New Year, New Boundaries

by Lauren Randazzo 

 

We’re almost a month into 2021 and at this phase of the year, people often take time to reevaluate the goals or resolutions they’ve set for the new year. We’ve all heard the same resolutions played like a broken record. People want to get in shape, spend more time with family, get a promotion, and so forth. These goals are all great, but sometimes we focus so much on our outer success that we forget to focus on inner success.. Would it be too “socially unacceptable” to proudly tell someone that your New Year’s resolution is to get out of a toxic relationship, tell a coworker that they are behaving inappropriately, or even tell a family member that they don’t respect your privacy? What if we focused on the ‘new year’ as a way to mark new boundaries? 

 

What are boundaries?

 

We’re of course referring to personal boundaries. For those who are unfamiliar, personal boundaries refer to the limits we set in place to protect our well-being. Unfortunately, there is a negative connotation attached to boundary setting. People often talk about how someone “builds walls” to keep others out. Of course, like in anything, there can be unhealthy boundaries. However, as a baseline, by recognizing the need to set and enforce limits, you protect your self- esteem, maintain self-respect, and enjoy healthy relationships.

 

How Survivor Strong incorporates boundaries:

One of the projects we’re working on at Survivor Strong is our program curriculum for Stronger Together. This program will be designed for middle school, high school, and college age groups as an informative seminar on topics that connect to the idea of setting boundaries or respecting other people’s boundaries. In other words, we want to make sure that youths are engaging in understanding how to ask for and how to give consent. 

When we hear this word “consent”, I think our minds are automatically tuned to assume the furthest end of the  spectrum of what we need consent for: sexual advances. It would be beneficial if we could teach people that consent can apply to all facets of comfort levels (for example, whether or not you want a hug goodbye from a friend, whether or not someone can enter your bedroom, whether or not someone is allowed to use your video game system, etc). Boundaries encompass a much broader span of limits than we might assume; we can have emotional, physical, material, and spiritual personal boundaries. If we could destigmatize the word “consent” to see it more as a sort of permission for actions, words, and other forms of social interaction, we could find ourselves in a world that’s more geared towards empathy. 

 

Empathy in relation to boundaries

 

Recent studies have found that empathy itself is in a state of deficit in the U.S. For example, “A frequently cited meta-analysis at the University of Michigan in 2011 examined data from 72 empathy studies of over 14,000 American college students since 1979. This research revealed a 48-percent decline in empathy over the past four decades, with a particularly sharp decrease in emotional empathy” (Konrath et al.). How is it that as humans progress and evolve, we are somehow becoming less empathetic? Empathy itself is a characteristic unique to human life, yet our species seems to be shying away from it. I’m sure we all have our own interpretations or theories on it. Maybe, it’s the emphasis on social media and celebrities. It could be our focus on individual success, wealth, and status. It could even be a sign of worsening racial tensions that cause gaps between in and out-group bias. 

But what do these ideas all have in common? They’re established in adulthood. The saying “you can’t teach an old dog a new trick” might have its merits when applied to the idea of undoing or unlearning something that has been commonplace for so long. Once a norm is a norm it is far more difficult to break than if it was not formed. It wouldn’t make much sense to begin sexual assault prevention programs starting in the college setting. Most in-coming college students are seventeen years or older. They’ve likely had their first relationship, first job, first fight with a friend, and other formative experiences by this age. Without prior knowledge, they likely perpetuated unhealthy relationship stereotypes, inappropriate workplace behavior, and emotional abuse already. This is probably not intentional or malicious, but from lack of understanding, positive examples, and ultimately empathy.

With this logic in mind, it seems that it could be possible to prevent the thoughts that negate empathy. Critically thinking, let’s look back on our own education. Some of us may have gone to public schools, some of us private, some of us may not even have had the opportunity to complete schooling. Even so, the curriculum for schools across the nation doesn’t vary that much from one to the other. Certainly, we don’t have mandatory courses in our K-12 on topics such as “healthy relationships”, “properly handling emotions”, and “being kind and considerate”. At least, not in modern society. I don’t recall being offered an etiquette or home economics course in the twenty-plus years of my own life as an elective course (despite how outdated and gendered these courses were). No, schooling seems to be strictly focused on “learning knowledge” that will help you succeed in adult life. But, how many times have we heard adults complain about having learned calculus but not knowing how to balance a cheque book? It seems our public education’s curriculum focuses on background knowledge that doesn’t necessarily play an important factor in actual daily life. Aren’t empathy, emotional and physical boundaries, and consent important and useful life skills to have as well? I think about the idea of education and how synonymous it seems to be with bullying, alienation, trauma and other terrible forms of distressing memories and emotions for adolescents in their formative years. What if instead of teaching our nation’s youth how to solve for the X variable and what war happened two centuries ago, we taught them how to be good, analytical, independent people? 

This is my sister’s mantra about what she is teaching her pre-school students. She disdains the idea that four year olds should rush to learn to read and write. The important part of her job she claims is teaching her kids to be good and grow to be empathetic and tolerant of the people and things around them. She told me her way of introducing the concept of consent to children through an example. When we’re children, boundaries are a difficult concept to grasp. We play with what we want to play with, we touch who we want to touch, we say what we want to say. She mentioned a positive way to reframe pushing boundaries with children interacting with one another could be as simple as this: When Sam wanted to hug his friend Leah, Leah clearly didn’t want to. Not because she doesn’t like Sam, but just because she’s not a hugger. Some kids love hugs, others don’t! But, to a four year old this rejection of a hug would probably seem far more devastating. My sister coached them to ask first. “Would you like a hug goodbye, Leah?” If Leah would prefer not to, she could offer compromises first if she’d like a different method of a goodbye, “I don’t like hugs, but I could give you a high five.” This logic isn’t far different from how we expect to behave in adulthood. If children can understand it, there’s no reason adults shouldn’t. 

 

Back to Survivor Strong!

 

So, at Survivor Strong, we took our already existing curriculum on these subject matters and decided to redo it, expand upon it. Why did we do this? Why was our original curriculum not sufficient? Well, it’s not to say it wasn’t. But imagine being in your twenties or even thirties and seeing students in 2021 being taught the same material on sex ed as you had been taught ten and twenty years ago (or more). It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense and ultimately is probably why we aren’t seeing much progress in the front of sexual assault and gender-based violence reportings. As new information and experience presents itself, curriculum should accommodate such change. And essentially, the existing curriculum we were using happened to be predating the COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, school systems are hardly similar to what we once knew. None of our staff ever went through K-12 during a health crisis that caused a transition to mainly online platforms. There are clear policy and ability differences from an in-person setting and an at-home, computer learning setting. If I’m wondering how children would even speak with their guidance counselors or school nurses, how they would address bullying issues when they can’t wait for the bell to ring to have a moment alone with their teacher, how they could express concerns about family members if said relatives are in the same room as them at all times, etc…Well, then I’m sure the children and teens are just as uncertain. The shelter-in-place mandates have made it even harder for survivors of domestic violence, gender-based violence, and other difficult situations to seek help outside. 

And, at the same time, our concern is…How do we teach children about these things with the possibility of their guardians overhearing? How can we be sensitive to evoking negative responses by these family members should they hear us ask the minor in question “do you feel safe at home?”. It’s a double-edged sword as it’s our responsibility as educators to teach them what they’re missing out on from their guardians. And, topics of consent are often overlooked not just by schools but by parents themselves. A study about parent and adolescent discussions noted that only approximately half (55%) of parents had even spoken with their children about dating violence and sexual assault. This topic was substantially less likely to be discussed than school work, drugs, alcohol, family finances, the economy, or money management (Rothman et al.). At the same time, in a survey commissioned by Planned Parenthood, the nationwide results saw that fifty percent of teens weren’t comfortable speaking with their parents about topics related to sex. It would seem that parents and teens aren’t tackling the tough subjects with eachother. The surveys saw discrepancies in where teens and their respective guardians believed they were at with the conversations. For instance, “parents think they are giving their teens nuanced guidance about healthy relationships and when sex should and shouldn’t take place, but teens say they only hear simple directives” (Planned Parenthood Federation of America). So, if adolescents can’t rely on their parents or relatives for insight on uncomfortable topics, how will they learn? Most schools in the U.S. enact abstinence based educational curriculums, which makes their educators a no-go for the tough topics, too. It must be a frustrating line of barriers for youth who are just confused and desiring answers to their questions. Our hope is to provide those answers and open up the lines of communication to show students that healthy boundaries are a good thing. That having open-communication is helpful. That being educated on matters of consent can create harmony. That our bodies are our own. That love and acceptance is greater than hate. And that, as we started off by saying: new year, new boundaries. It’s never too late to enact rules for yourself to express your true you and feel your most comfortable self!

 

Bibliography

 

Konrath SH, O’Brien EH, Hsing C. Changes in dispositional empathy in American  

     college students over time: a meta-analysis. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2011 

     May;15(2):180-98. doi: 10.1177/1088868310377395. Epub 2010 Aug 5. PMID:  

     20688954.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Half of All Teens Feel Uncomfortable  

    Talking to Their Parents About Sex While Only 19 Percent of Parents Feel…. (2017,   

                 April 24). Planned Parenthood.  

 

Rothman EF, Miller E, Terpeluk A, Glauber A, Randel J. The proportion of U.S. parents 

       who talk with their adolescent children about dating abuse. J Adolesc Health

       2011;49(2):216-218. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2011.05.005

Lauren Randazzo

Resource Development Coordinator
Survivor Strong

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