My daughter has been playing with her iPad all day. She’s playing smurfs.

A voice in me is saying I should tell her that she needs to stop and go out and play. But why?

Truth is, I’m enjoying it. I didn’t get enough sleep last night, so I’m tired, and I really enjoy the time to read and write - especially the writing part I’ve missed since going on vacation. And she’s really engaged and enjoying it. It’s also a way to get a bit of exposure to English (she’s Danish native).

And an hour ago, we had the most beautiful father-daughter moment. She was upset about something with her brother, and then she started crying and crying. Thankfully, she let me in, and she kept crying for about 15 minutes - holding me, kicking a bit, stopping for a second, then crying again.

She’s been through a lot, recently - a divorce, ending her pre-school daycare, her father moving to the other side of the world, a mother in distress, and so on. And her primary role models - her mother and I - have been good at teaching her to shut down her emotions and keep them pent up inside. So when I see her release all of that, in such a beautiful way, it’s such a privilege to be able to be there with her, to be the adult presence that she needs. No words were necessary, she did the work beautifully on her own.

And despite all of this, there’s this nagging voice saying I should curb her iPad playing. Why? Just because. Is 1 hour too much? 2 hours? 6 hours? What if she asks for Coke or ice cream? How much is enough? Nothing? A cup? Two scoops?

There’s this nagging sense that I should control my children somehow. That if I’m not setting limits for them, I’m not doing my job, I’m a bad parent.

I think it’s bogus, of course.

Jesper Juul, a leading family therapist in Europe, once said that it’s not about setting limits for your children, it’s about asserting your own personal boundaries in relation to them. If it’s too noisy for you, tell them so. If it’s too much ice cream, say so. They’re okay with the fact that the limits are flexible in absolute terms - one day you can jump on the sofa, the next day you can’t - if they are your boundaries, and they’re communicated respectfully and lovingly. They’re not testing the limits in an absolute sense. They’re testing your limits, to find the real you. What matters is that you’re being authentic with them. 

That actually means you have an even greater responsibility. It means you have a responsibility to be conscious. You have to make sure you’re setting limits based on your real boundaries, and not just projecting your own dysfunctional patterns on to them. You have to continually work to bring more consciousness to your own motivations and controlling patterns.

And if you have difficulty with boundaries - like most of us do - you’re probably going to have to work on those issues first. Most of us have been violated as children. As parents, it’s impossible not to violate the psychological boundaries of your children from time to time, but some parents seem to even take pride in it. They see it as proof of how great parents they are. “I’m looking out for the best interests of my children by imposing my irrational limits on them in a way that completely violates the integrity of my children,” is what they seem to be saying.

My experience is that you’re best off listening to your own inner voice and intuition. It knows when to set limits and when not to. Is she playing with the iPad in a way that seems healthy? Or is she using it a way to avoid some painful feelings? Does she need help getting out and playing with the other kids in a way where she can feel safe? 

And sometimes the most loving thing to do is to let her play, even though you can tell it’s not really emotionally healthy, because you need the break, you need time to tend to your inner child, so you can face her with more compassion and wholeness. Being a good parent is as much about taking good care of you as it is taking care of your children. For one, so that you have the energy to be loving with them. But also because they’re going to learn from your example, not your word.

I think what goes for children goes for life in general, including business. It’s the same with any relationship - customers, employees, investors. Instead of rules and policies, Zappos allows their employees to use their own judgment.

The US labor laws with all the anti-discriminatory and anti-sexual-harassment codes are problematic precisely for this reason. They’re a good tool to stop a culture of abuse, but then they become a hindrance to improving relations further. It erects a wall between employees, and particularly between employees and their superiors/subordinates.

It’s a sad world view that we need to erect walls between us to survive. What if we believed instead that we could allow ourselves to be vulnerable and meet other people with open hearts, because we know our own boundaries, and we know how to enforce them, so we’re not afraid of being violated anymore?

That’s what you have a chance of teaching your children, if you decide to respect their boundaries - and yours - and to show them by example how healthy boundaries are upheld in healthy relationships.

I’d say that’s a lesson worth passing on.


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