| Family Reflections |


Respecting others’ boundaries shows we love them


The concept of boundaries is inborn. Even tiny toddlers fiercely protect their boundaries, declaring a toy “mine” and refusing to share. This doesn’t stop them, however, from overstepping other people’s boundaries; indeed, they happily grab what they want from others. The need to restrain that impulse — to learn to ask before taking — is one of the skills they will need to master in order to have good social relationships in the future.

Says one mother, “My two-year-old helps herself to food from other people’s plates. It’s gotten so bad that the older kids take themselves and their plates to another room so they can eat in peace.”

It’s possible that everyone laughed the first time this child helped herself to Mom’s potato, emboldening the little one to repeat the act at subsequent mealtimes. In fact, it’s possible they all thought it was quite cute for quite a while, their amusement encouraging the awful habit that was developing. Attention does that. Eventually, however, no one liked the end product: a child who couldn’t keep her hands off others’ plates.

People like to eat their own food from their own plate because there’s a concept of “mine” that runs deep. It’s time to let the toddler know in no uncertain terms that she can no longer take other people’s food.

What’s Yours is Mine

Of course, it’s not only children who may have problems with boundaries. Some adults blur the lines, too.

“I was really upset when I went to use my bank card and found I couldn’t because my account had insufficient funds. I always keep a large balance there to avoid this kind of problem, and I thought there must have been a bank error. But after the bank assured me there had been a legitimate withdrawal, I asked my husband about it. He told me that he needed the funds to pay a big bill. When I objected that he didn’t even have the courtesy to let me know, he said that he didn’t have to explain why or how much he takes since we’re a married couple and share everything.”

Within their economic enterprise, utilizing whatever Hashem generously provides, a married couple consists of two adults who function autonomously, working within their respective budgets and boundaries. They need to create systems that allow for independence and then respect those systems.

And while it’s true that husband and wife share financial resources, they have hopefully created accounts based on budget needs (such as savings, house account, vacation, taxes, retirement, and so on).

In addition, a wife may have her own account that she manages, while her husband has his own. Respecting their agreed-upon categories and fiscal roles is an important way of respecting both boundaries and personal space. Crossing the lines may not only create financial issues, but can also cause feelings such as mistrust, hurt, and betrayal.

The transgression of stealing is based on the assumption of private ownership. Whether someone takes food (without permission) that Mom has prepared for the family, or a sibling helps herself to her sister’s shirt without first asking, failure to respect boundaries routinely creates feelings of violation and upset.

“I make enough food to feed my family without creating excessive waste. When my teens and adult kids open the fridge and start helping themselves to casseroles, or when they grab rows of homemade cookies just out of the oven that I designated for dessert on Shabbos, I get very upset. It takes considerable time and effort to prepare this food, and with my very full schedule I can’t just whip up another meal or dessert. But when I try to explain this to anyone they don’t get it. ‘You made it for us, didn’t you?’ they ask. Yes, but it isn’t for now.”

Unless there is severe food insecurity due to poverty and deprivation, there’s really no excuse for these older kids to ignore Mom’s boundaries. And even if they are starving, and even if she lacks assertiveness, they should simply respect her stated wishes. We should all ask before taking, and automatically and gracefully grant loved ones their realms of domain. Doing so is one more way that we can show respect and love to those we love and respect.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 854)

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