Now is a good time to re-establish boundaries and (eventually) reap the rewards
I hate arguing with children — mine or anyone else’s. Yet somehow I managed, with my equally complicit wife, to bring three superb debaters into my life. I have also willingly engaged in a career as a high-school educator, working with adolescents, the greatest logic adversaries in recorded history.
With my sons, the Conquistadors of Conflict, the most frequent battle is no surprise: boundaries.
Here are a few examples:
Me: “You can’t ride a skateboard without a helmet.”
Son #1: “None of my friends’ parents make them wear helmets.”
Me: “This parent wants to protect you from a brain injury.”
Son #1: “I hate you.”
Me: “Be home by 11 p.m.”
Son #2: “The party won’t be over by then.”
Me: “I want you to be rested for tomorrow’s soccer game.”
Son #2: “I hate you.”
Me: “No phone at the dinner table.”
Son #3: “Ethan just asked me a math question and I should help him.”
Me: “I don’t want you distracted from your time with us.”
Son #3: “I hate you.”
In each case, I drew the line and rationally explained the reason for the line. In each case, my children employed the parent-ego killer of “I hate you.” In some cases, that phrase has made me wobble and give in. But while conceding resulted in my temporary hero status, it also sparked long-term issues with setting clear lines later.
Fortunately, I haven’t given up on better boundary setting and, battle scars and all, I offer personal revelations so you don’t have to mess up as many times as I have.
The start of a new year is a great time for families to re-establish boundaries and rules.
The pandemic’s effect on boundaries
Perhaps the most challenging time for boundary enforcement for most parents was during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. So many household rules got washed away in 2020. I felt sorry for myself, but worse for my kids, especially my youngest who was at home, cooped up in his room. So I found myself easing up on boundaries for social media and even tolerating my kid’s unwillingness to leave his bed during Zoom school days.
Then, as life reached a “new normal” in 2021, I struggled to re-establish limits.
Betsy Brown Braun (betsybrownbraun.com), a Los Angeles-based child development and behavior specialist and author, keenly observes this pandemic-induced impact on parenting. “Post-pandemic, everyone feels terrible that our kids were the losers in learning and development,” says Brown Braun, who is also the best-selling author of “Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents” and “You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-proofing Your 4- To 12-Year-Old Child.”
“Parents feel they need to give kids what they want, make them happy, give them what they didn’t get” during the pandemic, she says.
Kids need boundaries — more than ever
While it may feel good to be the nice parent who lifts the guard rails so your children can have unencumbered fun, too much freedom can actually have a counter-effect on their well-being.
Kids will always test limits and rules. And after the prolonged pandemic stretch, during which they didn’t naturally have a chance to learn from trial and error out in the world, they may be prone to flout limits even harder. This is when parents need to be true guardians, not the friendly older person they live with.
“Children need limits,” says Lila Snow, professor of child development at Los Angeles Pierce College. “It’s scary to be untethered. While it’s normal for a child to push against the walls of the spaces we put them in, if we drop those walls completely, they don’t have a sense of how to fix things that go wrong and can’t know where to get help.”
Brown Braun points out that children “need parents to be the safety net they cannot be for themselves.”
Approaches to re-establishing boundaries
If you’ve had a period of being more permissive, your kids may feel betrayed if you try to go authoritarian on them by suddenly taking away unlimited Netflix — or their beloved cell phones — on school nights.
Instead, take things slow.
Brown Braun, the mother of triplets and grandmother of six, reasons, “It’s important that your child feels they have a voice and can feel heard. Involve your child in the [boundary setting]. Say something like, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with you going to that concert. Let’s put our heads together to see how it will work with our family.’ They might respond with, ‘You just don’t understand. You’re old!’ To which you could say, ‘Let’s both work this out or else I’ll just have to make a decision.’
“Just because they balk doesn’t mean you don’t set the limit,” Brown Braun says. Re-setting rules “doesn’t mean we have to punish. It means we have to teach.”
Snow, the mother of two and grandmother of two, reinforces slow boundary re-establishing. “Scale things down. Go from eight hours of cell use to six hours. Don’t do it all at once.”
Another key strategy is to model the behavior you want to see in your kids. “We need to demonstrate our own boundaries,” Snow says. “We, too, might cut back on phone use. We have to be mindful of our hypocrisy. We can’t swear in the car while driving if we want our kids to refrain from swearing.”
She continues that it can be helpful to explain what you are going through in regard to trying to set boundaries for yourself. “You might say, ‘Boy, I was eating a lot of Halloween candy,’ if we want our children to eat less garbage food,” she says. “When they resist, tell them, ‘I hear you. I’m having a similar experience. We’re all going to get through it.’”
Children don’t listen to us, Snow says, “They watch you. Do the behavior you want from them and do it loudly.”
In addition, there is the immeasurable value of offering encouragement when curbing stubborn habits in children. Snow says we can teach our kids through resilience techniques and through supportive words such as, ‘You’ve done this before and can do it again. Remember when you first started playing that instrument and you wanted to give up? Look at you now!”
Brown Braun points out four other nuanced points about boundary-setting:
- Nothing is forever. See if the limit is working. Be prepared to revisit and revise.
- Be responsive to the environment. Consider the child and situation.
- The limit does not have to be applicable for all members of the house, i.e., being ready for dinner might look different for each person. Fair does not mean equal.
- A boundary must make sense. It cannot be improvised and/or explained as necessary “because I say so.”
Key types of boundaries
Consistent messaging on re-established boundaries will help reduce friction with your child and even within yourself. Yet with so many rules to revisit, it helps to think of these key types:
- Bedtime — For younger kids, ease them into earlier bedtimes that are free of tempting electronics. For tweens and teens, invite them into the reasoning about what’s healthiest for them (teens need 9-10 hours of sleep).
- Electronics — For all kids, stop screen use at least 30 minutes before bed. Help them shift to activities such as reading a picture book or novel.
- Mealtimes — Model that phones are not welcome at the table.
- Nutrition — Children need guidelines to help them establish healthy nutrition habits. They should also be allowed leeway to pick some foods themselves.
- Homework — Collaborate with your child to determine the time needed for homework that is done before play or kicking back. Invite them into the crafting of that as they get older under the theme of personal responsibility.
- Attitude — Model a positive attitude for kids of all ages. Give them alternatives to expressions of frustration, anger or defiance. When we mess up on this score, we should admit our mistake. Children benefit from seeing their parent’s ability to acknowledge errors and self-correct.
- Curfews and substance experimentation — With older kids, have conversations about health and safety limits. One effective tool is to offer that they can tell peer-pressuring friends they have to go home by a certain time or can’t drink that beer because “My mom/dad will ground me for a month!” Tell them you are fine being the bad-guy excuse.
Boundary setting, and especially boundary re-setting, is really hard. This is where surrounding yourself with like-minded parents can support you when things get challenging. Kids may say they hate you for re-establishing rules, but you know the facts. Children need, and secretly want, the lines that mark a healthy space for security and growth.
One day, they’ll love you for it.
Gregory Keer is a husband to one, father to three, high-school educator and grizzled veteran writer.