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Carolyn Hax: Wife’s ‘boundaries’ with teen son feel controlling

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: How do you know when a boundary is a reasonable limit and when it’s controlling behavior?

My wife and I have a toddler together and a teen my wife has been around for more than half of his life. He certainly considers her his “other mom.”

Our teen will often want to watch TV with us but will also text with his friends. I say, “Who cares?” He’s a great kid, works hard at school and sports, and is a good, kind, ethical human. Maybe we can just cut him some slack in the evenings?

My wife is a high school teacher and says she has to get teenagers off their phones all day long, and it drives her crazy. She says she’s “setting a boundary” that our teen may not be on his phone if he is in the room watching TV with us. If he wants to be on his phone, then he needs to go to his room.

If we don’t agree, then we are “disrespectful” and “violating her boundaries.”

Who is right? And what is going on here?

— Exhausted Mom

Exhausted Mom: Superficially, what’s going on is making a “rule” and passing it off as a “boundary.” Our boundaries apply inward, to ourselves; rules apply outward, to others. So your wife is trying to make a rule to control others but is framing it as a boundary to suppress dissent. Whether that’s deliberate, I don’t know, but it’s a common, self-serving misinterpretation of what a boundary is — mistaking “what I want” for “what you have to do.”

If your wife were setting a boundary, then she would decide she wasn’t okay with people being on their phones while she’s trying to watch TV and either:

1. Ask them to stop (knowing they could refuse).

2. Ask them to leave (knowing they could refuse).

3. Go watch the bedroom TV in peace.

4. Switch to reading a book.

Whatever. She’d be governing her own behavior, something she can always do unilaterally.

If your wife were making a rule, then she’d say, “No phone noodling while watching TV.” Which is also something household members can do — but not unilaterally. They need either authority or agreement.

If she were a single parent, then she could turn the TV off till the phone went away. If you were all roommates, then she’d need a majority (and some nerve, and cooperative roommates). As a co-parent, she needs you on board with this rule.

Because you’re not on board, but also have been boundary-shamed into questioning your right to be, you have three-way confusion. Your wife thinks you’re both disrespectful, you think your wife’s overreaching, and your teen is winging it while his parents duke out who’s in charge.

There are subtler outcomes available, too. Your wife can state her discomfort with phone attachment, and your teen can choose to respect that and lay his aside. You can state that having your teen in the room with you is your priority (a valid one) and that your wife can respect that and set her pet peeve aside. It’s not all rules and rights.

But when you have a clear understanding of rules and rights, that creates space for these accommodations and has a calming effect. If you and your wife agree on a rule, then there’s no re-litigating the phone thing every night. There’s no, “You don’t respect me!” There’s no teen watching for wriggle-through-able holes in the parental-authority net.

So huddle parentally, ASAP, and learn what your keywords mean, and make family TV rules based on respect for each of your priorities and personal boundaries.

Then gather ’round to play buzzword roulette with your kids.

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