If we follow the voice from childhood still ringing in our heads, we might do better at adulting.
Did your parents set boundaries for you when you were a kid? Mine did.
But if you were anything like me as a kid, you questioned all of it. I wondered why I couldn't stay up all night at a sleepover, or why I couldn't eat a bowl of Fruit Loops at bedtime. (My mom always said, “You think you’re hungry, but you’re really just tired. Go to bed.” Thanks, Mom.)
Even if you come from a family that suffered from a lot of dysfunction (like mine) and your parents didn’t win “Discipliners of the Year,” I bet you still have some valuable lessons they taught you buried deep in your memory.
As I transition into adult life, I’m trying to learn how to set my own boundaries. Ironically, I’ve realized there are dozens of things I can learn about boundaries from my childhood — things that will help me live a fuller life as an adult.
Here's what I’m trying to remember in every part of my life, from work to home and everywhere in between:
1. Just because Julie gets to have it doesn’t mean I get to have it.
This rule used to apply to a new scooter with tassels or a new Game Boy. In adult life, I’ve learned that it’s more about wanting what other people have, like babies and functional families.
According to psychology professor and researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, unhappy people compare themselves to others because they have bought into the idea that true happiness comes when our friends fail and we succeed. Comparison is a thief that will rob us of every ounce of happiness — if we let it.
2. Life isn’t fair.
Some people get spa memberships while others get eviction notices. Some people get Christmas bonuses while others get laid off. Some people get great health insurance that covers everything while others get bad health insurance that equals heaping piles of late bills. You get the point. Adulthood — and life — isn’t fair and balanced.
Slowly, I am learning to accept that we all taste a different flavor of pain and brokenness and heartbreak at different points in our lives. But I also won’t give up on fighting hard every day for equality in things that matter. I will speak up as the voice for people who don’t deserve their flavor of pain and injustice.
3. It’s OK to cry.
When my dad missed a cheerleading competition that I’d been practicing for all year and then my team lost, it solidified a very bad day, and my mom held me close and used her soft hands to wipe away and validate my tears.
In every moment when you feel the weight of life not being fair as an adult, it’s OK to cry. Life is life.
4. Family comes first.
As a kid, I remember waiting by the car in my party dress to drive to my friend’s birthday party, but all of the sudden our car needed to change routes to go visit my grandma in the hospital. Do you remember the tears from your childhood when you didn’t get what you wanted because family called and needed help? It’s rough, but it teaches you how to love.
Today, if my dad calls and he’s struggling with his addiction, I’ll answer the call — no matter what’s on my social calendar. If my uncle needs surgery, I’ll get on a plane and watch the clock tick with my family in the waiting room. Even when it means missing something important, I’ll fly to you. I’ll be there. Because I love you more than anything I think is bigger and better on my agenda.
5. Think before you speak.
When I’m on the phone with customer service complaining about the fourth failed attempt at delivering a new washing machine I purchased weeks ago, all of the rules of manners fly out the window. I want what I want when I want it. Now. Yesterday.
But what if that customer service representative just came into work after an all-nighter with a loved one who suffers from anxiety? I’m not exactly being very loving to a person who is really just exhausted. So maybe — just maybe — all the moms were right about this golden rule.
6. Eat ice cream for dinner.
Go big! Buy 20 different snacks from the vending machine. Totally go "Gilmore Girls" style: Just decide not to decide and try out all the assortments.
We all need days to relax from the routine and make a childish decision that throws out all attention to an adult budget. Do I need Cheez-Its and Sour Straws AND Oreos? Probably not. But I need a day where I get to be a kid again and follow mom’s advice to eat ice cream for dinner. (OK, she was probably just too tired to make dinner that night, but aren’t you too tired to make dinner too?)
7. Save the world.
My brother and I attended the low-income elementary school where my mom taught, even though we weren’t districted to go there. One day, my brother came home from school and asked why his friend always wore the same clothes every day. My mom tackled the tough questions head-on, and we went through our closets to anonymously donate clothes to our friends who needed help.
Where has this child-like enthusiasm for saving the world or just helping a friend gone? I want to open my eyes and ask hard questions, and remember why I cared.
8. Say you’re sorry.
I remember those forced awkward apologies when I said something sassy to a friend and then she tattled on me. We learn the script of apologies as a kid, but it took me a while to learn how and when to say it and mean it.
When my dad tried to say sorry for relapsing in his addiction, I didn’t know how to look him in the eye and accept his apology. When a friend told me why she felt I let her down, I didn’t suck it up and say I’m sorry. But I’m still trying. I want to be first to the “I’m sorry” line — not the person who waits for someone else to point out I owe them an apology. And when people I love are brave enough to apologize to me, I want the same kind of bravery to look up and listen.
9. Write “love” notes (not the mushy kind).
I’m convinced that 1. Life is really, really hard for everyone, and 2. We all need more love letters. My mom used to write me love notes every day on a napkin that she put in my lunch box.
Who in my life needs to know that I love them? Who needs a napkin every day as a reminder that someone in this big world sees them and hears them and knows them?
10. Talk it out (especially with bullies).
Me and my little-girl band of hair-pulling friends earned ourselves a weekly session on our school counselor’s couch. We learned the classic: “I feel [blank] when you [blank].” Really, we wasted hours bullying each other and then were forced to talk it out when it would have been easier to cross our arms and pout.
I know the takeaway here because life would be a whole lot easier if we just talked about it. But it’s not easy. In fact, I stubbornly would rather just keep avoiding hard conversations. However, I’m trying to swallow my fear and go to the hard places with people who hurt me, communicating when and how I feel unloved.
11. Mess up. Try again. Repeat.
Every day, I mess up and I do something (or many somethings) wrong. I hurt people’s feelings. I go down the wrong road. I shut down when I should listen. I lie or fabricate when I should tell the truth.
The good news is that we all make mistakes. When I say something sarcastic that comes out sounding rude, I’ll wake up and try again at this whole life-with-humans thing.
Our days of chore charts and bedtimes might have ended, but we can still learn how to play nice in the sandbox.
Rules and boundaries can help us live productive and fulfilling lives, just like the days mom proudly displayed our “Student of the Month” certificate on the fridge.
My parents used to tuck me in at night and send me off to school in the morning, always whispering “I love you.” I want to get back to my roots. I want to find my way back home — to the place where all the rules were made with love.