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The Earnheardts | Don’t F*** with my boundaries

I was not allowed to swear when I was a child and this restriction resulted in a life-long love of profane language. I wanted better for my kids.
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The Earnheardts: Clockwise from top: Mary Beth, Katie, Sadie, Adam, Ozzie, and Ella.

Last week the kids and I embarked on a Fall mission. This particular outing was canceled last year, but we’re vaccinated now and ready to get back to normal. And in this moment, “normal” was school clothes shopping. 

It’s been challenging to return to normal routines. Just as the initial lockdowns disrupted life, the gradual ramping up has created dissonance. 

While we were preparing to leave the house, Kate (14) was complaining non-stop. She’s never enjoyed shopping. Kate was pleased last year when I ordered her sneakers from Amazon and called it a day. It was during her complaints that it struck me how much our dynamics have changed. 

As the older girls have matured, they’ve started pushing at me. I’ve heard this is normal, but it still stings. 

In this particular instance, Kate took it too far. 

One of the rules of our house is that the kids are allowed to use profanity. Maybe it’s because we grew up listening to George Carlin, but for whatever reason Adam and I decided that we’d approach swear words in a different way than our parents did. We’d teach the kids they could swear at home, among the immediate family, but they couldn’t swear in other places because it wasn’t socially acceptable.

I was not allowed to swear when I was a child and this restriction resulted in a life-long love of profane language. I wanted better for my kids.

Once we adopted the swearing doctrine, I was initially terrified that the kids wouldn’t follow it. I had concerns that I’d get a call reporting that my little ones were swearing like drunken sailors all over the Valley. The calls never came. The swearing doctrine worked. Well, with one exception, and of course it was at a Catholic-run daycare. One of the lovely Oblate sisters confronted Adam about an admission Oscar made at school that day. 

“Oscar says you allow him to use profanity at home. Is this true,” she asked, almost pleading with Adam to deny it.

“Yes. It’s true,” Adam replied. “It’s so he doesn’t do it here.” Okay. Adam probably didn’t need to add that last part. He couldn’t help himself.

One of the downsides to letting the kids use profanity was that it limited an avenue of teenage rebellion. Kate figured this out early and upped her game. She knows dropping an f-bomb won’t get me, so she’s decided to make bathroom humor her medium of choice. I’m not a prude. I grew up with two older brothers. But I have to admit seeing my sweet-faced baby girl talk like 1990s shock jock Howard Stern is upsetting. 

On the morning of school clothes shopping, Kate was trying to convince me to leave her at home. She began using vulgarities to remind me why it may not be in my best interest to spend multiple hours with her. Normally, I would just walk away when she went too far. But I knew that if I did this to her at the Eastwood Mall, it could be viewed as child abandonment. 

I had to admit to her that she’d found a weakness. I didn’t want her to be vulgar around me. 

She was pleased to have found a button to press, and I knew if I didn’t play my cards right, it could be bad for me. Instead of trying to outsmart her, I talked to her like I would talk to anyone I love. I told her that when she was vulgar, she crossed one of my boundaries. 

To my surprise, both Kate and Ella (16) asked me questions about boundaries. Boundary-setting is something I regularly practice. Of course, I shared my definition of boundaries, but for the sake of using credible sources, I offer Mariana Bockarova’s Psychology Today interpretation:  

“Boundaries can be defined as the limits we set with other people, which indicate what we find acceptable and unacceptable in their behavior toward us. The ability to know our boundaries generally comes from a healthy sense of self-worth, or valuing yourself in a way that is not contingent on other people or the feelings they have toward you.” 

Bockarova’s definition is infinitely better than the one I provided to my daughters on the fly.

My non-expert definition for Kate was coupled with the example of the language she used. I could see that she was still pleased to know that she pushed me too far, but as that day of shopping progressed, she respected the boundary I set. 

When we were done and everyone had some new shoes and pants and even masks to show off at Liberty High School, I started to think about how the pandemic has affected my boundaries. Since March 2020, I haven’t had time to reflect on my limits. Yet, I knew from the level of discomfort I’ve felt, pandemic life tested, and often broke, my previous boundaries.

It’s possible that living through the pandemic has destroyed some of your boundaries, too. Work and school invaded our homes in unprecedented ways. Our families and friends and coworkers and neighbors all have differing responses to pandemic rules and guidelines, which can lead to uncomfortable conversations about masks and vaccines. Social distancing and the suspension of handshakes and hugs have led to awkward greetings, altering some of our traditional boundaries. 

Just as my daughters are learning that boundaries are a way to cultivate and navigate relationships, we too need to work on recreating, redefining and clearly communicating these new social rules with the people we love. When we make it through this, the way we interact with each other may look different, but I know from experience that good boundaries create peaceful coexistence (even with teenage daughters).

Mary Beth Earnheardt is a professor in the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University where she advises student media. Follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo. 

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