Finding the Right Balance of Indepedence and Boundaries with Children

This post is contributed by Sarah, a contributing writer. Edited and approved by Nathana.

From the moment our kids are born, they are precious. They mean the world to us and when we bring them home from the hospital, we handle them like a fragile family heirloom. In some ways, I guess, that’s exactly what they are! But that simple need to protect, that desire to make them secure, never leaves us.

Speak to anyone with grown-up kids, and it’s still the same. Even the 80-year-old great-grandma will fuss over and look after her own children into their fifties and beyond. There never comes a time when you stop wanting to know they are okay. This is both the blessing and the curse of being a mother. You’re entrusted with this precious being. You not only want to keep them safe in your presence, but teach them to navigate an unsafe world on their own.

Part of learning to be a mother is about learning how to stay sane when you give your children freedom. It means educating them in how they can stay safe. This means developing a healthy balance of boundaries and independence. 

Teaching Your Kids About Risk And Responsibility

Do you remember summers in your childhood?  Most of us would go out in the morning to play with friends, make a reappearance for lunch, and then be out again in the afternoon until it got dark. Ask your own parents. There were days, no doubt when they didn’t see you for hours on end.

It’s hard to raise kids in the same way today, but many people feel we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction. If you can equip your children with the right skills and tools to stay safe, then you’re doing your job. By all means, sometimes you’ll be best off accompanying them where they go. Finding the right balance for the age and maturity of your child is key. 

Educating them on navigating the world safely can be informal – if they’re grocery shopping with you, indicate where they should go if you get separated. If you’re playing in the park, show them where to find someone who can call you if they get lost. Teach them how pedestrian crossings work and to always use them if they ever need to cross the road alone. Make sure to mention how the buttons might not always work and that they have to be patient. Instill simple lessons like learning to look both ways before crossing a street if there is no crosswalk, and to never chase an animal or ball into the road without looking first. 

The lessons you teach depend, of course, on the age of your kids. The younger they are, the less freedom they can have. And it’s the younger ages who need to know things like not to follow strangers or get into cars with them, as well as very basic safety skills, like teaching that ovens and stovetops get very hot. So make sure you are teaching age-appropriate and applicable lessons.

Another lesson to consider starting early is about cleaning supplies and household dangers, like medicine. Of course, it is best to keep these out of reach, but they may encounter these things in accessible places like a grandparent’s house or friend’s house. Educating them on what is unsafe and what to stay away from is important for when they are in different environments.

It’s One Thing To Know That, Of Course…

The truth is, our kids will probably be more comfortable with healthy boundaries than we will be at first. Many parents’ minds jump to a worst-case scenarios if kids are as much as five, ten, fifteen minutes late home. Because we have so many ways of keeping in contact, if we don’t hear from them on schedule, we will worry. If they have been at school that day, we think of calling the school. In our culture today some people even keep lawyers or attorneys on retainer, such as, not to mention call the police at the first sign of trouble.

It’s a tricky thing to tell yourself, but the best gift you can give your child is the ability to be okay on their own. Educate them on the right and wrong things to do. Some of us, as kids, maybe walked to school by ourselves at the age of five. We might never get back to those days due to how the world has changed. The boundaries we set and independence we allow are adjustable based on our kid’s age, maturity, where we live, and our changing world. Nonetheless, our goal should be to empower them, not just lock them in a bubble.

For example, when your child wants to go exploring with friends, you can have confidence they know what they’re doing. Walk with them, give them a chance to learn their local area. Talk to them about to interact with strangers. Try to let them go out initially with an elder sibling. Allowing children the freedom to explore is important, but we have to balance that with being watchful and careful in a world with tangible dangers.

On a family road trip you can show children how to explore safely – get out for a hike and point out where boundaries are. Show them safe terrain and riskier spots, and how to keep the right distance from steep drops (and angry livestock!).

The Digital Age: Taking The Good With The Bad

There is no shortage of news stories that, as a parent, can make you curse the invention of the internet and our reliance on technology. On the other hand, there are advances that have been very much in our favor. If you’re worried about letting your kids go out unmonitored, then technology may have some helpful solutions.

There are apps that you can download to their phone and yours which allow you to track where they go. If they go outside a certain boundary, you will be alerted and can check up on them. It may not be absolute freedom like we had as kids, but it’s a start. Once they’ve proven themselves trustworthy you can widen the boundary.

Some parents set a rule that when their kids are out and have a cell phone, they need to call in every hour or so. Beware of setting rules like this. The reason time flies when we are having fun is that we don’t watch the clock – and if your kid is having fun, they may forget to call. This can lead to panic when they don’t call, and you making a flustered call which is answered by your bewildered child. A son or daughter who may have been having the time of their life will now be annoyed or shook up.

Justifiable Fears: Why A Parent Should Be Careful

There is a lot of flak aimed at parents from both sides of the safety argument. Some people will rain down accusations of overprotective parenting because you download an app. Some on the other side will call you an unfit parent if you let your kids walk down the block to a playdate. In a lot of ways, parents today can’t win.

It’s not true that we live in a more dangerous world than ever before. But there are different dangers, and a parent needs to keep up with those.  One of the modern dangers is online safety.

If your kids go online – for homework, games or any other reason – make sure they are safe. Pass on advice on how to use the web safely and, if there are sites you don’t want them going on, block them using parental controls or monitoring/filtering software.

Despite what people may think and what you may read, there aren’t more predators around today. Their methods have simply changed. The internet is not a lawless hive of people who want to harm your kids – but dangerous people can be resourceful and have adapted to our technological world. The anonymous nature of the internet makes not just adults more dangerous, but other children with things like cyber bullying. Bullying is certainly not a new development, but kids’ methods have adapted and changed.

So if your kids do use social networks, emphasize that they should never add or chat to anyone they don’t know. One line predators use online is “I’m a friend of your dad/mom. I have a kid who goes to your school.” Even if that is true, why would they contact your child first? Let your kids know that if a stranger contacts them in this way, they should not respond and should tell you.

Also, regardless of the age of your child, make sure they know that keeping secrets, especially requested by an adult, are not safe and they should tell someone right away.

Trust Your Child, Trust Your Parenting

A parent’s responsibilities to a child can seem like an endless list, but it’s more a matter of prioritizing. You do need to protect them, and you need to educate them.

Protecting them is not just about hovering over them until they are old enough to go out on their own. There can be adverse consequences to this, such as anxiety in children or teens. A lot of protecting your child comes down to giving them the skills to ensure their own safety. Remember your childhood and speak to your parents about how you learned what was acceptable. Some of the details will have changed, but many of the principles have stayed the same. I wish there was a magic formula for setting healthy boundaries and allowing freedom with children, but it varies from kid to kid and family to family. It is a decision that should be prayed over and discussed with your spouse.

Perhaps most importantly, make your home and relationship with your child a safe and loving place where they can ask any question, know that you are listening and care, and that you want the best for them.