“The most important thing parents can give their children is love. The second most important thing is discipline.” -T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.
Many parents today could use some serious coaching on how to create healthier boundaries with their kids. Just spend some time at a park where lots of families hang out and you’ll know what I mean.
You will notice moms and dads asking kids to do something (or stop doing something) ten times with no obvious results. You will observe others screaming in frustration as the child does the opposite of what was requested. It is easy to be judgmental, but how many of us grew up in families with healthy boundaries? Where was the instruction manual that should have come with the baby blankets?
Since we know that a lack of clear boundaries often results in behavior problems, it is crucial to begin creating healthy boundaries when they are still little. Children naturally experiment and push boundaries as they test their wings, develop their own sense of self, and learn about how the world works. It’s what they are supposed to do. So don’t judge kids for pushing back or take it personally.There is really no reason to be angry at them when they do so–they are just doing what kids do.
Here’s some practical tips on setting boundaries…
FIrst, you need to be clear about what your boundaries are. Some are obvious. Things like no hitting, kicking, or name-calling. Some are different according to your schedule but should be obvious: Bedtimes. Behavior expected at mealtimes. Cleaning up after yourself. How much time is allowed watching TV or playing video games. Getting exercise.
Next, start early and hold firm. In a classic example, most parents have appropriate bedtimes for their kids, at least until they are old enough ti begin sleeping in (usually at adolescence). These same parents often waiver or ignore their own boundaries when there is a sleep-over, or “because it’s a weekend” or “because it is summer,” etc., etc., and then reap the negative consequences. If you are consistent, your life will be easier, and your child will know the limit is non-negotiable.
When setting a specific boundary, kneel down to your child’s level, look them in the eyes, and tell them in simple words what you expect. This way, it is crystal clear that your message has been calmly sent and received. For example, before entering a store, explain that you are going in to get a sandwich, not candy, and you will picnic in the park if there is no fussing in the store. Don’t buy candy when asked. Calmly say no each time, and perhaps change the subject or look away.
It is crucial to follow through with whatever consequence you have spelled out. Therefore, don’t ever threaten anything that you will be unable to carry out. Kids learn very quickly when their parents say what they mean and mean what they say, versus when an emotional parent makes an idle threat. Take a deep breath instead.
Lead with a positive statement whenever possible, and request the behavior that you want from your child rather than what you don’t want. An example of this might happen around an expectation that your child help with household tasks. “You are such a good helper. As soon as we both clear the table and put the dishes away, we can play a game.” A natural consequence of this boundary would be that you would not play the game if your child refused to help you.
Set boundaries and follow through with as little negative emotion as is possible. When you communicate calmly and clearly, there is far less likelihood of defiance. Our kids are impeccable mirrors, unfortunately reflecting back both positive and negative emotions, more commonly doing what you are doing (mirroring your state of upset) rather than what you are saying.
When parents consistently do a good job of setting clear boundaries and then holding to them, then kids are more apt to learn to have respect for others, build greater self-control, develop the ability to tolerate frustration, and become more responsible for their actions. Wouldn’t you rather side-step the ongoing power struggles, find yourself nagging less, and enjoy more of the time spent with your kids?
And just think about how much more fun the parks would be if everybody did it.
Kid testing boundaries photo available from Shutterstock