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  • Erika Barr

Setting Empathetic Limits in the Age of Instant Gratification

About 2 years ago I made the mistake of telling my kids they could use my Amazon account to create Wish Lists for Christmas. Insert *smacking face* emoji here. What was I thinking?!

I inadvertently dug myself a hole that would take the next year to climb out of, one firm limit at a time.

Can you imagine being a kid in this age? Imagine you’re five years old and your mom needs paper towels so she opens her phone, clicks around a bit, and poof! the next day paper towels arrive on the front doorstep. It’s magic. It’s actual real life magic.

When my son was four he asked for a “UPS man” costume for Halloween (In the US, UPS stands for United Parcel Service, and they deliver a ton of packages in their trademark brown vans). In my son’s world the UPS delivery person was the modern-day superhero. He was Santa, Superman, and God all wrapped in one. The UPS delivery person delivered secret packages almost daily, and once in a while they contained toys that he didn’t even know he wanted! I told you I’d dug myself a deep hole…

When I started to think deeply about how I had created this situation, I realized 3 things:

First, I hadn’t thought through what I was getting myself into, and the consequences that would inevitably ensue. Had I thought 3 steps ahead, I would have quickly realized that giving my kids access to my Amazon account would open the door to endless battles over stuff.

Second, I was being wishy washy. I would flip flop between “Yes, of course I will buy that for you,” and “No, you absolutely don’t need that”. How many times do you do this? Does this sound familiar to the battle over screens in your home?

Lastly, I needed to take a good, hard look at my own boundaries. Was I struggling to hold myself accountable to the same rules that I was trying to enforce with my kids? The answer was “Yes”. The answer is almost always “Yes” when I run into boundary-setting resistance.

If these three reflections are taken into consideration every time we want to create a boundary with our kids, we increase our chances for success…for our kids, and for ourselves as parents.

Take the battle of screens for example…

Research is plentiful on the detriments of too much screen time for our kids. We know there are negative effects of letting our kids watch television and/or play video games for hours each day. And yet, our kids want screens! (Ahem, and so do we!) The battle over screen time is one of the most common struggles I hear about from parents, and it is certainly one I have dealt with in my home.

Using the three steps previously mentioned I have (mostly) claimed victory in the screen time battle. If screen time battles are a regular occurrence in your home, consider these questions:

Have I thought through what I really want the use of screens to look like in our home on a daily basis? Or have I blundered around blindly trying, to set rules day by day?

Am I being wishy washy? Am I giving them 40 minutes one day and then 2 hours the next day because I need to get work done without interruptions?

And finally, what do my boundaries with screens look like? Am I being hypocritical?

How many of our kids have said to us, “Well if I can’t have the iPad, then you can’t have your phone!” And we say “Ummm no, that’s not how this works. You see, I need my phone”. Then your usage report comes in on Sunday and the lies you have told yourself become undeniable! “There is no way I spent that much time on my phone! Something must be wrong with the software.” It can be a hard truth to accept.

Translating the Reflections Into Empathetic Limits

Having clarity and being methodical in deciding where, and how, to set hard limits around any situation is important to remember. Personally, I think it is crucial to have very few boundaries that are set in stone. Limit these permanent boundaries to safety concerns: screen time, taking care of their bodies, getting enough rest, etc. Everything else can be up for negotiation so our children don’t feel overly controlled. The greater the perception of control, the greater the potential rebellion.

When we establish boundaries clearly and with empathy, there is no need for punishments and discipline.

Once we become clear on which boundaries are right for our families, sticking to these 3 rules will lead us to success:

1. Clear and Concise Rules

Write the rules down and make them visible to everyone in the family. Post them on the refrigerator or on a wall in a highly frequented space. Remind your kids of the rules every time they try to push. You can say to them, in a calm and empathetic voice, “The rule is_____, I will help you follow the rule.”

Our screen rules are very clear. My kids know them well, yet I still repeat the rules each time they get screen time. We always set a timer as a neutral party to let us know when the time is up. My kids are notified when they have 10 minutes left. Once we get down to the 5 minute mark I sit with them. I have found that this really helps them tie up what they are doing if they are playing a game, or if they have a video they want to watch before their time is up. I remind them that once the timer goes off, we are done for the day. That last 5 minutes is key. It’s hard for kids to get off on their own, even when they know the rules. They need you to be present with them as they transition.

2. Consistency

Are you willing to stick to the boundaries you set for your kids? Most of us aren’t, which is why we end up buying our kids way more than they need and letting them have more screen time than agreed on because we need a babysitter.

When our children know there is absolutely no wiggle room, they push less. This takes a high level of consistency on our part. Once our children see our commitment, it is easier for them to understand the way the home functions and to find their place in it.

Keep in mind, we must make sure to think carefully about the boundaries we want to enforce and commit ONLY to the ones we fully believe in, otherwise we risk becoming rigid and authoritarian.

Consistency with screen rules has always been my biggest challenge! When I am in the middle of something work related, it seems so easy to just let the television or computer babysit for me. Of course this makes it harder for everyone in the long run!

It helps to plan the day the night before. It also helps to have a designated screen time each day. With those in mind you can plan when you can get some work done, and also can remind them, “You know the rule in our house. The rule is we get screens at _____ every day.” With consistency the begging and whining will subside.

3. Hold Yourself Accountable

Don’t wait for your kids to point out that YOU are getting a package in the mail every day, or that YOU are looking at your phone again. Take responsibility for your lack of boundaries, empathize with your children on how hard it can be, and embody what you want them to become. Empathy will get you far with your children, and the easiest way to feel it is to embody what you are asking of them.

The less time I spend with my phone, the less my kids ask to use it. What a surprise! I talk to them about how addictive my phone can be. They know I have compassion for what they are feeling because I feel it too!


Remember that one of our goals as parents is to teach our children about presence and abundance. We want to teach them that everything they could ever desire is right at their fingertips, while also reminding them that material things and staring at a screen all day do not bring happiness. Happiness is an inside job, but there is no shame in playing with this current reality that we are living in.

Let your children be the reminders you need to clean up your side of the street. Let them teach you to consume less, connect more, and stay present.

**For those of you wondering how the Amazon debacle was resolved, I am happy to report that after a solid 9 months of my kids trying to sneak my phone and shop, we finally put that one to rest. It took months of empathizing and firmly (yet gently) saying things like, “I know how hard it is when you think you really want something. I have been there too. Let’s go outside and see what kinds of nature we can collect. That always gives me a re-set!”

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