Boundaries With Kids – Loving Versus Rescuing

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Boundaries with Kids - RescuingAs you begin to set boundaries with kids, it’s crucial to recognize the difference between loving and rescuing. The ability for your child to stand up for what is right versus covering for someone else can be connected to how you interact with him or her. Kids learn about loving and rescuing at home.

For example, when I (Dr. Townsend) was in eighth grade, a new teacher substituted for our regular science teacher, Mrs. Southall, who was ill. The substitute was inexperienced and fragile, and Bill, one of the more popular boys, gave her a hard time. At one point, when her back was turned, he called the teacher a bad name, and she left the room crying.

When Mrs. Southall returned the next day, she was furious. She wanted to know who called the sub the foul name. No one would volunteer Bill’s name, though we all knew. So Mrs. Southall went down the rows of desks and asked each of us individually by name if we knew. We couldn’t avoid the issue; we had to lie or tell the truth. One by one, thirty kids all looked Mrs. Southall in the eyes and lied, including me. Only one boy, a kid named Jay, said, “Bill did it.” Bill was convicted and sentenced on Jay’s testimony. And Bill was really angry at Jay for a long time. He and his friends ostracized Jay, so Jay suffered socially for what he did.

Years later, I asked Jay about his actions. Jay wasn’t a teacher’s pet or out to get points. He simply didn’t agree that Bill should be rescued. “Bill was a friend of mine,” said Jay. “But I just thought right was right and wrong was wrong. And I didn’t think I would be doing him any favors by lying for him.” I admire Jay’s convictions. He risked his friend’s rage and withdrawal to keep from rescuing him from his actions. Jay was differentiating between help and rescue.

Learning this distinction is one of the most important lessons in your child’s course on responsibility. He is responsible for himself. He is responsible to others. He is to care about his family and friends and go out of his way to help them. But responsibility dictates that he refrain from protecting them from the consequences of their own actions.

Again, this does not come naturally to kids. They vacillate between enormous self-centeredness and incredible caretaking of friends. They don’t know the difference between being responsible “for themselves” and “to their friends.” Especially in friendships, children often equate caring with protecting. (For example, a child may demand that his friend stand up for him even when he is wrong.)

Some of this confusion is part of the developmental process. That is, as kids begin to grow and separate from their home life, they are developing other social systems and structures to prepare them for leaving home. Especially during the later teen years, the center of their life is outside the home rather than inside it. This process involves bonding “with” friends and “against” parents. They feel that parents don’t understand their feelings, problems, passions—and music. So they form tight cliques of soul mates and spend hours with them, sharing thoughts, feelings, and secrets.

This is a good thing for children. However, while you as a parent need to allow your kids to have their own lives and friends within reasonable limits, your kids still need to learn that the Law of Responsibility applies to their buddies as well as their families. Kids need to withstand the intense social pressure not to tell about a friend who is into drugs or cheats on exams. And in the same way, they need to learn how to say no to their friends’ demands to solve their problems, take care of their feelings, and make them happy.

Children don’t learn this from a book. They learn about loving and rescuing at home. That’s why setting boundaries with kids is so important. When your child sees that Mom, Dad, and his siblings don’t need him to parent them, he learns that he can love others without taking responsibility for them. He can enter freely into relationships knowing that he can obey the Law of Empathy but can also say no to those things that aren’t good for him or are someone else’s burden. Let him skin his knee and get up and get the Band-Aids without your rushing over to coddle him. Let him observe you having a bad day, but know that you’ll take care of yourself.

As you help your child learn the difference between loving and rescuing, he will also be learning how to pick kids who don’t need someone to take on their problems: kids of good character, kids to whom your child can say no without fear of losing the connection.

A major reason children rescue is that they have learned it’s the only way to keep a friend. Help your child to pick better friends than that. I always pray a silent prayer of thanks when I watch my kids interacting outside the kitchen window in our backyard and see them disagree with their friends. Most of the friends they pick don’t freak out when someone disagrees with them. Our children will need to make and keep friends like this for a lifetime.

It is easy to slip into allowing a child to rescue and become confused about responsibility. For example, a lonely parent will often make a child into a confidant, thinking, “Isn’t it great that my daughter and I are best friends? I can tell her all my problems, and vice versa.” In reality, the child learns to parent the parent and risks approaching all relationships like this. We have seen hundreds of people in codependent marriages, “givers” who married “takers.” In so many instances, the giver’s childhood included one of the following:

  • A lonely, needy parent.
  • An out-of-control parent who needed someone to help control him.
  • A parent who confused his child’s needs with his own.

Our kids aren’t an annuity for our retirement, social system, or medical frailty. They are there for God and themselves. It’s a good thing to be vulnerable with your child about your weaknesses and failures. This way they learn that adults aren’t perfect. It’s another thing to look to your child to meet your needs.

Don’t burden your children with your hurts. For example, don’t look to your child to comfort your pain or be your best buddy; find adults for those needs. Your child has enough work to do in growing up. At the same time, learn the balance between helping him not to rescue but how to attend to the genuine needs of his family and friends. Learning to love begins with first receiving empathy, then understanding our duty to respect and care for others.

For more parenting advice that really works, read Boundaries with Kids.


Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

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