We begin life with boundaries. The womb is a place of sanctuary—warm, safe and comforting. Its boundaries separate us from the rest of the world. When we enter the world, things become much more chaotic and confusing, and safety and comfort are increasingly difficult to find. Boundaries, when well applied, can offer a child an experience of life that is simplified to their level of emotional and cognitive ability. Some see boundaries as restrictions, but they can actually help a child feel happier, safer and more confident as they explore their lives and the world around them.
Children Test Boundaries
Children thrive when they have well-established boundaries and are allowed unlimited freedom with those boundaries. Interestingly, much of the behavior that we find most frustrating with children is a result of them testing boundaries, trying to understand those boundaries. If you are in an unfamiliar room with the lights off, any movement will feel risky. In order to move, you will extend your hands as far as you can reach to find out what is around you. In much the same way, children are hardwired to test boundaries so that they can learn their shape and function.
When a child tests boundaries, how you respond impacts their behavior. If you are inconsistent in your response, or you give into their testing (testing can be begging, whining, tantrums, etc.), those tests can evolve into strategies. You may set a boundary by telling your child that they are going to bed at 8:00. As 8:00 approaches, you remind your child and they acknowledge. But then they time comes for them to stop what they are doing and go to bed, they whine and beg for five more minutes. If you waffle and give them the five minutes, as small as that may seem, it gives them feedback that they may be onto a strategy that will work and the boundary of a bedtime may be flexible.
This is a dynamic that can fester into acting-out and true rebellion. When a child is consistently and aggressively acting against parental boundary setting (not including normal developmental stages like 2-4 year olds), it can often be the result of those boundaries being inconsistently established and fighting them has evolved into an effective strategy.
Well-Established Boundaries Improve Behavior & Emotional Balance
Martial arts has a reputation as being an effective place for parents to take children who misbehave (the truth behind this reputation varies from school to school, and instructor to instructor, based on their experience-level and understanding of child behavior), so I have seen quite a few rebellious, obstinate kids at Traditional Martial Arts Academy. One thing that I have consistently observed among these children is that every single one is insecure, often deeply so. It is my belief that part of what gives children confidence and emotional balance is well-established boundaries coupled with permission to do whatever they want within those boundaries. This limits their exposure to risk (physical, emotional, social) that is greater than they can handle, but still allows them to be kids and explore, express and create.
Boundaries resolve the tension between a child’s need for independence, self-expression and exploration and the real dangers in the world that they are not able to comprehend. Toddlers are at a stage where independence first starts coming online. When out and about with their parents, they love running ahead and exploring. When near a parking lot or street, this can be dangerous because of traffic. Though a three-year-old mind can comprehend injury (they’ve had plenty of scuffed knees at this point), the true consequences of being hit by a car are beyond the typical toddler’s understanding. So establishing boundaries around behavior near traffic is essential to protect that three-year-old from a danger they can’t yet understand.
Similarly, teenagers have voracious appetites and are usually drawn to very unhealthy food. But the teenage mind is very poorly equipped for evaluating long-term consequences of short-term decisions. Establishing boundaries around what they can eat and when is essential to protect your teen from a danger they can’t yet understand.
Parents may struggle short-term with the small battles of establishing boundaries, but the long-term benefits of both parent and child understanding what is expected of them are extremely worthwhile. It is amazing how well-established boundaries feel better for the parents as well. Kids can be kids as long as they stay within the boundaries. They can explore and be silly. For parents, it is the same. If you have well-established boundaries, you can enjoy your child without fear of spoiling him or her. You can be affectionate to them, praise them and appreciate them more for who they are, all without giving up your role as parent.
Taking the Long View in Boundary-Setting
So why do we fail in setting boundaries? Honestly, in the short-term, it is much easier not to reinforce them. If that extra five minutes before bedtime will stop the fussing, life is much better for the parent.
In the short-term.
But the long-term consequence is that life gets much more difficult for parent and child both. For this reason, it is important to keep the long view when working with your child. Remembering that what is uncomfortable now will make life so much easier down the road is essential for consistency in boundary-setting.
This can be a challenging transition for the parent as well as the child. You both have established habits. They know if they fuss, you will give in. You know if you give in, they will stop fussing. It is a cycle that only you can break. The difficulty is that to break the cycle, you have to shoulder the burden of you not getting what you want (an end to fussing) and your child not getting what they want (the thing for which they are fussing). Keeping the long-view won’t make this easier, but it help you stay the course as needed.
The long-view is especially important for those of us who lead such busy lives, that when it is time to parent we are tired and/or distracted. Remembering that there is a consequence to short-term inconsistency can help us when we need to dig deeper in order to engage our child in a difficult moment.
Addicted to Giving in to Your Child
Another challenge to setting boundaries is sometimes if feels better not to. It is not just that we feel relief when our child stops complaining. For a parent, there can be no greater feeling than seeing joy in our child’s face and knowing it is a result of something we did. Giving your child something they want can feel amazing for you in the short-term, and can be extremely addictive. But in the long run, we end up in that same place, where he or she resists boundaries, and attempts to establish them lead to confrontation.
Seeing Your Child with Fresh Eyes
Another way that we can fail in boundary-setting is much more subtle. Our minds have evolved to develop shortcuts in how we view the world. One of these shortcuts is to create a fixed snapshot of who people are, even those we are closest to. Though this can make things simpler in how we perceive the world around us, it also makes it so we stop seeing people for who they are and only see them for who we think them to be.
I have worked with many children with behavioral issues over the years. It has been common in my experience for a parent to present a diagnosis they have been given that explains the child’s behavior. Though these diagnoses can be helpful in getting children support that is beneficial for them, it can also freeze their parents’ understanding of their potential.
I had one mom who told me of a kaleidoscope of issues her child had. Part of his diagnosis explained why he couldn’t maintain eye contact. He seemed like a fairly typical kid based on my experience, so I started exploring some of the outward signs of his diagnosis. For the first week or so, I kept reminding him to look me in the eye when I talked to him or he talked to me. Within a couple of weeks, he needed very little prompting, even though there was a medical reason for him not being able to .
It quickly became clear that his diagnosis wasn’t entirely accurate. But it also became clear that his mother had adopted that diagnosis into her understanding of her own son’s capabilities. It was evident that she, in a very loving way, did not want to challenge him in areas that he couldn’t succeed, so he just did not grow in those areas.
This is a pretty extreme, and pretty unusual, example. But it describes a very common phenomenon.
Parents get a sense of who their child is, and it doesn’t occur to challenge them beyond that. “My child is intelligent, so she gets bored,” instead of “my child is intelligent and needs to work on the emotional skills required for dealing with boredom” (learn more about kids and boredom). Or, “my child is a picky eater, so he will only eat certain things,” instead of “my child is a picky eater, but I still need to challenge his ability to try new things.”
Fixed ideas of a child can interfere with effective boundary-setting. We need to develop our skillset as parents by learning and applying new things, and improving our skill with things that work. But you also need to approach your child with an open heart and eyes unclouded by preconception.
The Difference Between Boundaries and Walls
There is a flexibility to what defines a particular boundary. This is because a boundary is created from applying a principle, rather than a fixed rule. As the child grows and evolves, the boundary grows and evolves with them. For instance, traffic is dangerous and any parent would want to keep their child safe from its potential from harm. But that potential will evolve with the child, and the boundary around it should evolve as well. For a two year old, this might mean never approaching a street alone and holding an adult’s hand when crossing. For a seven year old, this might mean crossing only at intersections. For a sixteen year old, it might be driving only with an adult in the car until the parent is confident in his or her ability to attend the road and follow driving laws.
The principle is that traffic is dangerous and there are limits to a child’s understanding and skill-level related to traffic. A boundary is established to allow a child to develop her understanding and skill, while still minimizing the risk to that child.
On the other hand, a wall would be a rule established and applied in a rigid, uncompromising way that emphasizes the importance of the rule more than needs of the child. These walls can stunt a child’s development and often arise from habits (rules established when a child was at a different stage of development) or traditions that are followed but not examined for relevance or outcomes (these often arise from religious, cultural or family traditions that a parent brings from their own childhood).
Making Walls that Protect You, Not Your Child
These walls can also be the product of a parent’s own unresolved emotional conflicts. For example, for most people the role of parent comes with a lot of anxiety—particularly for new parents. You want to do well by your child and keep him safe, but kids don’t come with instructions. Sometimes this anxiety can manifest itself in parenting choices that have more to do with the fears of the parent than the actual well-being of the child. Imagine the two-year-old above who is not allowed cross the street without holding an adult’s hand growing into a ten-year-old who is still expected to have adult supervision when crossing. Clearly, the child’s development is being restricted for the comfort of an anxious parent.
This is an extreme, and somewhat ridiculous, example, but it represents an extremely common dynamic that parents experience in small ways on a regular basis. How many rules is your child expected to follow that are more about your fears than your child’s growth and development?
A good starting place is to remember that you are raising a future adult, capable of independence and a happy, healthy life—not only the child who is front of you now. Boundaries should help children grow into the adults they will become as opposed to freezing them as the kids they are now.
How to Effectively (and Positively) Set Boundaries
Setting boundaries certainly seems important in theory. But what are some practical steps for setting them with your child? Let’s look at some things that you can do right away improve your skills in this area.
First, let’s be clear that boundary setting typically does not involve punishment of a child. If you are punishing a child, it is typically too late in the process—the boundary has already been crossed. Plus, punishments often have nothing to do with a transgression. You have told your child to clean her room before bedtime. Bedtime rolls around, she has been playing instead of cleaning, and her room is still a mess. To make it clear how serious this is, you ground her from television for two days.
On first glance, this may make sense. Your daughter was given instructions; she didn’t follow them, there were consequences.
But if you step back and look at the principles of setting boundaries, this punishment makes less sense. What does watching television have to do with a clean room? Why does not doing one lead to not doing the other?
In the example above, you could tell your child, “You have two hours to clean your room and watch television before bedtime, and your room has to be clean before you can watch TV.” Now, there is a consequence that is directly tied to her choices. Plus, you are not just dealing with a negative consequence (punishment for a poor choice), you are introducing a positive consequence that can encourage better choice (get your room cleaned fast, you will have more time for TV).
Get “Buy-in” from Your Child
It is also important to get “buy-in” from your child when setting boundaries. Your family needs to leave in thirty minutes. That is a clear boundary. Letting the child know that they can play for the next 25 minutes and then they have to get ready to go empowers them to choose their activities within that time as long as they understand that when the timer goes off, they need to switch gears.
You might still get some fussing when the timer goes off, but if you are consistent with enforcing this type of boundary, the child will understand that the fussing strategy is not effective and will not invest as much into it. Similarly, it is important to meet their boundary testing with matter-of-factness, not anger. You are not looking for a fight, just a clarification of your expectations.
Buy-in from a child is also improved when you give her freedom to make her own choices within well-established boundaries. In the example above where a child is given two hours for cleaning her room and watching TV, she has free agency to choose what she does and she takes the full consequences of her choices (both positive and negative). Same for the child given a timer before getting ready to leave. He can use his time as he wishes (within reason), and thus is granted a level of freedom within a boundary.
Giving a child options within the boundaries you establish teaches decision-making skills and gives them a say in what happens within their lives. This empowers your child without giving away your authority as a parent!
You can also gain buy-in from children by stating those boundaries in a positive way and with reasons. If you tell your child, “Don’t go into the street”, you are a describing your boundary as a negative—it is something they are not supposed to do—and because there is no explanation, it can seem arbitrary. For many kids, this arbitrariness makes the boundary seem unimportant. A better approach would be to tell your child, “Stay in the yard; the traffic in the street is dangerous, and you could get hurt if you are in the street without an adult keeping you safe.” What the child is expected to do is clear (stay in the yard), and the reasons for the boundary are clear.
Being Consistent with Boundary-Setting
Getting your child’s buy-in is important, but you also need to maintain that buy-in. Establish boundaries, make sure they are clear and that your child agrees to behave within them, and hold them to that agreement (natural consequences). But for you to hold your child to your agreement, you must allow your child to hold you to it as well. Your integrity in boundary setting is essential.
Your integrity with your child begins with being consistent. This may be the hardest part of boundary-setting. If you have a tendency to waffle on expectations you set, even occasionally, your child learn that your word is malleable, and will be more likely to test boundaries.
But it is very difficult to be consistent, especially when you are working with new parenting skills and tools that are unfamiliar and require a lot of energy to apply.
One thing you can do is be sparing in how many boundaries you set. Identify the areas that are most important to your child’s well-being and development (and perhaps your sanity) and begin with those. Once they are well-established, you can consider adding other areas of focus. You might find, though, that a handful of well-chosen boundaries applied consistently can have a greater overall impact on your child’s behavior than cracking down on every aspect of their life.
Effectively Communicating Boundaries to Your Child
When establishing boundaries, be precise. Be straightforward and use simple language, then have your child acknowledge the boundary. Have him describe the boundary to you and explain its purpose. This is an essential step for supporting your consistency and your child’s success because it goes a long way towards improving communication around boundaries and insuring that everyone is on the same page.
It is also essential that you acknowledge when your child does well. If you have been working on your toddler not taking toys from other children, let him know when you catch him doing well sharing with another child. We often think about stopping a child from crossing a boundary, but it is even more effective if you can find ways to encourage them to stay within the boundary. It may seem like a fine distinction, but it is an incredibly important one to understand and apply in your parenting.
Sometimes this encouragement is built into natural consequences, like when the child figures out that if they get their room clean quickly, they will have more time for watching TV. But it is also important to seek opportunities to directly reinforce good choices.
Working with Your Parenting Partner
Another thing that is essential is that if you have a parenting partner, you work as a team. In some cases, this is easy and natural. In some cases, not so much. Both of my parents were divorced several times, and never amicably (I joke that rather than a family tree, I have a row of shrubs). Parenting decisions were often a source of friction and even open conflict while I was growing up. I have seen this in varying degrees in the parents of children I’ve worked with over the years. Parents not agreeing on how to parent creates inconsistency in parenting that encourages boundary testing.
It is not unusual for my wife and me to disagree on a particular parenting issue. More often than not, we discuss it in front of our daughter. This serves two purposes. First, it teaches our daughter problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills. Second, she gets an inside look at the reasoning behind a boundary so when it is clarified and presented to her, she understands the “why” behind it.
Occasionally, we will have a parenting disagreement that is fundamental. It is conflict around principles rather than implementation. When this happens, the discussions can be messier and more difficult for a child to process. These discussions we have separately. The decision on the boundary gets differed until we come up with a solution that we can then present to our daughter.
If an issue comes up around setting a big boundary, I always wait until my wife can participate in the conversation with our daughter. I often say, “we need to talk to your mom first.” I’m not avoiding the situation. I recognize that waiting is important for putting the three of us on the same page, but it also for reinforcing our daughter’s understanding of my wife and I being united as a parenting team.
Those Times You Just Can’t Do It…
Finally, an important part of being consistent is how you deal with the times that you are not. Sometimes boundaries shift, or you are confronted with a situation in which the boundary is inappropriate or you are not in a position to reinforce it as needed (this does not include you simply being sick of them whining!). If you have well-thought-out boundaries that are well-established, this should be a very rare event. When it does happen, though, you need to be deliberate in how you handle it and be very clear about why the rules are changing as well as if or when they will change again.
You Must Be Consistent—Your Child Will Not
Kids will not be consistent. Their brains change with different developmental stages resulting in changing capacities for cognition and emotional experience. A four-year-old will be different in almost every way from an eight-year-old. Between the ages of three and four, my daughter seems to have changed emotionally, socially, cognitively and physically in fundamental ways every two to four weeks.
Plus, their social experience and influence change dramatically. A two-year-old, a kindergartener, a middle schooler and a high school senior all have very different daily social pressures, which has a huge impact on their behavior and motivations.
As children develop, and as the world around them changes, how you communicate with them will have to change as well. The boundaries you set may have to change as well to accommodate their growth.
Let Me Know How It Goes!
My intention with this article was to describe the importance of boundary-setting as well as offer some practical steps that you can apply with your own child. I hope that the information I’ve presented is helpful. If you have any questions on this topic, or want to share your experiences regarding your child and boundary-setting, please don’t hesitate to call me at the school or email me.
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