Are the Boundaries in Parenting Starting to Get Too Blurry?

Today, parents are encouraged to have discussions with our kids — about everything from chores to screen time. But sometimes I wonder if I’m saying too much.

Nefertiti Austin
Aug 19 · 4 min read
Shot of a mother and daughter at home having a serious discussion.
Shot of a mother and daughter at home having a serious discussion.
Photo: gradyreese/Getty Images

I’m a modern parent. I think it’s important to affirm my children’s voices, validate their thoughts, boost their self-esteem and be flexible. I use age-appropriate language and believe that children with parents who communicate with them feel more secure, are more willing to do as they are told and understand what is expected of them, at least in theory.

But sometimes I wonder if my kids and I exchange too many words.

I’m not talking about learning about their school day or listening to their feelings. I’m referring to the stage I have entered with my prepubescent 12-year old son and daughter who’s 6-going-on-30.

It’s been a stage defined by the push to cultivate an open dialogue with my children — one where I clearly communicate my rationale and hear them out — and the contrasting pull of my feeling that some issues don’t require a lengthy talk. It’s a parenting quagmire that sends me reeling.

These days I spend precious minutes listening to reasons why I can’t evict naked dolls from the bathtub or why smelly clothes prefer the spot next to or on top of the laundry basket, rather than inside where they belong. A simple “dinner’s ready” has a way of turning into a U.N. conference as my kids negotiate for more video game or TV time.

Eating dinner 10 minutes later is not the end of the world. I mean, we have a microwave. The problem is, dinner is ready. After hearing my kids out, I lay out the natural consequences of delaying dinner: Bath time is pushed back; my daughter and I read one book instead of three; they go to bed later, and our next morning will be rushed because they didn’t get enough sleep.

But inside I wonder, why am I explaining myself? If this scenario were a one-off, there would be no issue, but it’s constant.

On the flip side, I love that my children are able to voice their opinions. Last summer, I signed my daughter up for a math camp. My son had previously attended this same camp and had a blast, so I thought she would too. After the first day, my daughter announced that she hated camp. She made it clear that there were too many kids and the teachers weren’t friendly. I was disappointed that she was uncomfortable (not to mention, I had already paid for camp), but I heard what she said, and I did not send her back.

I felt good about that decision, but I still struggle in a space between being too authoritarian about tasks being completed at a certain time or in a specific manner and alternately feeling like I’m too permissive for allowing my children to circumvent plans I have put in place.

It’s a balancing act I have yet to master.

As much as I take pride in my kids’ ability to articulate their wants and needs, I worry that the incessant clarifying and negotiating makes boundaries so elastic that rules cease to be effective.

Perhaps my confusion is a byproduct of generational differences in parenting styles because I was not raised with as many choices.

My grandparents were old-school. I doubt they would have pulled me from camp or let my dinner get cold while I finished playing Atari with my brother. Their expectations were clear, and I complied out of fear of being punished or disappointing them or other adults. I’m not suggesting that fear-based parenting is the way to go, but now that I am a parent, I do understand the appeal of children following reasonable directions without question. And it’s a skill that, I must admit, has helped me in the real world.

In the end, I believe there is room for both communication styles — one that’s more direct and one that provides room for a back-and-forth — and I will continue to straddle past and present parenting models. I will nurture my modern kids’ voices, but I’ll simultaneously set firm limits. While I know there will still be conflicts along the way, I’m hopeful that our communication will keep us close. I also hope that my children can recognize that sometimes just do it can be as empowering as let’s make a deal.


Nefertiti Austin

Written by

Novelist and author of Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting America (Sept. 2019)


A conversation about the future of parenthood by Motherly

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