Walls: how kids know we love them enough
Why set firm boundaries for your kids?
A friend described it this way: that our job as parents is to erect these strong walls around our kids. Our kids will push up against them to test, Do you love me enough? Do you love me enough to hold this wall for me?
What many parents of teenagers see as frustrating acts of rebellion, my friend sees as a yearning for love. So beautiful.
I was raised by two very involved parents: dinner was on the table at 6:30, they read to me every night through sixth grade, and I cannot begin to count how many hours they logged getting me to school and to swim practices and all the rest of it.
My husband was not. Sean's parents divorced when he was young and his mom worked nights. At a very young age, he was heating cans of soup on the stove for himself and his sister. Saturdays he could be out all day with his friends, skateboarding or beating on drums in full KISS makeup. Sacramento in the 1970s.
So we have come into parenting with two very different models. And both of us turned out ok, so how do we know what works: firm boundaries and daily routine, or laissez-faire and spontaneity?
A typical conversation in our household:
me: It's time for the kids to get ready for bed.
him: Why do you have to be so rigid?
me: I just...it's 9:30. That's their bedtime.
him: I haven't seen them in two weeks, isn't it important that we have time together as a family?
me: But I want you and I to have our time together, too. And anyway, if we go to bed now, we can have more time together tomorrow.
him: Why do I have to ask your permission for this?
me: Because you agreed on 9:30 and I want you to keep your word.
And around we go.
Co-parenting is perhaps particularly challenging because I'm the bonus mom; our kids were already eight and twelve when I married their dad. So when Sean and I can't resolve things like bedtime and what's ok to order at a restaurant, Dad gets his way and Bonus Mom gets disempowered and silent and frustrated.
Extreme version of Dad's position: I was a father to A and Z for ten years before you came along, and we did just fine without you—so would you back off?
Extreme version of Bonus Mom's position: I could have been pregnant, I could have raised a kid from day one who looks like me—and I gave all that up to be a mom to A and Z. So I deserve to be in this, too.
Neither of these positions are 100 percent true. But they have notes of truth in them.
There are many reasons Sean and I decided to not have kids together. But one is that I have a particular sensitivity about not being wanted. When I was first dating Sean, I remember imagining what it would be like to try and parent A and Z, while also getting pregnant and then raising my own kid. As much as I love A and Z, I don't see how I could treat all three kids the same way. There's an intimacy we have with the people who cared for us when we were very young, the people who were the only thing standing between us and starvation, that is irreplaceable.
I realized I couldn't do that to A and Z, I couldn't let them feel like they were second; like I went looking for more because they weren't enough.
My husband does see the importance of setting boundaries on the big things. But where he and I struggle is that he thinks all boundaries should have some flexibility, too, especially on the small stuff.
Whereas I think that, while boundaries should be generously spaced so kids get ample room to experiment and learn confidence and even fall on their face once in a while, when a wall is agreed upon that wall is set in stone—until we agree to change it.
I think my friend is right about holding boundaries as being an act of love.
I would also add this. That I want my kids to learn to set firm boundaries with others. And the only way for me to teach them that is by modeling that myself.
Both Sean and I agree we want our kids to wait to have sex, that when they do it should be with someone they trust and share long-term commitment. To do that will require them to be stalwart in who they are and confident that it's ok to hold firm boundaries—even when in love with someone, even under pressure.
So when A says, "Oh please Daddy can we stay up late?" And he says no. Then she says, "If you care about me, you'll let me stay up. If you love me, if you understand me, then you'll let me stay up." And now he feels like he has to say yes because of course he loves her.
Now fast-forward ten years and it's A's boyfriend saying to her, "I want to have sex." And she says no. Then he says, "If you care about me, if you love me, then you'll let me have sex with you." What does she do? Does she compromise herself because she learned that's what love is?
Versus a parent who said, I love you—and I'm still holding this wall for you.
I want my kids, and my daughter especially, to learn that love and structure can co-exist. Must co-exist. That there's no such thing as compromising yourself in order to prove love to another person.
I don't know how to teach her that—and other really big things—unless I start with the little things. Like bedtime.
(Photo: Mike Olliver)