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Setting Boundaries for Children

Updated on December 19, 2007
Photo:  Skyseeker, Flickr
Photo: Skyseeker, Flickr

Pick up any parenting book or magazine and you're sure to read of boundaries. But what does that mean? What are these magical components of good parenting and what do we do with them?

According to, a boundary is

- something that indicates bounds or limits; a limiting or bounding line.

- Also called frontier. Mathematics: the collection of all points of a given set having the property that every neighborhood of each point contains points in the set and in the complement of the set.

It's synonyms are border and frontier. But I like the way Webster's says it better. They define a boundary as a theoretical line that marks the limit of an area of land.

So what we've got is this theoretical box that we want our child to stay within. But he's interpreting the edges of this border as a frontier. Something to be conquered right?

Why Do We Want Boundaries?

It seems pretty obvious that you'd want to define appropriate behavior for your child. That's your job. So you create expectations and buffer it with your own tolerance for misbehavior. But once the child reaches your boundary, that's it - punishment time. We may not like to think of our precious children as animals, but this is your basic Pavlov's dog psychology at work. You need to train your child to respect your boundaries, and that of society as a whole.

How Do Parents Set Boundaries?

This parenting gig is all on-the-job training. It's all trial and error. You may read all the latest parenting literature or you may be sold on a certain parenting style long before your baby cuts his first tooth. But the truth is, it's a process. It's not realistic to view your boundaries as a static policy. Things are always changing. Age and circumstance change.

The trick is to maintain a constant vigilance about what's going on with your child and things in his environment. You need to anticipate what's coming and communicate your expectations clearly.

How to Get Children to Respect Boundaries

You can go around setting boundaries all you want and your little cowboy may just ride on through to his old wild frontier, yahoo-ing all the way. The difference between children who respect their parents' boundaries and those who do not is in perceived consequences. Ask yourself:

- Am I serious about the stance I've taken, or am I making empty threats?

- Have I clearly communicated a concrete consequence and am I willing to follow through?

- What are my motives? Is there a good reason for this rule or am I imposing limits to please others?

The clearer you are on the how and why of your boundaries, the more likely kids are to comply.

When my son was three he acted up in a store. I asked him to stop, he didn't. I told him he was going to be in trouble if he didn't stop. Still, he went on. Then I told him if he didn't stop, he was going to get a spanking at home. He kept on. So I said, fine, you've made your decision. By the time we got home he'd forgotten all about it - until I calmly asked him to go lie down on his bed for his spanking. That shocked him. And it wasn't easy for me either. But it was one of the only times I've ever had to spank. He knew from an early age that I mean what I say.


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