As parents, almost everything we do is setting boundaries with our kids. So it may seem odd to talk about setting boundaries with our children.
There are two key areas in which we can set boundaries with our kids, and often I see moms succeeding in one area and failing in the other. In fact, I was personally failing in this area as a mom!
The first boundary area is around behavior. Most of us do this pretty well, as evidenced by the fact that society is functioning. This is basic discipline, and I’m not going to get into a discussion about discipline methods. There are a lot of them out there, and a lot of debates.
The important thing is that you find a method of discipline that you can follow and stick to it.
Why do I say “that you can follow”? Because this is where we fail the most as parents. If we have decided to use spanking, but we can’t bear to spank our child for any infraction, it won’t work. If we have decided to take away screen time, but then we give screen time back because we just need 30 minutes of peace and quiet, that method won’t work either. So it’s important to consider if you will be able to stick to whatever discipline method you choose. This applies to both parents: if one parent simply cannot use method A, then find another method for both of you to use.
The second boundary area is around ourselves as independent people. When children are infants, they have no independence. They are totally intertwined with their mom. As they grow, they have the important developmental task of establishing their independence from their parents. This is one reason why teenagers are so darn annoying. But this process of independence, called individuation, begins very early in life. Some people call it the “terrible 2s” or the “tantrum 3s.” Your child is fighting very hard to understand that she is not you. And she’s working to figure out what it means to be her own person, one capable of independent thought and action. This leads to power struggles, boundary pushing, and a child insisting to do things himself no matter what. This leads to boundary issues around emotional independence. As adults, we generally don’t have to reset our boundaries with our peers very often.
But with our children we have to constantly reset our emotional boundaries.
Nudity is an example that’s easy to understand. There’s no concern about being naked in front of your infant. If you’re breastfeeding, that kid is all up in your business all the time anyway! Most of us moms have sat on the potty with our baby in our lap. The baby’s nudity is also a nonissue: we’re constantly changing diapers and bathing our sweet child. As our kid gets older, nudity is more of a concern. I don’t want my 5 year old daughter in the bathroom when I go potty. And she is starting to want privacy for her potty time as well. We still bathe her, but I know in the next few years she will want to be alone for bathtime as well. While I still share a bathroom stall with my little girl when necessary, I wouldn’t cuddle with her unless I was fully dressed. Our boundaries around our bodies naturally evolve with children.
What many of us, myself included, find more challenging is to let our emotional boundaries evolve with our kids.
When an infant screams in your face, it’s not appropriate to yell back or impose a consequence. When a five year old screams in your face, it’s necessary to set and enforce a boundary, and not just for disciplinary reasons. Both you and your child need to negotiate a new way to interact and boundaries show the way. Setting a boundary that a child cannot yell at the parent teaches the child about authority and respect. How you enforce that boundary teaches the child how to set and enforce her own boundaries in the future. We also need to adjust our emotional boundaries as our kids age. When an infant cries, we are upset and anxiously try to resolve the need. When a 5 year old cries we still need to try to resolve the need, but we must teach the 5 year old how to communicate appropriately. Sometimes we even need to let the 5 year old cry, in order to experience her emotions fully (as when she is upset over a consequence of her choices).
Most importantly, we need to remember that we are the adult.
Recently, my 5 year old began to fight for the last word in any and all disagreements. When it first started happening, I fought back, making sure I was getting the last word. That means I ended up arguing. With a preschooler. Over objectively true or untrue statements. How absurd! I am the adult, and there’s no need to argue with a preschooler! Instead, I set emotional boundaries for myself. Once the conversation is over, I ignore her mutterings and her shouts. She is free to express her own opinions, and I am free from engaging in an argument with a child. The key here is that I am emotionally free. I choose to allow her to have the last word. It doesn’t irritate me the way it did at first, because I set my own emotional boundaries as a parent.
As parents, setting boundaries for ourselves and for our children is essential. I recommend the great book Boundaries for Kids as a beginning read on this issue. Because no matter what kind of parent you want to be, or what kind of discipline method you choose, you will be setting boundaries with your kids for the rest of your life!