Family Boundaries: Healthy Families Are Happier!

Here We Go!

Every year we say we’re going to do things differently this year. And every year the same old chaos sets in.  Kids are back to school, everyone’s back to work, and the holidays are careening at us like an out of control bus, or maybe it’s summer staring you down. Maybe you are already drowning in Temple potlucks, football practices, forgotten homework emergencies, and work deadlines. Or maybe those things are just starting to loom large on the horizon. Either way, let’s talk about a spiritual practice that doesn’t get nearly enough press: setting boundaries (all the basics are covered in the linked article!). But today, we’re specifically talking about family boundaries.

The Joy of No

We’ve all been there. The actors might have been a little different, and the exact setting, but we’ve all stood in front of someone who has just cheerily asked us to do something that’s totally a good thing, but we just wanted to scream or cry at one more thing to do! Maybe you pasted on your best fake smile and said “I’d love to bake five dozen cookies this weekend!” And then you and your family spent a miserable weekend with too much to do, frazzled and angry and more exhausted on Monday than you’d been on Friday.

Sound familiar? Let’s talk about the joy of two little letters. N. O. Together they form the hardest word to speak in the English language (for me anyway). I am absolutely rubbish at saying “no.” Even when I need to. But I’m getting better at it, and as a family we are getting much better at it. Every time we say “no” to something in order to say “yes” to family, I feel a little better, and life gets a little more joyful.

Women on a bench laughting

Build the Fence

There’s an old phrase that says “good fences make good neighbors.” And it’s true, though I like my fences to have gates as well, gates make good neighbors into friends. But the whole thing relies on that good fence. Most of us have lousy fences in our personal lives, and especially in our family lives. Women especially are raised to be people pleasers, we feel guilty if we don’t say “yes” to everything. And being incredibly busy has become some sort of weird cultural value.

No more. We’re building those damn fences ladies and gentleman. And we’re starting today! In your personal life your fence is your boundaries. Your boundaries are the things you will and will not allow in your life and the life of your family. They measure the edges of what is acceptable and what is not. The importance of a good boundary fence is that there’s absolutely no ambiguity.

The Goat Problem

If you don’t have a fence between you and your neighbor and your neighbor brings home some baby goats it probably starts out OK. You and the kids are charmed by how cute they are! The kids run around shrieking, the goats bounce adorably and everyone laughs. Even if you do notice how those goats are eyeing your flower beds. A few months later your flowers are trampled or eaten, there’s goat poop on your deck, and the kids have been head butted and are wailing. The goats are totally not cute anymore.

And that’s why we set boundaries. Because the things that make our lives miserable, and hectic, and exhausting don’t usually start out that way. They start as a little thing here and there and slowly, before we realize it, we’ve been overrun.

Good Boundaries

Good boundaries, like good fences are set long before there’s a problem. Because they are set, problems are avoided before they happen. If you’d had a good sturdy fence when your neighbor bought those cute baby goats, the kids would have gone and visited now and then, and you’d have watched the mayhem over the fence, and maybe enjoyed some great cheese from your neighbor’s new business. You’d still be friends with that neighbor, and your own peace wouldn’t have been shattered. Setting boundaries in your life helps head off trouble before it starts.

Step One: Marking the Perimeter

The first and most important part of building a fence is knowing where the lines are. You’ve got to know where to set boundaries. There are a couple general categories of boundaries to think about, some will be more important to you than others. Concentrate on those you and your family find more important. If you aren’t familiar with boundaries here’s an article I wrote a few months ago on the basis. It will help you understand how to set boundaries as an individual. The rest of this article will concentrate on how to do that as a family!

mother and son touching noses

Step Two: Driving in the Posts

So how do you set down those first posts to hold your family’s fence? For most family’s the boundaries that most need shoring up are around time. Modern life puts enormous strain on families. Gone are the days where every family had two adults, one who worked outside the home and one who worked in the home. Gone are the idilic days of no homework until high school and long afternoons spent playing with friends in the neighborhood. Today, all the adults are working to make ends meet. Even parents who stay home with the children have side hustles. And the kids need their own staff they are so busy with homework, sports, and other activities.

What do you lament not having enough of as a family? It might be time together that isn’t spent in a car on the way somewhere. It might be time spent together without screens in front of everyone’s faces. Or it might be about money, or the number of kids you’ve never met before who seem to troop through your house like an invading army. It might be that you and your husband just need one night alone together during the week!

Step Three: Getting Honest

Step one is to think about this for yourself. Write down the places you feel frustrated or where your family life feels out of control. If you’ve done a values assessment that’s a great place to start finding the ways your family life doesn’t fit with what you actually value.

Step two is equally important but often overlooked: get feedback from everyone in your household. Ask your spouse or partner, your kids, your elderly parents who live with you. You might be surprised by what you hear. All too often we’re all on a trip to Abilene together. So be honest with each other and make a safe space for everyone to really express what they want as a family. Again, note down where there is discomfort and desire for change.

Step Four: Putting up the Fence

Step three is time to decide exactly what your boundaries are going to look like. The thing to remember here is that boundaries are not selfish. The cells of our bodies have boundaries to keep them healthy and functioning. It keeps all the bits that need each other together, and keeps baddies like bacteria out. Their boundaries are also designed to allow the things they need to be healthy in. For your family to be healthy you also need boundaries. You may find others outside your immediate family pushing back at your effort to create healthy boundaries. Keep going anyway!

For the areas you’ve identified in steps one and two ask your self and your family the questions below. From them you’ll begin to see the shape of the boundaries that you need to set in that part of your life.

shadows of people on a concrete wall

Three Questions

For my explanations of these questions I will assume that the area you want to work on protecting is your time, that’s just an example, and your priorities might be different.

  1. What exactly is it that we want to protect? You might decide that you want to prioritize time spent with your husband, who you don’t see enough due to both your jobs. Or you might want to protect your family’s dinner time together. It might be you want to protect your children’s ability to have unstructured play time. But make it concrete and specific. You can add more things later, chose one for now.
  2. What do I need or want to be able to move freely through this boundary? You might want your children, husband, and best friend to be able to move freely through this boundary, but not your coworkers or boss who tends to call you at 10pm over non-emergencies, hence disrupting your couple time! You might want your kids best friends to be able to come over for dinner, but not the whole football team.
  3. What do we need to change to build this fence? This is where it gets sticky! What concrete things you are doing now need to change for this to happen? Maybe there needs to be a new rule about how many after school activities your family participates in. Maybe you need to ban screens from the dinner table. Be as specific and concrete as you can.

That last question is of course the kicker. Because it’s where the rubber meets the road so to speak. Setting boundaries require changes in behavior. At first that might feel incredibly awkward, so keep in mind your goal. If your goal is to protect unstructured playtime for your children it might mean they need to drop out of a club or sport. That might make some waves with folks who have come to rely on your participation. But remember, your family’s values matter.

The way you live today will shape how your children live their whole lives, they are watching and absorbing. You can teach them to live with intention, or to follow the crowd, just based on what you do. So chose wisely and fearlessly.

Rules, Rules, Rules

No one likes rules, but for this to work you probably need to set some to start, at least until the new boundary becomes a habit. You’ve identified something that needs to change for you to feel more comfortable with your life and your choices, but especially because there is more than one person involved you need to set some ground rules. Keep them short, simple, and as few as possible to make this easy. And start with just one boundary change.

Here’s an example. My husband and I both work outside the home. While my husband’s schedule is pretty normal mine is not, with Sunday being a regular work day. We realized early on that my job could easily eat the whole weekend, if that happened we saw one another for only about three hours a night the whole week. So we implemented a single simple rule: except in the case of emergencies (which are very rare) I do not accept any work commitments on Saturday. Saturday is our one day off together, so we made a fence to protect that time. It’s one rule, it’s simple, and it’s easy to explain to people.

Have we had some push back? Yes! But when I calmly explain the reason for the rule that’s usually the end of that. And we are much happier.

mother and son playing in waves

Maintaining Boundaries

So. If you don’t keep up painting your fence, and replacing boards it eventually just becomes goat snacks. Same is true for boundaries. You have to actually enforce the rules you set out. Here’s where you hold one another accountable. And that might feel weird if you are a parent. But encourage you kids to get in on it. Listen to them when they call you out on breaking a boundary rule. Keep it light and fun, but remember that you are all in this together and you’ve got to keep each other honest.

Reassess the boundaries you’ve set, and the rules that support them now and then. As your family grows and changes the boundaries and rules you use to keep yourselves healthy and happy will probably need to change and adapt as well.

Come back on a regular basis and check in, what’s working, what’s not working, and how can you better help and support one another?

What is the one thing that has helped your family keep good boundaries? Share it below so we can all help one another.

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