Boundary issues replay themselves throughout one’s life. Adolescents, eager to define themselves, often do it in opposition to their parents. In order not to be a carbon copy of one’s father and mother, one tries out ideas and behaviors that the parent wouldn’t perform or approve of. Children who have had experience with appropriate boundaries throughout their lives have less to struggle with. They know where they begin and end. They know that their property is theirs, their thoughts are their own, and that they are respected by their parents.
One particular aspect of establishing healthy boundaries in early life is the issue of choice. Children should be educated in making choices from their earliest days. A two year old can be asked to select from one of two acceptable alternatives: “Would you like a cookie or a pretzel?” A child should not be given a “choice” if the parent has a strong preference and one of the choices is not completely acceptable to the parents. If the child is given the opportunity to choose, he should feel that his choices are respected. If mother would prefer he eat a pretzel, then he should not be given the choice. I remember once seeing a mother in a store with her four year old child. They were looking at two stuffed toy bears. The mother asked, “Which one would you like?” After a short time, the child pointed to one of the bears. The mother said, pointing to the other one, “Oh, but this one is so much nicer.” Incidents such as that one can cause a child to either be indecisive or worse, to not choose what he likes or wants, but to constantly be trying to figure out what the “right” answer is.
Now the child comes to adolescence. If from age four he has been trying to figure out the right answer that will please his mother and not what will please him, he is likely to say to himself, “I really don’t care what my mother wants; I can choose what pleases me!” And then, he will do exactly the opposite of what his mother would want and a full-scale rebellion sets in. Or, he will be a person who is so estranged from his own tastes and preferences that, he will not know what pleases him.
Since neither scenario is desirable, parents should strive to provide their children the opportunity to make choices. Such choices may include the choice of a toy that costs a specific amount of money that the parent is willing to spend. If there are specific objections to types of toys (lots of little pieces, lots of noise), then the parents need to tell the child before he is given the choice. Another choice children can be given is the order of their activities, “Do you want to draw first or shall we go to the park first?” The parents should be happy with either answer or they should not ask the question.
Similarly children should be given the opportunity to suggest family activities. One year, my twelve or thirteen year old daughter was anticipating a boring school vacation. When she spoke with me about it, I asked her what she would like to do. She said that she would like to do some local trips. We were living in a small southern town. She called up local businesses and factories and arranged tours for our family and during that vacation, we went to the Tom’s candy factory (where be got free samples), the Sunshine cookie factory (ditto), the Coca Cola bottling plant (free coasters), and a local TV station where the technician showed the children all sorts of special effects and even let them “fly” against a blue background. She had both the energy and the creativity to come up with great activities and all of us benefited.
Children who have a sense of efficacy are happier people. They need to know that their opinions, ideas, and intelligence are valued. But they also need to know that there are limits. Not everything is in their hands. Parents still have the experience and maturity that they lack and it is the parents’ task to be sure that their children are safe both physically and emotionally. Just as we don’t allow our children to decide whether or not they should have inoculations, we should not allow them to make other choices for which they lack the information and foresight. Children feel their safest when they know what the limits are.