The Personalist Project

The pop-culture version of "boundaries" most of us encounter can easily, as I observed before, take on a largely negative form: keep others out to keep yourself safe. This can make the Christian balk--how can this be compatible with the radical love Christ both preached and demonstrated? Can we really "put on the mind of Christ" while protecting our boundaries? Isn't all of this talk of setting limitations on what we can do and accept from others incompatible with the call to self-sacrifice for others? 


As I have addressed before, the first problem with this is that it misunderstands the nature of boundaries. Boundaries are not, in their most basic form as delineated by Drs Cloud and Townsend, about building a fortress for self-protection against the world. Boundaries are ultimately about delineating areas of responsibility and agency. 

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We talk about "setting boundaries" but a lot of the growth a lot of us need to do is recognising innate boundaries that already exist, and seeing what our true choices are. There are things we cannot and ought not try to control--the choices of others, their relationships with God and one another. There are things we are so closely and inextricably responsible for that nobody else can carry them for us--burdens, moral choices, decisions about who we are and what we value.

So far, so good. 

But what about the people we are especially responsible for? Isn't the answer to "am I my brother's keeper" a resounding, "YES"? Aren't we chided not to lead others into sin, warned against causing scandal, and urged to die--figuratively or literally--for love? 

We are to be like Christ. Does Christ have boundaries?

Let's look at one of the trickiest sets of boundaries to navigate: the tangle of responsibility, dependence, and boundaries between parent and child. 

When our children are small, we (parents) have the lion's share of the responsibility for them--largely because they lack the experience, knowledge, cognitive ability, and moral development to be responsible for themselves. This means, I would argue, that I'm not violating any boundaries of responsibility when I decide what my small child should eat, where she should sleep, where she goes to school, or who she spends time with.

However, even with small children, there are some natural boundaries parents can't (or shouldn't) violate and can do harm by attempting to control: I can offer food, but not force-feed my child (absent pressing medical need); I can potty train, but not control my child's bowels (a lesson parents learn quickly if potty training becomes a battle of wills); I can set up play dates, but I can't force my child to enjoy spending time with the children I pick.

Attempting to force my way into any of these areas of bodily and emotional autonomy is likely to leave lasting damage to my child's sense of self and our relationship. I'm not absolved of responsibility to teach and guide my child towards better choices, but I need to respect the boundaries of her self and focus on motivating and inspiring her in the direction of growth rather than enforcing my will on her.

And as my daughter and sons grow, I have to cede more responsibilities over to them. The boundaries keep shifting as our children transition towards adulthood and independence.

As an adult parent of an adult child, you can make a meal as a treat, but you are no longer responsible for all of your child's meals. You can give him a hand-me-down bed or offer to pay first and last month's rent on an apartment, but you aren't obligated to provide shelter, and your adult child isn't obligated to accept your offer. You can give advice and financial support for education, but you can't write his acceptance letters. 

Sometimes parents try to continue to exert control over their adult children using the promise or withholding of financial support. This is bad enough, but far worse is to attempt to exert control through the promise or withholding of emotional support.

Some people try to excuse this kind of "relationship hostage-taking" as a kind of boundary-setting. That's an abuse of the term. Boundaries are never about control of others.

[To Be Continued in Part Two]

Image via Pixabay

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Comments (3)

Devra Torres

#1, Mar 3, 2018 12:36pm

This is fascinating, and so important--not just in the area of parent-child relations, but in all kinds of other contexts. I see it as a step in the right direction that many Christians are losing, or stepping down, their suspicion of psychology and self-help techniques. But without analyses like this one, that increased openness ends up amounting to a watering down of their faith for the sake of a technique or mindset that is actually incompatible with their faith. That's not the only alternative to seeing incompatibility where it doesn't exist.

One quibble: I certainly agree that parents shouldn't try to manipulate their children into doing their bidding by withholding emotional support. The question of financial support can be more tricky. If money is used as a tool to facilitate a parent's overstepping of boundaries, to pressure and manipulate a child into making this choice or that, that's one thing. If a parent is refusing to subsidize financially a choice he or she believes is harmful or wrong, that's another--even though it's often interpreted by the child, or by your typical advice columnist, as the same thing.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Mar 3, 2018 9:34pm

It's almost impossible to talk about how money is used to exert control without examples, since, as you suggest, we can imagine very different things when we hear the words "financial support." 

For example, what is "refusing to subsidise"? Since money is fungible, it's possible to make the argument that any kind of financial support--even non-financial material support, like food or shelter--can be used to "subsidise" the bad choices of another. My question there is how far ought we to assume responsibility for another's choices?

On the other hand, as I noted earlier in the post, while a parent might choose to support an adult child in any number of practical ways, they are no longer responsible for material support. There's no obligation for a parent to offer shelter or pay bills for an adult child, because those responsibilities belong to the child now. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Mar 3, 2018 9:35pm

I do give a more detailed example of the difference, in my understanding, between boundary setting and control in a parent-adult child relationship in part two. :-)

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