Teaching kids about boundaries

Published on August 24, 2021

Questions parents often ask (or maybe just wonder about): 

How do I protect my child from all the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” in this world?
How do I help my child stand up for themself and others, while loving like Jesus? 

Let’s start with the way Jesus modeled this. Though Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, dying to himself and offering his life over and over again, he also modeled boundaries. He pulled away to a quiet place when he needed rest. He said “no” to his disciples. He set even larger boundaries with the religious pious ones who were harming people in the “name of God.” 

Jesus had boundaries. 

Practicing boundaries

Boundaries, according to the experts Townsend and Cloud, are the lines that determine where I am responsible and where you are responsible (Boundaries, 1992). Boundaries are like a fence defining someone’s property, clarifying where one’s lawn starts and stops. 

Consider the idea that you might think it is loving to go into someone else’s yard and mow their lawn without permission. You were trying to be loving. However, for them, it felt invasive and inconsiderate. You never asked and they never had a chance to respond. 

Boundaries are not about what is right or wrong—it’s about honoring the mind, heart, body, and soul of a person. They are about preferences that each of us has based on our wirings, stories, cultures, gender, and families of origin. 

Jeff and I used to play the tickle game with our girls growing up. Studies show that when a dad wrestles with his daughters, he teaches her that she is strong and capable. Though the game was so fun for the girls, the deeper purpose of the game was to practice boundaries.

When the girls said, “That’s enough” or “Daddy, stop” in between their giggles, Jeff would immediately stop and say, “I respect your no.” They would take a deep breath and then try to tickle him back and say, “I am ready for more.” 

Back and forth they would go as Jeff listened to their words and body language, teaching them that what they think, need, and feel should be respected and honored as God’s valued daughter. 

He stands and knocks

Revelation 3:20 says, “Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends” (NLT). 

This passage is speaking to the churches, not to unbelievers. He is speaking to those who have already said yes to following him, yet even God waits for permission to let him in—fully into their lives to the level of intimacy of eating together. 

This sacred and very important passage often is associated with a famous painting of Jesus standing and knocking at a door. If you look closely at this painting, there is no door handle. Jesus gives 100% permission to his followers to let him in. The implications of this are profound, but for the sake of our point, there are two key ones: 

  1. The God of the universe waits for us to say yes to his invitation. He values our voice.  
  2. The God of the universe wants to come into every part of our life, and it requires us to let him in. He values our will. 

His kingdom purposes

Love asks permission. Love has boundaries. 

So how do we practice this in real time? Healthy relationships have boundaries.

Understanding how to do healthy relationships is essential to the invitation God is giving us for his kingdom purposes. However, unless someone has modeled this for us, we are often uncertain what is truly biblical and what is just psycho-babble. (Terra is a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor. We have permission to say that!) 

Paired with clinical research, trauma-informed studies, and biblical truth, we have a simple illustration even the youngest of the family can understand called red-light, yellow-light, green-light relationships. It is modeled after a traffic light (Mattson, 2020). 

Check out this video from Monica Swanson about equipping our sons with the confidence and strength they need to have freedom within healthy boundaries.

An illustration of boundaries

This has helped us and our girls discern boundaries in a variety of settings. 

Green Light Relationships: are the most trusted relationships. These are the kinds of people who ask permission in our lives. 

For example, these friends help us to discern. During COVID, they asked, “Is it okay to give you a hug?” And when you said, “I’m not doing that yet,” they simply smiled and said, “I can appreciate that. Here’s an air hug from afar.” 

You get the point? They respected the boundary—regardless if they agreed, they respected it. These friends use their words and remain curious about you. They are human, making mistakes and sometimes even hurting your feelings, but when they do, they are quick to own their part and make it right. Their actions match their words. 

The Bible calls these folks wise. When confronted, they listen and try to adjust their behaviors. They are teachable, and their heart is to love you as they love themselves. 

Yellow Light Relationships: are the people who sometimes ask permission and sometimes barge through the door. They act and then consider the consequences. 

Though yellow-light people may say they are sorry when confronted with an offense, their actions continue to not match their talk. 

The Bible calls these people fools. They mean well, but they have not matured enough to see how they impact others. They might ask for forgiveness again and again, but they quickly forget and move forward with little awareness around them. 

Red Light Relationships: are those who are intentionally using their relationships to get what they want, regardless of the boundaries of another. These people are not safe, as they rarely ask permission and will manipulate and gas-light to make those in their wake feel guilt, shame, and often powerless. 

Healthy people, those who know their value and worth, do not engage red-light people as close friends. Red-light people are what the Bible calls “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” 

Honoring one another

Helping our children to assess each of their relationships, from grandparents to friends at school, will continue to grow their muscles of discernment. Identifying where people might lie will help us (and our children) move forward with clarity and confidence. 

Loving others as we love ourselves, as God loves us, means we honor one another’s boundaries, own our part in harming each other, and make efforts to repair. 

When that does not happen, we can make choices to be kind, but it’s okay to step back in offering trust. Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is holy; do not throw your pearls before swine. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6). 

I would rather not talk about such things. I am a peacemaker by nature, yet after two decades of walking with people and trauma-recovery work, simply honoring one another’s personhood and boundaries is truly the most Christ-like we can be. 

And when we ask for what we need or want, when we put words to our value and what we are comfortable with (or not), we are treating others with dignity and giving them a chance to show you where they are on the spectrum.

Intentionally teaching children

Let’s teach our children these life lessons as we walk and talk about the playground, the dinner table, sharing toys, borrowing clothes, and playing basketball after school. 

Let’s teach our children to use our voices and honor the voices of others. 

Imagine a world where our children knew they had permission to own their feelings, bodies, thoughts, and actions, and they saw the beauty of protecting that for themselves and others with full freedom from Jesus? 

Children who can use their voice will stand up for others who cannot do that for themselves. Children who can use their voice will step back and listen to their Spirit-led discernment. Children who use their voice will say, “no,” when pursued by a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing. Children who use their voice will be confident to steward their trust in a world trying to steal, kill, and destroy it.


Looking for other resources on boundaries?

Routines, rituals, and sleep: How to create safety at home

Messengers of mercy: Teaching hard lessons to our kids

3 ways we parents wrongly teach kids to earn God’s approval

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Jeff and Terra Mattson

Jeff Mattson (MA ORL) and Terra Mattson (MA LPC, LMFT) are Christian Parenting spokespeople and the co-hosts of the Living Wholehearted Podcast in the Christian Parenting Podcast Network.

 

After two decades studying and working in leadership and trauma-informed therapy, Jeff and Terra are bridging the gap between Biblical, clinical, and relational wisdom to help leaders live with integrity in the home, work, and community.

 

They are the co-founders of Living Wholehearted, a professional counseling and organizational development firm. Terra is the author of Courageous: Being Daughters Rooted in Grace and together they co-authored Shrinking the Integrity Gap: Between what Leaders Preach and Live. Jeff and Terra have skin in the game as they raise their two daughters just outside Portland, OR on five acres of old growth woods. There is never a dull moment in the Mattson home!

Read more about Jeff and Terra

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