Bonding or Boundaries

Posted on: 04/8/14 3:45 AM | by Jonathan McKee

Bonding-Boundaries-SignParenting is hard!

I study and write about youth culture and parenting almost every day. It seems so nice and simple when I’m reading articles and typing words on the screen… then my 16-year-old gets home from school!

Huge difference between theory and practice.

I have never… emphasis on nevermet the perfect parent. And I’m still learning lessons daily with my own kids, age 16, 18 and 20. But people still always ask me:

“What’s the secret to being a good parent today?”

I always laugh and think, “Ha… do you want theory or practice?

Allow me to let you in on a little bit of my thinking where, imperfect parent that I am, theory is slowly becoming practice in my own home. It’s nothing more than a balance of bonding and boundaries.

Bonding includes nurturing, hugging, wrestling on the floor, connecting over coffee and engaging in meaningful dialogue with our kids. Boundaries include teaching values, setting fair and helpful guidelines, and enforcing discipline when necessary. These two practices are equally vital and important, and at times they seem to be at odds with each other. That’s why most parents seem to gravitate toward one or the other.

In my speaking to parents over the last decade I’ve witnessed this polarization time and time again. If parents sway to one side or the other, they become either the over-protective parent (aka, the “helicopter” parent), or the overly-permissive parent (aka, the “peerant”).

If a parent is strong in bonding and weak in boundaries, these kids don’t learn values or discipline. Their overly-permissive parents are so busy being their “friend,” they don’t ever take time to be the parent and say, “No, that’s not good for you.” These kids learn more values from friends and entertainment media than from their parents. These parents often look back in regret.

But if parents sway to the other extreme they can become mere drill sergeants or disciplinarians. These over-protective parents often never give their kids a chance to learn to make good choices on their own… every choice is made for them.

It’s hard to find this balance.

If I were being completely honest, I’d have to confess that I was too strict with my oldest. I focused on rules and discipline so much that I didn’t give him the chance to learn to make choices on his own… and it hurt our relationship.

I really changed with my second child, giving her the chance to make more and more choices, especially during her last two years of high school. I even went to the extreme of instituting ‘no rules –when 17 ½.

Now, with two kids in college and one at home, I find myself focusing on our relationship (bonding), but constantly looking for any opportunity to teach values and decision-making skills (boundaries). Sometimes these two can intersect, like our Wednesday time after school where we meet at our favorite Mexican restaurant, talk a lot about life and go through some scripture together (currently we’re in Ephesians).

I’m constantly searching for a balance between the two.

So what about you?
Which way do you lean, and candidly, how’s that working for you?parent-books

And if you’re not a parent, which parent do you encounter more?



Jason Tarnowski

Kim Armstrong


Posted in Parenting, Personal |  | Leave A Comment

30 Replies to “Bonding or Boundaries”

  1. I definitely see more of the boundary side. The bonding that I do see, especially in families in my ministry, is not a healthy bonding (like trying to be a buddy more than a parent).

  2. I think I sway back and forth. Or my husband and I switch. One day I am the teacher and he is the bonder and the next I am the bonder and he is the teacher. I also think that sometimes I don’t do enough of each of them. It is difficult because I have 3 males ages 14,11,9. I also think that with those 3 they each seem to bond more with me or with my husband. It may be their personality differences.

  3. I enjoy reading your blog and forward it to my 3 GROWN children! I am praying they find guidance in your offerings to parent my 7 grandchildren! It is so true how grandchildren are a piece of your heart that you never realized was there until you become a Grandmother/Grandma/Me-Me/Poppie…whatever they choose to call you! I always strived to give the best guidance to my children but for some reason the Grandchildren pull at my heart strings in a different way. Possibly because I can only offer ideas or opinions and not be the actual decision maker that is hard. I know there are no “Brady Bunch” families out there but don’t you think everyone has the hope from time to time? JG

  4. As a Youth Minister I rarely see parents, (yes that’s sarcasm).
    I run into parents all the time. I do however early run into the drill sergeant parent. I see a lot of peerents though, and many of my parents are now raising the younger siblings. and because they messed up, their words not mine, the older kids so much they are afraid of doing the same to the younger ones. So they simply don’t do anything. I’m constantly being asked to do more activities and have more things for their kids to do. I have to remind them, gently, that they are the parent, it is not my job to raise their kid. I’m fearful for a generation that had to raise themselves and what that will do to them as adult. I hope when my own kids (9, 6, 5, and 3) become teenagers I will be able to balance between these two extremes or at the very least be involved in their lives.

  5. First of all this is just what I needed to hear. I too lean too heavily on the disciple with my first child. They are still young so I will keep this in my mind and make some changes! Thank you for the post!

  6. I have 2 girls, ages 17 and 16 and 1 boy, age 10. My 17 year old complains that all of my attempts to bond turn into attempts to promote boundaries; mostly, I think, because something will come up that I try to turn into a teaching moment. She is right. Complete fail. But I am constantly trying to figure out that line; when and where to do either. I find it easier with my son than with my daughters, but maybe that is because he’s not a teenager yet;).

  7. Thank you for the post. Being a youth pastor means I am a Kids and Youth Expert…right? I have a hard enough time being the best parent I can be to my kids, while attempting to help the parents in my group do the same. How protective is TOO protective?
    Its great to know I am not alone in this!

  8. Interesting article as usual. I wonder if there’s any studies done into the long term spiritual health (and other areas too) of children of “peerants” and “copter” parents.

    1. There are tons of the studies on this, I cite them in my blog all the time. And they never agree… except on one thing: frequent conversations. From liberal to conservative (from “give your kids alcohol at home so they don’t party elsewhere” group, to the “no TV or internet at all” group)… they both agree on that one tenant: we need to constantly dialogue with our kids.

  9. I think any parent reading this article ought to give himself or herself a pat on the back just because it shows you have a desire to be a better parent and are working on it! We have two teens, 15 and 13, and we lean toward the over-protective style of parenting. I realize now that when taken to the extreme, it can hinder a child’s confidence in their ability to make decisions, so we have been tweaking things some. We want them to make mistakes now when the mistakes, as well as the consequences, are smaller. As far as bonding and teachable moments, I think it takes sensitivity. I don’t want my kids feeling like they can’t ‘just talk’. If they feel like they can’t tell us anything without having some ‘moral to the story’ thrown in, I think it can get old to them. So we try not to make judgments and just let them talk. I want them to feel like they can come to us especially as they go through the teenage years.

  10. I’m not a parent so my comments may be irrelevant. lol. I think that I find myself varying from one side to the other. I can end up being too much on the bonding side with those that are outside the church. That’s important, but when their in my class or at a youth event I still need to have boundaries for them. I can’t let them do whatever just because their not used to the rules of the group. For those that are Christians and are there regularly I tend to expect more and can lean more toward boundaries. I need to give them some room to make mistakes and not get frustrated whenever they do. I constantly remind myself of how stupid I am constantly “making mistakes” (sinning) and God still loves me and wants to spend time with me.

    I think when I have kids I’ll struggle more on the boundaries side because I’ll expect them to do what I say because I’m the parent. It can be harder to listen when expecting teens to already know what to do without ever being asked, explained to, listened to or corrected. Hmmm….I don’t think I could even reach those standards. 🙂

  11. I apparently also need to learn when to use ‘their’ and ‘they’re’. I was a perfect youth pastor up until that point…..and if you believe that I should definitely get a free book.

  12. We have 2 boys – 16yrs and 14yrs. One of our challenges is actually figuring how to fit in that bonding time especially between the 16yr old and Dad. He has a lot of homework so weeknights seem impossible. On the weekends there’s family stuff, or he has some sport activity, etc. and it just seems so hard for that 1:1 time to happen. But without that time for shared interests and activities, the relationship becomes strained because the only interaction ends up being about the boundaries.

  13. As a youth pastor and a parent (I have 2 boys, ages 11 & 8) I found it much easier to give parenting advice before I had kids or when they were younger. The older my boys get, the harder it is, though it seems much easier to see what others can do to improve their bonding and boundaries. I am constantly recognizing where I’ve messed up. One of the best things my wife & I have done to create a safe space for open conversation is to create “mommy dates” and “guy time.” Sure, our desire is for every moment with our kids to be safe, unfortunately, those boundaries keep getting in the way. At least they don’t always feel good even though we know they are valuable. My wife takes one boy to a coffee shop and I usually take the other to Sonic. A drive-in like Sonic is great because we get to enjoy a fun treat, but have the safety of it only being us in the car-no extra ears or interruptions from others we know dropping by the table.

  14. Love this. As a student pastor, I try and stay connected with parents to help me help their kids. The balance of these things is a universal struggle. One big problem I see more and more is the “I want to be my child’s best friend mentality”! With this comes no boundaries. God help us all! Lol. Thanks so much for your resources!

  15. Thanks for all the wonderful advice! Hope to meet you some day! – YouthPastor in the Deep South :~)

  16. I have 2 girls (13 and 4).

    So it is hard to bond with them, and also keep boundaries.
    Especially both girls are so different in personality.

    The older one is more relaxed, lets life happen.
    The youngest one has to be constantly be on the move, be active, do stuff. She also wants to know what will we do after what we are currently doing.

    Instead of enjoying the journey and living in the moment (like the older one), she wants to know what is ahead.

    So it is a balancing thing, and make sure I treat both of them equally.

  17. Where were you when my 23 year was growing up?!? Thank you for your ongoing wisdom. Of course the temperament of the child is critical to how boundaries and bonding work at any single time which is of course when practice can be so challenging. Keep up the great work.

  18. I am a youth pastor and a parent of 2 teenagers, with another child that is 10. I say all the time to parents that I am much better at working with their kids then my own. That’s because it’s so easy to stand outside of a situation and poke at it, then to be in the middle of it and try to figure out what is right and wrong.

    Jonathan, I recommend your books to parents more then any other books for parenting. Seriously, i am always pointing to your parenting books for help. And always telling them about Source for Parents and always referencing all of the profound wisdom you have for parents of teens and for youth ministry in general. (Yes, that was a shameless plug for being a winner of your free book. I am on a youth pastor’s salary, so I do what I gotta do!)

    I have learned that each of my children are different and each one needs a different style of parenting. So it’s hard to pinpoint what I do with each of them, but I definitely know that a good relational style with effective boundaries works best. I have made some mistakes in how strict I have been with my oldest, and i have also made mistakes with him in areas where i was not so strict. So we (my wife and I) are constantly evolving in our parenting style for him and our other 2 as well.

    The most important thing I have found to be as a parent is to be a good listener, and consistent in my own walk with God. If I listen well, it gives me an opportunity to guide and discipline correctly. If my walk with Christ is evident to them, in the good times and bad, that gives them evidence that what I believe is real for me, not just my job. This way when I point to God and His word as the reason for why they should make a certain choice, they can see it’s evidence already lived out in my life, and trust that He will do the same thing for them if they follow Him.

  19. My hubby and I teach Jr High, its like having a dozen 12-year-olds of our own haha. I find that we balance each other out more than anything. I lean more towards being all friend and he leans more towards being all discipline. Thankfully we are aware of the need for a middle ground and try to catch each other before the scales are tipped too much by either of us 🙂 Thank God for accountability!

  20. Hey,
    I could not agree more. I am currently employed at a Wilderness therapy program. Some kids are court ordered some have been sent by parents or care providers. One thing that is an issue with at least 80% of students are loose or inconsistent boundaries . These students were confused about what was correct based on what was being told to them by the adults who were to care for them.
    For students who are part of the program that have been adopted for many of them who were in institutions before being adopted the bonding with a loving caring adult was missed. So many times their trust issues are off the chart.
    Bonding and boundaries, adults need them as well as kids. If our kids do not learn from us in a safe caring environment where grace and mercy are part of every day what they will learn we will not be pleased. May we demonstrate God’s love in the context of those conversations we are privileged to part of as parents.
    I would love to be out of a job, but I do not see the need going away any time soon.

  21. Hey Jonathan,

    As a parent of a 16,15,13,12 year old and doubling as their youth minister, I felt like your article was spot on. I tend to be a bonding father and my wife is a “copter” mother and we both compliment and complicate our parenting. That is why I think it is vital to surround my kids with at least 3 other significant adult relationships that can help us in parenting them. For me, this works out practically in youth group small groups and through church involvement in serving. I am so blessed to have godly friends that love on my kids and encourage them towards Christ. One of my callings in youth ministry is to be another voice towards Christ for these teenagers. I feel like it is very difficult to maintain that balance between bonding and boundaries. When I struggle to balance the two, I always lean towards bonding and trust that Christ will help protect my kids through the Holy Spirit. Thanks for your article and I pray that the Lord will bless you in your parenting and that your work will continue to bless others.

  22. Great blog. Nice to hear from a professional that you struggle too. Your humbleness and candidness really help us. We have 4 children ages 16-9 and approached parenting with rules and responsibility and always answering our children’s questions when they asked. Even though we believe in natural consequences, we often don’t allow them to take place. Waiting for our kids to ask questions caused us to not be proactive about hot topics and reasonable boundaries and accountability, especially in the area of electronics and free internet exposure. We made this mistake with our oldest son and in the midst of dealing with his issues, our 13 year old son began his own set of problems. I have become much more motivated to discuss things and prepare my daughters. Sadly, these moments of our teenagers happened while we work and school from home…right under our noses. I wish that I had been talking more and waiting less.

  23. As a new parent, I can only hope to find a good balance of the two as my daughter gets older. In my own experiences, I have seen both sides of the spectrum and the negative results they bring. Children with the peerants seem to easily give into peer pressure while children with copter parents seem to not know how to make decisions on their own. I can only pray that God gives me wisdom in how to hold meaningful conversations while guiding and discipiling at the same time.

  24. As a youth minister, obviously, I see parents a lot, but I’m at a smaller church, so the sample size is kind of small. I don’t feel I’ve seen many “drill sergeant” parents, or at least I didn’t see that side of them. I do know it’s helpful to read your blog for be on two fronts. The first is as a youth minister, and the second is as a (hopefully) future parent. I’m not married and I have no kids, but I’d like to think one day I’ll be able to be a parent, and reading your blog helps me to think about how I want to raise my kid(s) someday, so thank you!

  25. It’s hard to form an unbiased opinion when critiquing yourself but if i had to guess as honestly as possible i would say that i am more of a bonding parent. But hey, I love my kids and I love being with them. I think in everything parents should do their best to model our heavenly parent – God the Father. Even when God does discipline us He does so with grace and kindness. Many people quote Prov. 3:12 “For whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights” and use it to talk about God’s discipline. But I think that the verse is saying something much more. I believe that it is really referring to HOW God corrects us. He doesn’t correct us like we are rebellious, defiant, hard-hearted, stiff-necked children. He disciplines us like “children in whom he delights”. This concept has helped me when having to discipline my own kids. I approach punishment differently when I realize that I delight in my child; I believe in my child; I love my child and that the punishment and discipline is all about producing desired character. A friend of mine is oft heard quoting this statement: “rules without relationship leads to rebellion”. And it’s true. It’s hard to do but getting kids to understand that the rules that exist are in place for everyone’s benefit. Rules are there for the peace and prosperity of everyone in the household. I think that it is an easier principle for kids to digest when it comes from parents that they know love them and always have their best interest at heart. My two cents. Thanks Jon. Great conversation topic for any parent! Love it!

  26. With an almost 20 year old, 12 year old and 2 year old… I see a lot of differences in how I parent each one. Some differences are because their personalities are very different. Other differences are because of what I have learned while they grow and just how I have changed in my own expression of love. I think having a good balance of knowing your child’s ability and pitfalls helps in guiding them towards making good choices while not being afraid of being the “bad guy” for keeping them safe.

  27. It’s sort of a joke at our house that “somebody has to have the strictest parents in the world and it just happens to be you.” Nevertheless, I know we do a semi-decent job of bonding; as the oldest just hit 15, we see him electing to stay within many of those boundaries even when given the choice to do otherwise. But we need all the help we can get and always appreciate your thought-provoking articles. Thanks!

  28. Great Article and Thank You! As a youth pastor with two younger girls I am living this challenge but also know many kids and parents (I get to hear it from both sides lol) who are struggling with this as well! The longer I live the more I see how important balance is in almost every area and whenever things swing to one extreme or the other you usually have problems. And yet usually balance is such a difficult thing to master (possibly impossible lol). This is definitely a good reminder to continue the struggle to achieve the benefits of both boundaries and bonding. May God give us the wisdom to know when each is appropriate!

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