When our children start showing those early signs of independence — daring to touch electrical outlets, throwing a toy for the second time, resisting the jacket they don’t want to wear — we embark on a long, arduous journey of setting boundaries. Every day presents a new opportunity for moms to decide: Is this a battle I’m going to fight? Or am I going to let this one go?
Discerning healthy boundaries for toddlers is far easier than discerning boundaries for teenagers since the goal is to keep them alive, but trust me when I say the two are more similar than they are different.
From the beginning, we laid down a firm boundary for our kids: Family comes first. That meant the day was structured with our family’s collective needs in mind. Sleep schedules were crucial and dinners were eaten together. Family time was prioritized, so we said no to activities that interfered with whatever we had planned. We didn’t put the kids first; rather, we put our whole family first, and sometimes, we put our marriage first. Even today, designated family time trumps everything else.
Fast-forward 13 and 16 years and we see the fruit of our efforts. Our family is closely-knit. We talk about nearly everything, even when no one wants to do the talking. It’s not always pretty, but it’s honest, sometimes brutally so. We put a boundary around our family to set a clear tone: We are each other’s priority. Now I see that we’ve created a safe space for our boys to feel comfortable and be themselves. Just as our toddlers came crying to us with their boo-boos, our teenagers need to feel like they can come to us when they’re in pain.
The instructional parts of parenting are ongoing: pick up after yourself, wash your hands, be nice to your brother. I will say those things seemingly forever. Lessons about personal responsibility, good hygiene, and keeping peace in the family are eternal. They all fall under the umbrella of “set this parameter for yourself because that’s what’s best for you.”
Also under that umbrella are the lessons we’re trying to teach our boys for their own relationships. In toddlerhood, it was all about sharing toys and not hitting your friends. Now I’m saying things such as, “Be honest with this person. Tell him/her how you really feel.”
Or, “You know that wasn’t the right decision. How are you going to fix it?”
Or, “I’m proud of you for sticking up for yourself. That was really brave.”
When we tell our toddlers, “Don’t touch the stove! You’re going to hurt yourself,” it is no different than telling our teens, “Don’t lie to me. You’re going to hurt yourself.”
Even setting up the Screentime feature on my teen’s iPhone creates a healthy boundary that I think he secretly appreciates. When his phone shuts off at night, albeit later than I prefer, I can almost see his brain relax inside his skull. While I’m sure he’d love to keep texting and playing those mindless games, I know he wouldn’t sleep well if his phone continued to ding into the midnight after-hours. Just like too much screentime can turn a toddler into a tyrant, teenagers need time to unplug and wind down. Boundaries help them do that.