As a little girl, I loved playing outside with my friends, but I lived on a busy road with many cars. One day before leaving for work, my mom took a bottle of leftover glitter gold spray paint, sprayed a line on the sidewalk, and said, “Don’t cross this line. And you’ll be safe from traffic.” Being the rule follower I am, I never crossed that line. But once, I had an adventurous friend come over, and she crossed right over that line with a proud smile. I didn’t even know what to make of it. Does she not care about respecting boundaries?! I wondered. While my little mind was stressed as I watched her walk near the traffic, her little mind was joyful.
When I think of this story, I can’t help but laugh because the world is filled with boundary-breakers and boundary-respecters. And if you have a child, you have witnessed this reality firsthand. From the time a child begins to walk and move, you can quickly see if they like to respect the boundaries, test the boundaries, or run past the boundaries with their diaper off.
Why Setting Boundaries With Children Is Important
No matter what type of child you have, it doesn’t take long as a parent before you begin to see how necessary boundaries are to keep your children safe and secure. Yet enforcing these boundaries can be challenging when our children get unhappy with us for being the “bad guy” instead of the parent who lets them do what they want.
Firstly, it’s normal and even important for our kids to test limits.5 While boundaries are essential (more on that in a moment), our children need to test them and challenge us so that one day, they can become independent and make good choices without us hovering or interfering.1 They also need support to understand how to respond to boundaries, as society has rules and regulations about acceptable behavior in certain places or at certain times.7 Our children need to know how to navigate these rules without blowing a fuse or being defiant. This is because they will need to exist in society, but at times, they must comply with specific rules to keep them safe.1
Tips for Setting Boundaries as a Parent
As parents, it’s important to remember that being a good parent means there will be times when we have to be the bad guys to prioritize our children’s well-being over their desire to have fun. So, here are some guidelines to keep in mind when setting healthy boundaries with your children (and feeling good about them):
Children Will Have Many Friends but Only One Set of Parents
Before you can think of setting healthy boundaries, it’s important to remember that you are not your child’s friend.7 Your child will only have one parent or one set of parents. (Unless you’re in a blended family; then they are blessed with a few!) As a parent, your role is unique and special because you are here to love, enjoy, guide, teach, and protect your child. While that should involve having fun with them, fun is not the only priority. Love prioritizes what is best for them at the moment. And having fun is not always the most important thing.
Healthy Relationships Have Boundaries Based on Respect
If you were to study successful relationships worldwide, you would quickly see that healthy boundaries are a part of them. Boundaries allow for respect to be demonstrated and shown to the people within the relationships.2 This also means that for your child to feel respected and for you to feel respect in return, you must set boundaries for them. It teaches them about respect toward you and how to show this same respect to others.6 (For example, you can’t yell in my or a teacher’s face, and I can’t yell in your or my boss’ face.)
Boundaries Protect Children From Physical and Emotional Harm
Sometimes, to feel freedom in setting healthy boundaries, we must remember why we set them. We don’t set boundaries for our children because we want to be drill sergeants or want to control them. Instead, we set boundaries because we desire to protect our children.3 Teaching them the reason behind a boundary is an easy way to help them understand why it’s there. (For example, “You can’t cross the street without looking. Cars are not expecting you to be there, so they aren’t ready to stop and can hit you.”)
Children Ultimately Feel Love Through Boundaries
In high school, I was friends with someone who could stay out as late as they wanted. While my parents didn’t have a set curfew every night, they always told me a time they wanted me home. As we were leaving my house one night, my friend looked at me and said, “I wish my mom gave me a curfew.” I remember feeling shocked. But it was the perfect example of how boundaries demonstrate love and care. We think our kids whining about a boundary means they don’t like it. But ultimately, it helps them feel our love as they see our care behind it. When we set boundaries for our kids, they know we care about them and learn what to expect from us so they feel secure and safe.4,7 This ultimately supports our little ones in feeling confident, happy, and loved.
Boundaries Should Be Reasonable and Flexible
Although boundaries are necessary, they don’t have to be rigid.7 There are times when boundaries can stretch or sway based on circumstance. Often, flexibility can allow for success in respecting the boundaries we set. While having a bedtime or naptime is essential, sometimes letting these things be flexible can make for a fun experience or memory together. Every parent must decide when a boundary is necessary and when it has room to flex. But rigidity is often a recipe for frustration. So, remember to give yourself and your child room to enjoy each other, too!7
As you consider setting boundaries with your children, remember that they must exist in healthy relationships. But that doesn’t mean those relationships can’t be fun! Bad or challenging behaviors in children are normal.8 It doesn’t mean that they are bad kids . . . or that we are bad parents. By setting boundaries, you are helping your child build healthy and adaptive ways of interacting with people and the world around them. Setting boundaries isn’t easy for us parents. But by being patient and consistent, we are setting our children up for excellent outcomes in the future.