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How setting boundaries can free you from guilt



Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 06/28/20

This may just be one the best things you can do as a parent and as an individual.

My children are masters at guilting me into getting what they want. A single, “Please, Daddy?” is enough to get them almost anything – a stop at the ice cream shop, a walk to the park, staying up past bedtime, the keys to the car, even the last donut in the box that I really, really want for myself. Watching that apple fritter disappear really brings home how the sacrifices of fatherhood run deep. For the most part, the boundary violations my children manipulate me into aren’t all that serious — I actually secretly plan to indulge them from time to time. The kids really aren’t guilting me all that much and I’m happy to occasionally cave in and spoil them.

Parental guilt can run much deeper, though, and cause problems if it isn’t set within proper boundaries. Some kids manage to get away with all sorts of unhealthy activities because their parents don’t set proper limits for them. When a child wants something, it is very hard to say no if there isn’t a hard-and-fast, clearly understood rule or expectation to fall back on.

Let’s say I have a young daughter who is currently refusing to eat her broccoli. In this hypothetical-but-actually-totally-true scenario, our family has a long-established rule about eating vegetables. We eat them. Even if we don’t like them. This is a boundary that has been set, so when the 4-year old looks at me with her brown doe eyes and tells me with sweet innocence that she’s too full to eat her broccoli, I feel no guilt in telling she must follow the rule just like the rest of us. It isn’t my own arbitrary decision; I’m appealing to a known expectation.

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Parenting guilt doesn’t stop with the kids. I actually find children easier to handle than the parents of other children. Those other parents are cooler than me. They give their kids cell phones and let them have televisions in the bedroom. They let their children’s friends come over for sleepovers and watch MTV late into the night. They buy their kids cool new way-too-short skirts from the mall. They sign them up for every select sports team possible and buy them all sorts of team gear. I resist all of that, and boy, is it difficult. Other parents can’t comprehend the choices my wife and I make for our children. They apply peer-pressure, trying to talk me into parenting decisions I’m not comfortable with. They wonder aloud why I won’t lighten up. It’s easy to see how parents can be guilted into acting against their own best instincts by other parents.

Recently, our teen daughter’s volleyball team signed up for an overnight tournament out of town. We didn’t allow her to attend because neither of us was able to go with her. At first she was disappointed and we felt mild guilt about not letting her participate. But years ago we drew a boundary — our children would not go anywhere overnight without one of us personally being with them. This boundary gave us the confidence to make our best parenting decision. We then explained why we had that boundary in place. She was disappointed, but, because of our honesty and clarity, she understood and accepted our decision.

Boundaries set us free. They help us live our best lives without falling prey to guilt. Without them, we can easily agree to things we know aren’t good for us. It’s emotionally easier to go along, even if we know it will end up putting us in a bad position.


Read more:
Pope Francis: “Let everything enter into dialogue with God: joy as well as guilt”

What I’ve learned to do is set those boundaries and hold fast to them. I will not work more than a certain number of hours per week, not because I’m lazy but because I have family commitments. If I have to decline a meeting so I don’t work too much, I do that. I will only meet friends for a coffee early in the day and will rarely go out for a drink in the evening. I’ve drawn a boundary, knowing that I must wake up early each morning to get to work. Without that boundary, it’s so easy to be talked into a late-night gathering. These decisions were made long ago, so when I stay within my boundaries, I don’t need to defend my decision.

This boundary greatly strengthens me against social pressure. I’m not fun because I won’t hang out? Okay. I won’t take on another project at work, but I’m the only one who can handle it? I’m sure it’ll be fine without me. My sweet little daughter with the puppy dog eyes asks ever so sweetly for a cell phone? That’s not in the plan.

We’ve been conditioned to think that drawing these kinds of boundaries is somehow selfish, that taking care of ourselves is wrong. This cannot be further from the truth. A healthy boundary helps us avoid guilt while also remaining true to our commitments. It helps us to avoid misunderstandings, choices we later regret, or being taken advantage of. Boundaries help set us free.

Our place in this world is like being near the sea when the tide is coming in – let us not allow ourselves to be washed away. Whether it’s with family, at work, in personal life, or even with your own self-expectations, decide who you want to be, clarify your limits, and live your best life.


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