Limits and boundaries are an unfortunate fact of our world. Think about a child who didn’t understand the limitations of gravity and how this relates to the boundary of a cliff. Social interactions also require certain limitations and boundaries. This is not a matter of constraining your children or keeping them in chains; it’s a basic acknowledgement of how our world works.
That said, many parents have a hard time distinguishing between legitimate boundaries and over controlling behavior. As Barbara Kingsolver astutely states, “the most assiduous task of parenting is to divine the difference between boundaries and bondage. In every case, bondage is quicker.” (1995, p. 90) As human beings, we’re control freaks to begin with. Our will craves power. So when it comes to our children, who we not only love more than anything else but also feel we have the right and prerogative to control, most of us tend to come down heavily on the side of bondage.
It’s important to recognize that firmness in parenting means a refusal to give in to undue demands or indulge a child’s every whim. It doesn’t mean that you never change your mind or that you refuse to allow children some leeway when it comes to dictating the terms of their life. As a general rule, the idea is to bend but not break.
The nature of boundaries
Try to think about boundaries for kids in terms of fences. Some fences are firm and solid, like a brick wall. Not running out into traffic, the prohibition against intentionally hurting others–these are examples of solid boundaries. They are non-negotiable rules that address a clear and present danger either to the child or to others.
Other limits are more like chain link fences or perhaps even the moveable crowd-control dividers you see at movie theaters. These boundaries may have some give to them, or may even be completely reworked in response to a child’s growth and development. Your son or daughter’s curfew or the freedom to do different things on their own without adult supervision–these are examples of flexible boundaries. They are expansive. You let your child push them and move them in increments as they become more capable and desire more freedom.
Another healthy way to approach the process of setting limits and boundaries is to think of it like fishing in reverse. If you’ve ever caught a fish, you know that reeling it in is typically a give and take process. You pull, the fish pulls back. You give a little, and then reel him in some more.
Healthy children are going to push their boundaries. That’s what they do. In these situations, parents should look for ways to give them a little more line to run with while still keeping hold of the fishing pole, tugging a little to reel them in when necessary. Only when it comes to kids, you’re looking for ways to gradually expand the amount of line you give them to run with, since you’ll eventually be cutting it altogether.
Types of boundaries
Behind every limit or boundary you set should be a clearly defined reason. If not, there’s a good chance it’s an arbitrary limit that you shouldn’t be enforcing to begin with. There are really only 3 legitimate reasons for restricting your kids:
1. Safety or welfare boundaries
You set these limits because there is an inherent risk of danger either to the child or to others. The boundary is meant to protect their welfare.
2. Social limits and boundaries
These are restrictions we place upon a child because there might be adverse social consequences to a child’s behavior: Scorn, humiliation, ostracism, disapproval, rejection, and so on. However, understand that your child’s social world may work in direct contradiction to what exists in your own world. It’s our job as parents to try and recognize when a child’s social view may legitimately trump our own, and also help our children understand our concerns when it doesn’t.
3. Self-control or inhibition boundaries
Restraint is an important skill for children to develop. They must learn to cope with not being able to have everything they desire, and develop enough self-control that they can effectively manage their own impulses.
Setting limits in childhood helps to establish this.
Getting children to respect boundaries: Some guidelines for setting limits
When it comes to setting limits and boundaries, communication is crucial. Your children are far more likely to respect the boundaries you give them when they have a clear understanding of why that boundary is in place.
- Be prepared to define the purpose of the prohibition in accordance with the three categories of reasoning listed above.
- You should also be willing to discuss ways in which you are amicable to bending the rules or how your kids might move the boundaries.
- If a limitation is based on a safety concern, you should be open to relenting on that issue if there is something that can be done to alleviate your concerns. Also remember that absolute safety doesn’t exist. You want to help children live life as safely as possible, not prevent them from experiencing life because of the fact that something could be dangerous.
- Tell them that you recognize their need to grow and mature. Many kids will assume that you never even take this into consideration.
- Go ahead and remind them that you are legally responsible for what they do. Teens will of course respond to this by accusing you of not trusting them and insinuate that you think they are out to murder someone, but it applies to smaller issues too; everything from them skipping classes to their getting their hands on alcohol or the things they say to others.
- Make it clear that your goal is freedom with responsibility. You aren’t out to saddle them with a whole bunch of restrictions simply for the sake of it; you’re merely trying to balance your concerns about the world we live in while trying to give them as much freedom as possible. Then be sure to try and live by this principle, otherwise your words will be meaningless.
- Remember that the more hare-lined you are, the more it encourages rebellion. So flexibility is in your own interests, too.