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  • Writer's pictureDonna Miles

What We Teach Kids About Respecting (or not) Boundaries

Years ago at a community pool, I watched four children who were playing in close proximity to where I was sitting. There were two sets of brothers and sisters. Brothers from each of the two sets played together as the sisters played together. I estimated the older sister of one pair was at most 10 and her brother 7. The older brother of the other pair was at most 9 and his little sister -- maybe 5.

Over the music blaring in my ears, I heard the older of the two girls say to the oldest boy, “Stop doing that! Leave us alone! We are playing by ourselves. You go play by yourselves!” The oldest boy was using a water tube to spray the two girls with water.

I thought the older girl had done a good job using a strong voice to convey her boundaries to the boy. He did not respond to her demands.

The girl determinedly left the pool to talk with her mother who was sitting at a table with the parents of the other brother and sister duo. I assumed she was asking her mother to intervene on her behalf. I overheard a woman’s voice saying, “I dare you to call your father right now and tell him xxxxx”. (I couldn’t hear what she said after the dare).

The girl returned the the pool and resumed playing with the other girl. Within minutes the older boy was again spraying the girls and ignoring their protests. Parent intervention was non-existent.

As I watch this play out, I wondered, at what point do we teach children to respect the boundaries of others? At what point do we say to children who are “teasing” or even bullying other kids -- “Hey - you know what? When you grow up, if you continue to do something to someone who tells you to stop you will get arrested.” It’s not okay for adults to ignore other's boundaries and it’s not okay because it’s just, “just kids being kids” when children do it to each other.

Parents, don’t let your kids continue physical or verbal behavior against another -- even another sibling -- if that other has expressed with their words that they don’t want that behavior done to them. It’s not how we “work things out” as adults.

It’s not okay to say “If you don’t want to be splashed don’t play in the pool.” You better believe that little boy didn’t splash me when I got in. Why? Because he knew better. And he should have known better than to continue splashing the little girl as soon as she told him to stop.

Boundaries are not exclusive to only those perceived to be in positions of higher authority - it is our basic human right to establish boundaries for how others treat us throughout our lives.

I was so tempted to tell the boy to stop. To say -- “hey - she clearly told you to stop. So stop now.” I wondered if I should ask the parents if they minded or if I should just say something to him. Ultimately I said nothing and they all left. I sat with my thoughts about boundaries and ownership and control of self. Why do adults watch children disrespect and disregard the boundaries of other children without pointing out they are being inappropriate and that their behavior is unacceptable?

What is it exactly parents or teachers believe is being learned by “letting kids work it out on their own” when they see one kid bothering or bullying another and don't step in to facilitate resolution?

To my perspective -- what that little girl learned at the pool that day is -- her voice is insignificant -- that she can say, “NO, STOP!” and if the "aggressor" doesn’t want to stop -- they don’t have to.

And possibly worse is what that little boy might have learned that day -- that when a girl says “Stop! Leave me alone!” -- he doesn’t have to listen to her.....

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