I’m finally reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. (I know. It’s old. But I had little kids for a lot of years, and didn’t get to read much.) It’s riveting. I can’t put it down. It has everything that makes a good read: a glimpse into another’s world, suspense, humor, horror, love, and good writing. I can’t wait to crawl into bed each night to read it, and I’m repeatedly looking at the clock and muttering to myself, “Just one more chapter.” I read books about people because I love the sensation of being removed from my current life and venturing into someone else’s. I parent my own boys, and then coach others in parenting theirs. Enough! How much parenting can one woman do? So I leave the dusty bottles in the liquor cabinet, and I turn to books.

But just as a photographer can’t help but notice that the light on the family hike is perfect for taking pictures, or the chef, out for fun with a friend, can’t help but take mental notes on how her food is displayed when the waiter delivers her dish, it’s really impossible for me to read about The Walls family without contemplating the parenting.

Now you might think that I’m sitting here wanting to ring those parents’ necks as they essentially set zero limits, pretty much expecting the kids to raise themselves. Heck, much of the time, they don’t even know where their children are or what they’re up to! Actually, I have a lot of empathy for them. I know that we all do the best we can, and their love for their children shines throughout the book.

In all honesty, most of us never learn how to set limits lovingly, yet effectively. And in an age of helicopter parenting (in the bad kind of way – i.e. tracking children with cell-phone apps, and getting involved of every tiny minutia of our children’s lives), I’m actually finding the memoir kind of refreshing.

I’m not glorifying poverty, alcoholism, or mental illness, which I’m guessing the Wells parents suffered from. And I hope with all my heart and soul that my boys, and yours, never experience physical abuse or gun violence or have to sleep in a cardboard box or go hungry. There is, however, something substantial, meaningful that comes from figuring things out on your own.

Yesterday, when I heard a huge boom and ran outside to find a group of young boys – including one of my sons – running, after setting off a firecracker, part of me wanted to say, “Good for you for taking a risk! For trying something new. For trusting in yourselves to be safe.” I flashed back to when my boys were really small and one of them found a piece of candy in the back of the car at 7:30am on the way to school and asked if he could eat it. I thought to myself, “Dammit! Why did you ask me that! Don’t you know I can’t say yes to candy for breakfast? Why didn’t you just eat the damn thing! Do you get that you just ruined it for yourself?” If the boys had asked me about the firecracker, I would have said “only with adult supervision”. And I would have made impossible what will now surely become a childhood memory of excitement and daring that these boys will someday share with their own children.

Still, they could have lost fingers… or an eye.

I didn’t grow up with many limits. I am an independent spirit, and a hard worker. I have a keen sense of right and wrong, and I don’t particularly like being told what to do. But I am a mom of three young boys who are sometimes prone to do crazy things, so I’ve learned to set limits firmly, but lovingly. The proverbial question, “Is a limit necessary?” is rubbed in my face many times a day. And each time I have to take a moment to consider – to weigh the cost benefit factor, to find that perfect balance of keeping them safe and letting them fall, of maintaining order and letting them find new ways of doing things.

If Rose Mary and Rex Walls had raised their children in a guarded fortress, like so many of us build around our children today, I wonder what kind of person Jeannette Walls would have become? Would she see the glass as half full? Would she have the resilience and confidence it must have taken to build the life and career she has successfully created? The character that, undoubtedly, makes her unique, interesting, interested? Would I have the qualities that have enabled me to live a life I love if I had been kept on a shorter leash? Who knows?

There is, I’m convinced, a place somewhere between the Glass Castle and the Guarded Fortress. In fact, I think there’s a big broad meadow of space between the two. The perfect space for figuring out what makes sense for each of our families. The perfect place for pondering whether a limit is in order, or whether, perhaps, it might be okay to let our kids figure this one out on their own.

Here are a few quick tips to help you walk that tightrope:

  1. Don’t set limits willy nilly. Just because. Stop for a moment and think. Rules are often set randomly and no one wants to follow unreasonable rules – not even your boys.
  2. Don’t set limits you’re not sure you want to set. Unless you’re whole in your conviction, your limit won’t get results anyway – at least not the ones you’re looking for. That your neighbor – or your mother – thinks you should set a limit doesn’t matter. What do YOU think?
  3. Don’t pretend you have control over how your child feels about the limit you’re sure you want to set. You set the limit. They get to feel whatever comes up. Even if it’s that they hate you.
  4. Don’t fear your son’s big noises and crazy thrashing. It’s normal. I swear it is. No need try to convince your son that he should be feeling differently, or tell him that he shouldn’t be feeling at all because it’s no big deal, or try to distract him with an ice cream cone. Instead, just listen.

What are your thoughts on setting limits? How do you balance the need to keep your kids safe with the need to support their developing independence?