While trying to write this article, I’ve had to shuffle a toddler off my lap about 57 times.
It would be fair to say we have a boundary issue in our household. It’s something I’m working on. Children, of course, need boundaries for acceptable behaviour for their own sense of security. But parents need boundaries, too. From the preschool committee chair who wants you to volunteer 10 hours a week to the co-worker who calls you at home in the middle of story time for “a quick question,” a well-placed “no” can benefit the entire family.
But where do you start if you have not been setting firm boundaries from the beginning? I spoke with Jamie Glowacki, a parenting expert and author of the forthcoming book Oh Crap! I Have a Toddler. Here’s what I learned about introducing new family limits.
Work on one parenting “trouble spot” at a time
If you have a partner, Glowacki suggests carving out time to sit down and talk about your trouble spots. “Pick the area of parenting where you feel permissiveness isn’t effective for you,” Glowacki says. “The bedtime routine is usually a big one. Or screen time. Whatever the boundary is, commit to holding it. You must be on the same page as your parenting partner. Because if you attempt a boundary and your partner doesn’t, your kid now has an incredible tool to use against you both.”
This commitment, as we know, can be quite a challenge. Can you relate to this scenario? When I firmly correct my toddler for hitting or hair-pulling, she laughs. I tell her that this is no joke, that her behaviour is not ok. She laughs again. She raises her hand to hit again. I catch it mid-strike and repeat our family rule about hitting. She throws herself on the floor in a dramatic tearful display. I wonder if I’ve been too rigid. Glowacki warns against the urge to spare our children all negative feelings.
“We rush to fix any negative emotion that comes out of the child,” she says. “Your child’s developmental job right now is to test those limits. And you can bet your bum that if you’ve been permissive, your child is going to double down on her limit testing. Boundaries are like emotional swaddling; they keep your child emotionally safe. Your little one is going to have to check and recheck that you are serious about this.”
Set limits with other people in your child’s life
As children get older, their community grows to include play groups, school, sports and other activities. Demands on parent’s energy grow with each new activity and social circle. I asked Glowacki how we can set boundaries while still building community.
“It’s widely recognised that in any community setting, there are about five people who do all the work,” she says. “The setting doesn’t matter—school plays, bake sales, PTA, sports teams. If you find yourself being one of those five (like me), you just have to be cautious that you’re not overextending yourself into bitter resentment.”
Saying no takes practice. You can start with low-stakes situations—“I’m sorry I won’t be able to make cupcakes for the class party this Friday. Please ask me again.” On the other hand, the power of “no” can become intoxicating, so be careful you don’t get in the habit of saying no to everything automatically.
Draw a line between work and family
Work is another area of life that demands boundaries. I know a father who works full time, but he set some firm boundaries as soon as his family grew to include children. He chooses to keep work and family life completely separate—no working from home, no ruminating on the day’s office politics after work, no company cell phone making him available 24/7. This attitude is admittedly a privilege not enjoyed by parents who have less autonomy in their careers or less financial stability.
However, there is one line almost anyone can draw between work and family: mentally leave work at the door when you head home. Adopt a 5-minute transition ritual so the person who walks through the door in the evening is a loving and patient parent, not the beleaguered employee you were from 9 to 5.
But what if your work is at home? Parents who work from home face special challenges in protecting their work time and space from little intruders.
Doors make great boundaries. Teresa Douglas, co-author of Secrets of the Remote Workforce told the New York Times she uses a “STOP” sign as a visual cue for children who can often forget Mum needs to work without interruption. This, of course, assumes there is another caregiver in the house or children are old enough to be unsupervised for extended periods.
If you work at home and cannot completely shut the children out, there are other tricks for creating a little space, from physical boundaries to distraction techniques. Finally, be clear with your manager, co-workers, and employees about your parenting obligations.
Know that living without boundaries leads to resentment
I asked Glowacki what I am to do when my little one wants to live in my lap, but I have pressing work?
“If you can type with her hanging on you and you honestly don’t mind, that’s totally cool,” Glowacki says. “If you’re building a resentment that’s gonna stay under the surface until she spills her milk at dinner and you lose it, that’s not cool. And that’s what happens when we let our boundaries be stepped over. And that’s what I see in most parents I work with. They have no boundaries, the resentment builds up, and then they overreact to small infractions making them seem (and feel) psycho.”
There’s no need for heroic self-sacrifice to accommodate everyone else’s needs when you are a parent. So decide where your lines are and be resolute in holding them. Glowacki says boundaries for children’s safety and development, boundaries for a parent’s down time and self-care, and boundaries with people outside the family who make demands on our energy are the key to healthy living.