Four Boundaries Children Need to Understand

Explaining personal boundaries, interactions with others, and sexual consent.

Posted Jun 11, 2019

Parents need to be looking for ways to talk with their children about personal boundaries, interactions with others and sexual consent. We don't have the luxury of being embarrassed or complacent: These conversations need to happen earlier than ever, and often. These issues are the forte of Jillian Roberts, a child/adolescent psychologist and professor of educational psychology. She’s spent 20-plus years working with children in clinical practice, and her book, Kids, Sex & Screens: Raising Strong, Resilient Children in the Sexualized Digital Age, outlines a tool she designed to help make these conversations easier.

In the book, she outlines her concept of Concentric Rings. She developed these as a way to explain the concept of boundaries, not only to parents but to the children she’s treating.

Roberts says, “It’s always hard to describe this psychological concept so that children can wrap their minds around the idea of protecting themselves. The Concentric Rings are a visual representation of the different ways we interact with those around us and the ways we respect ourselves and our fellow human beings.”

Here are Roberts’ Concentric Rings:

FamilySparks Education, Inc.
Dr. Jillian Roberts' Concentric Rings
Source: FamilySparks Education, Inc.

The Self Ring

Inside every person is a center, where his or her true self resides. This core is our moral compass and internal boundary; when it gets stretched too far, we feel it in our gut. This is why we tell children to protect themselves by listening to their gut, whether they are with parents or on their own.

The Family Ring

This ring represents the bond between people who love one another and will always protect, respect and nurture one another. Within this ring, we teach children how to respect others and how to insist on respect from others. Your individual situation determines who is included in this ring, immediate, extended or adopted family, and yes, even when there’s sibling rivalry or parental friction.

The Community Ring

The larger community in which you live, friends, classmates, teachers, teams, coaches, even extended family, makes up the Community Ring includes those people you interact with in person on a semi-regular basis. The words “in person” are important. Keep in mind that it’s often by bumping into or breaking rules that children learn where the boundaries are in their community. For some, those lessons have to happen quite often before they stick.

The Online Ring

This final ring encompasses the billions of humans in our global society. In earlier generations, there weren’t many ways for them to interact with the world as a whole, and so this ring didn’t really exist. But today, the Online Ring is extremely important to discuss with your children, from the instant they get Internet privileges all the way through their 18th birthday. At the oldest ages, parents will need to help guide their child successfully through the social, emotional and sexual connotations online. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has an online tool to create a personalized family media plan at healthychildren.org.

From the innermost Self Ring all the way to the Online Ring, the boundaries for your child should become more defined as they widen. Because kids will not be able to define their own boundaries for themselves until they are older, they need to unequivocally know their parent’s boundaries; younger they will use them as models for their own.

From thinking about the boundaries of the Concentric Rings, the concept of consent is an incredibly important concept for kids of all ages to learn—both girls and boys. Once reserved for college freshmen, consent is really just an extended idea of respect for others and is essential for kids of all ages to understand. If your child has been learning about boundaries throughout her childhood,  it’s a natural progression to teach him that he should be asked before his body is touched. Parents should be specific about what consent for touching means: both boys and girls need to respect the right for anyone to choose, or refuse, to participate in any intimate acts, whether that’s a hug, a kiss or more.

“Breaking the boundaries of the rings can be a slippery slope; once one becomes negotiable—or, worse, is not enforced—it’s much easier to cross the next one and then the next,” says Dr. Roberts. “Disregarding boundaries can become a habit and can eventually lead kids to unsafe or unhealthy situations. In all this talk of personal and societal boundaries, you also need to teach your children to respect other people’s rings and insist on respect from their friends.”

The values parents instill in their children will, of course, vary from family to family. Listening to their gut, respecting family, interacting with the community and staying safe online, all are essential skills for kids today to learn. Parents can help this along by using Roberts’ Concentric Rings to help their children visualize the different boundaries that will help to keep them safe.