By Chris Croll
The word “boundary” has always had a negative connotation for me. I put “boundary” in the same category as “diet” or “budget”—a limit. I have never been a big fan of limits. Maybe it is because I grew up in New York where speed limits were considered optional. However, since quarantine began, I have developed a newfound appreciation for the concept of boundaries.
Setting and enforcing intellectual, emotional, and physical boundaries these past few months at home has greatly improved our family dynamic. Here is why: Setting clear boundaries tells your children how you expect to be treated. And when you enforce boundaries, you are training your children to not only respect your limits but to recognize the limits set by other people in their lives (i.e. friends, teachers, siblings).
Enforcing boundaries models for children that it is OK to say “not acceptable” when someone violates a boundary. That kind of assertiveness is a critical skill for young people to develop.
There are many types of healthy boundaries you can set at home.
Intellectual boundaries. Establishing that every member of the family has a right to their own beliefs is important, especially at a time when tension in this country is running high. My 15-year-old (who, like all 15-year-olds, knows everything) is spending much of his free time this summer becoming engrossed with national politics, pandemic conspiracy theories and the various injustices taking place across the nation.
He is developing his political identity, which is fun to watch as a parent, but as a result, all he wants to do is debate. About everything. His ranting was exhausting me, and it was starting to put a strain on our relationship. I finally set a boundary with him where I stated, “You are welcome to believe what you want but you must respect those in the house who do not agree with you. We will not engage in a political debate every night at the dinner table.”
We set the boundary that he now has to ask us if it is OK to engage in a discussion about politics. The political-argument loop that was wearing us out has finally been broken.
In other households, parents have set boundaries on how much talk they allow about COVID-19 if it upsets some members of the family.
Emotional boundaries. Many of our kids get cranky about not seeing their friends, not going to camp and not having things be “normal” in their lives. As parents, we can empathize with how our children feel but it is important that we not take on their feelings. If we do not set an emotional boundary for ourselves, we could end up letting their moods negatively influence our own.
In our house, for example, if someone is growling about not being allowed to see friends or eat out at a restaurant, I say, “Yes, it’s frustrating. I agree. But I choose to look on the bright side and focus on the fact that we are all healthy and safe.” By being empathetic but not letting their mood hijack my mood, I am setting and modeling a healthy emotional boundary.
Physical boundaries. We are all getting used to new physical boundaries outside of the house including staying 6 feet apart from others and wearing face masks. It may be just as important to set physical boundaries inside the house where work, play, school, sleep and relaxing are often taking place within the same few walls.
When I am on the phone with my door closed, for example, I have explained to the kids that it means I am not available. This boundary works both ways. If one of my children is on a Zoom call with friends, I should not barge in and complain about the dirty clothes all over the floor.
There are other types of boundaries that might help improve family dynamics such as setting digital boundaries (what gets shared on social media), sleep/wake boundaries (what time kids and parents are expected to go to bed/get up) and even parental independence boundaries (so parents can have lives separate from their children).
Hopefully by setting clear boundaries in the home, you can ride out this challenging time with your family in peace. As a side benefit, your children will learn how to respect and set healthy boundaries.
[Chris Croll is a writer, community activist and former member of the Loudoun County School Board (Catoctin District). She lives in Leesburg with her husband and two children.]