Shelter-in-Place Has Changed How We Communicate With Our Kids

The pandemic and ensuing quarantine have meant around-the-clock family time with few breaks, a handful of headaches, and myriad moments that I might otherwise miss were I not fortunate enough to be working from home. This uncharted parental territory has pushed me and my husband to reevaluate and redraw several boundaries with our kids, including how we express ourselves and our frustrations without raising our voices, how to navigate confusion and misunderstanding without talking down to our kids, how to ask for things without incessant repetition (that goes for all of us), and how to model acceptable behavior by being less reactive. Now that I am spending all day, every day with and around my children without the luxuries of babysitting or playdates, there are times when I find that I have to step out of the room for a moment (or at least back away from situations where emotions might run high) to take a few cleansing breaths and clear my head. It turns out that these boundaries don't just help my kids to learn what is appropriate and acceptable behavior versus what is not. They also help me to regulate my own responses and emotions while acting as a role model for my kids.

I am finding that spending more time with my kids is allowing me to become more attuned to their behaviors and needs. Having a more intimate understanding of their daily activities and habits, how they relate to one another, how they cope with strong emotions, how they solve problems, and how they resolve conflicts actually bolsters my ability to set clear and consistent boundaries. I have learned, for example, that when my oldest son is overwhelmed, overstimulated, or frustrated, he tends to become extra noisy and boisterous. Watching for and spotting these behavioral cues helps me to know when it is time to switch to a different activity or time for calm and quiet.

Spending so much time with my kids can be nerve-wracking at times, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it has been for me to speak kindly to my children and not raise my voice when setting boundaries. My oldest son is, like me, quite stubborn and loves to test his limits. One of his new favorite pastimes is to try to wrestle with his younger brother, who is still a bit young for real roughhousing. This never ends well. I cannot deny that the first time this happened, after telling my son several times to stop, I raised my voice out of frustration that he wouldn't listen to me and concern for the safety of his younger brother. This was ultimately ineffective, of course, and I regretted it almost immediately. Rather than learn why it is important to be careful while playing and to listen to me when I ask him to do something, my son was shocked. I don't want to be a mom who raises her voice rather than staying calm and explaining in simple and reasonable terms why certain behaviors are unacceptable.

It can be tough not to be so reactive, especially when you are spending all of your time around someone, whether that person is your child, your spouse, your sibling, your friend, or your own parent. I sometimes feel like my kids know just what to do to get a reaction out of me. As the parent of young children, it is my responsibility to stay calm, to demonstrate level-headed reactions, and to make sure that my kids don't end up with a sense of entitlement because I'm being too permissive or anxiety because I'm being too restrictive. The next time my son tried to wrestle his younger brother, I separated them, then sat with my son, eye to eye, and explained that he could hurt his brother. I then showed him other games they could play together.

I still have to give my son gentle reminders about specific consequences for specific unacceptable behaviors, such as having a toy confiscated when he takes one from his brother, or getting a timeout when he refuses to do what I ask, but it is worth the time and effort. I have learned that once you set a boundary, you have to stick with it, so I have to be as consistent as I can be. I give my children no more than an hour of screen time each day, whether this is playing an educational game on a tablet or watching a kids' show. After screen time, I like for my children to have indoor or outdoor play time to burn off pent-up energy. Sometimes, getting the tablet away from my children without a fight is a tall order, but I have had to be consistent about the routine, even though it would sometimes be so much easier to just let them continue playing on the tablet. The more consistent the rules, the more likely it is that my kids will learn and embrace them. OK, maybe they won't embrace them, but they will accept them.

Setting boundaries is undoubtedly and undeniably an imperfect learning process with many twists and turns, but it also gives me ample occasion for self-reflection as a parent. Sometimes I have to backtrack and reconsider the feasibility of certain boundaries. Can I really expect a 2-and-a-half-year-old to understand the complexities of right and wrong when it comes to taking a toy from his baby brother? No, but he can certainly understand that he shouldn't do it and that there will be a consequence for it.

It seems counterintuitive to be both adaptable and consistent at the same time, but that is precisely what parenting demands. I simply can't be stubborn to a fault, or my children and I wouldn't have much of a chance at a harmonious existence. I try not to be too hard on myself if things don't seem perfect or if I have to try new boundaries. Being a parent means learning from and adapting to new challenges every day, especially during this pandemic. It can be easy to forget that even our children are under stress and navigating some stormy seas, so why not try to navigate them together?