Struggling with setting limits and holding your ground? Learn how to set boundaries with kids — and why they actually want them.
It’s always the little things.
Wanting the white cup instead of the orange one. Putting their feet on the dining table when you’ve told them not to. The arguments at bedtime because they don’t want to brush their teeth.
At first it seems easier to accommodate their requests. What’s one more story to read at bedtime? And that extra toy they asked for at the store seems educational enough.
But those can lead to bigger problems, like talking back and outright disobeying on purpose. You’re then too tired to discipline or deal with yet another outburst. So, you give in.
No wonder you sometimes feel like they’re running the show.
The importance of setting boundaries with kids
Thing is, I’ve learned kids need freedom and boundaries.
Imagine a farm, with a fence you’ve put up to contain the animals. Without the fence, the animals run wild and stray too far. It’s harder to rein them in, and everything is chaotic. But fenced too close, and they don’t have space. They’re unhappy and constricted.
The key is finding that balance between freedom and boundaries. Neither extreme is pleasant for anyone.
Don’t think of boundaries as being mean or saying “no” all the time. Kids want boundaries. Yup, even if they’re throwing a fit or begging us for something, they feel better when we impose restrictions.
Because that tantrum they just had? It scares them to feel that way. And when we back down and don’t hold our ground, then that tantrum seems even scarier than ever. After all, if even their parents can’t stand up against a tantrum, then who will?
Freedom allows them to develop and grow, but boundaries give them the safe space to do so. They guide our kids as they evaluate whether something is okay or not.
Boundaries also strengthen our relationship with our kids. We firmly but kindly let them know their limits. They learn valuable skills like patience, empathy and being responsible. And they understand that the most meaningful relationships are set on a two-way street.
How to set boundaries with kids
For many of us, establishing boundaries will be hard. We don’t like being the “bad guy.” And at the end of a tiring day, sometimes we just don’t have the patience to be present and calm. It seems much easier to give in.
Hang in there, mama. You can still set boundaries with your kids, even when it’s hard at first. They not only need boundaries, but want them to better direct their decisions:
1. Understand why you’re setting boundaries
Think about the last time you had to tell your child “no.” What was your mood, your environment? Were you frustrated because she interrupted an important task you were doing? Or were you intentional about your decision and calm in the way you said it?
Setting boundaries isn’t a parent’s “privilege.” It’s not what we do to show who’s boss, or to win an argument. We can’t use the boundaries card each time we want to end a frustrating interaction with our kids.
Be mindful of why you’re setting boundaries. What are your goals? Base your decisions on what your child can learn from the situation and about herself. Or base it on your own limits and how you want others to treat you.
Don’t use boundaries as a tool in power struggles. It’s this misuse that makes kids misunderstand and resent them.
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2. Be firm but kind
Set boundaries in a firm and kind tone. This is that balance between blind strictness and sugarcoating. Understanding why you’re setting boundaries helps you find this balance.
You’re not coming from an angry place, but you also know the importance of boundaries and that you hold your ground.
Kids deserve our respect and kindness, even when the conversation isn’t pleasant or when we see them in tears or irritate us with even more pleading.
At the same time, be firm in your decisions. You know why you made them and the boundaries you’ve set. Being firm shows your child you’re acting from a place of good intention and are doing what you think is best for him.
Get tips on setting limits with a baby (and almost toddler).
3. Give a time frame or a reason
Kids respond well to reason and fairness, and one of the best ways to meet them halfway is by giving a time frame.
Let’s say your child asked to read a book with you. Normally, you’d drop whatever you’re doing to read a book as a way to encourage a love of reading and learning, but you were in the middle of cooking. And it was a meal you couldn’t pop in the oven or simmer on the stove top.
In this case, explain why you can’t read at the moment, then give a time frame. Say that in about five minutes, after you get all the patties flipped, you could then read the book together.
You might even ask him if he wants to read next to you while you cook. This can help cement the idea that you’re not saying “no” just because, but that you have a good reason.
Another way giving a reason helps set boundaries is that you’re able to explain poor behavior. Let’s say he said hurtful things to you. Establish your own boundaries by saying how his words hurt your feelings. Explain how you expect him to treat you, and how he can better express himself.
4. Give freedom within boundaries
A bit of preparation can save you so much frustration when you set boundaries. Back to our analogy of boundaries as fences: Think of ways you can erect those fences even before your kids need them.
For instance, baby proof your home. Instead of telling your now mobile infant not to touch this or that, make the room safe for her. Prevent common dangers by baby proofing, then allow her to explore within those confines.
The same goes with the choices your child can make. She can wear any clothes from a certain drawer, one you stocked with winter attire. You’re giving her the freedom to decide what to wear, but within the boundaries that the clothes have to be appropriate for the season.
Get more tips about helping children make good choices.
Examples of setting boundaries with kids
We’ve talked about the balance of giving enough freedom within safe and reasonable boundaries. What are a few examples of boundaries you can use for your kids? Here are a few:
- You decide when and what he eats while letting him choose how much
- Letting him run freely at the park while making sure you hold hands crossing the street
- Baby proofing certain areas in your home so he can roam safely
- Allowing him to choose among weather- and event-appropriate clothes you set out
- Giving the freedom to play throughout the house so long as he follows household rules and responsibilities (such as not climbing on furniture)
- Having a consistent routine for meals, naps, and bedtimes
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As difficult as it is to set boundaries, it’s also okay to say “no.” We don’t need to please our kids or even make them happy.
These “fences” are just what they need to explore, learn and grow in a safe and wholesome way. Boundaries lead to better behavior and clear expectations for both parents and kids.
Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure says it well:
“Limits are structure. Limits give kids reassuring information about what to expect and how to act according to those expectations. Limits make kids feel safe and cared for.”
As much as they throw tantrums, whine or cry, kids want boundaries—and parents intentional enough to set them.
Get more tips:
- Why Kids Lie and What to Do About It
- Tell Your Kids You Love Them, Even when It’s Hard To
- How to Show Empathy to a Child
- When Your Child Seems to Ruin Everyone’s Day
- The Difference between Distraction and Redirection
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