What’s really interesting to me is that the importance they give to their own boundaries naturally leads to them valuing my boundaries. And surely it is in this healthy, empowered space where true consent lies. So, I am not allowed to be a pushover, or to make them feel guilty or bad, and things won’t budge until they are satisfied that everyone is a willing participant. And, it is immensely rewarding to me to see that my yes only counts if it really does come from the heart.

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