Arguably, one of the most important jobs you have as a parent is to establish boundaries with, and for your child. Children are not capable of establishing their own boundaries, and yet they have a deep developmental need to know what the boundaries are. If you think about it, boundaries are one of the key elements of a civilized society. Boundaries establish which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. This is not knowledge that we are born with; we learn these rules as children. Boundaries must be firm and consistent with logical consequences.
At school, we set the boundaries, or rules, starting on the first day of school. We post them in the classroom, and we refer back to them often to make sure everyone remembers. We, as the adults, also must comply with them, as we cannot expect the child to do something we are not willing to do ourselves. For example, in the classroom we use quiet feet. If a child forgets and starts running across the room, we stop them, remind them of the rule, and ask them to try again. If they continue to run, they would have to practice walking around the classroom holding my hand for a few minutes. Then we would try again.
Parents often ask me how to set boundaries at home. We suggest that all of the grown-ups in the home who contribute to the parenting sit down together and come up with 4 or 5 rules that are really important to your family. Decide which logical consequences would be applicable if someone does not follow said rules.
“We will sit down for dinner when mom calls us. If we don’t come when we are called, the rest of the family will start without us. Once dinner is over, it’s over. If you miss it you will have to wait until breakfast.”
These rules will differ from family to family- you have to decide what warrants the most attention in your home. Once you have set the parameters, have a family meeting to share this with your child(ren). If you allow your child to participate in the process, he/she will be much more amenable to the solution. You will need to give your child adequate warning about initiating any new rules or structure. This is a change, and changes take some time to adjust to.
One area where parents seem to have the most trouble with establishing and enforcing boundaries is taking a trip to the store with their child. Children often seem to think that taking a trip to the store is an opportunity for them to get a new toy, or candy, or treat. It shouldn’t be. Treats are for once in a while and for special occasions. They should not be expected every time you leave the house, or used as bribes for good behavior.
Set the boundaries before you leave the house:
“We are going to Target and we are buying some new shoes for school. We are not buying toys or candy. We can look at the toys for a few minutes, but we will not be buying any toys today.”
Ask your child to repeat what you have said before you leave the house. Ask them again when you reach your destination, but before entering the store. Hopefully your shopping trip will be successful, but if your child starts asking for things as soon as you get inside, remind them of what you already said. If he/she persists, tell them you will take them to the car and the shopping trip will be over. Be prepared- you may have to carry a screaming child out of Target. It’s a little embarrassing, but absolutely necessary. If you do not follow through firmly and consistently with boundary issues, you might as well not have any boundaries. Inconsistency and lack of follow-through cause complete confusion for the child.
Setting boundaries sets your child up for success in life. As adults, we don’t get rewarded with treats for behaving ourselves and following the rules. What we do get are better interpersonal and professional relationships because we are pleasant to be around. We get to enjoy personal liberty because we understand that rules and laws exist to keep everyone safe. A child who understands the boundaries is a happier child because he or she is content to have their behavior noticed by parents or others, rather than looking for a reward.