Children, unfortunately, do not come with a manual. For this reason, first-time parents tend to struggle to put into practice one of their most essential roles: imposing limits. Setting boundaries is critical in the process of raising kids – not only to promote discipline but also to prepare them for the real world and keep them safe.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. Setting boundaries can be difficult because your kids might not like the idea and resist (after all, kids are naturally rebellious). How to deal with screaming, disobedience, and stubbornness without resorting to punishment and looking like a dictator?
Take a deep breath, get the kids out of the room and let’s review some tips to help you have an easier time setting essential boundaries for children.
Setting Limits Early On
Setting limits on what a child can and cannot do is an essential part of the maturing process, something that will help forge your children’s character. They may protest at first, but later they will understand that boundaries exist to protect them and that adult supervision is required to do certain things (and even to cross the street).
It’s crucial to set those boundaries and limits early on in their lives because kids do not have a fully developed brain in early childhood to make their own decisions and understand their consequences. According to experts, children between 2-7 years old still believe in magic/fantasy; from 8-11 years old, they start to accept and understand rules because of school, and only from 12 years old do they start to develop their critical thinking.
You may feel bad at first if you force them to bed at a certain time or reduce their time using the computer or video game. But these boundaries end up translating into healthy relationships and behaviors when the kids get older.
On the other hand, an education conducted without establishing boundaries is capable of creating some unhealthy habits/behaviors that will be difficult to change later on. The “balance of power” in the house can shift toward the child, and they will feel more powerful than their parents, protesting and crying every time to refuse to do something you asked. They will also grow up rude and used to getting everything they want.
So you need to make children understand that there are rules from the first year of their life. This way, the little ones will start to understand from an early age what “yes” and “no” means, what is right and what is wrong.
Boundaries are a Good Thing
You may feel bad at first when you try to impose limits, and the kids may be slow to understand the need to follow your rules. That’s why you need to know how to negotiate and impose yourself, explaining to them that there are consequences for bad behavior. The sooner it happens, the sooner they will get used to the idea that their parents are in charge.
If you’ve already tried to do it and been unsuccessful, take a look at these tips to teach kids about boundaries (and enforcing those boundaries):
1 Present the Rules
Gather the family to present and expose the house rules. Playfully do this, but be consistent and remind kids of your expectations. Never negotiate the rules, and don’t let kids get away with defiantly disregarding them the first time around. Involve the whole family in the process: it’s no use encouraging healthy eating habits at home if uncles or grandparents serve fast food or sweets to the kids in their homes.
2 Explain the Importance of Boundaries
Exercise your authority and reinforce the importance of having boundaries and responding to rebellions with minor, symbolic punishments. Whenever possible, explain to the kids what’s behind the rules to force them to correct their behavior on their own. If they refuse to wear warmer clothes on a cold day or use prescription sunglasses for kids and toddlers to play outside on a sunny day, you need to explain that this is important for their safety and health.
3 Be a Role Model
Instead of being a dictator, be an example. Demonstrate or display living with boundaries when out and about with kids or at home. If they see that you don’t follow the rules either, they will rebel. Show them through action how to be aware and respect boundaries in life and through interaction with other adults because children learn a lot by observation.
3 Don’t Do Things for Them
As they grow up, give kids the independence and the chance to do things on their own and learn that way instead of doing it for them. For example, if they need to apologize to someone, have them make the apology (the parent shouldn’t make the apology on their behalf).
4 Reinforce Good Behavior
Correct the wrong behavior by immediately following up with the proper behavior to reinforce it. Never let disobedience go unpunished as pity. Otherwise, the children will never understand that they did something wrong.
5 Respect Their Efforts
Even if boundaries are non-negotiable, learn to recognize your children’s efforts and congratulate them on every hit for their good behavior. You can even make it a competition by giving them a small reward or having fun after a certain set of good behavior.
6 Be Patient, Yet Strict
Don’t give up the first time you are confronted by children. Stand firm even if it means punishing them by taking away something they like. But avoid shouting, threats, and physical punishment; otherwise, they will grow up with the idea that boundaries are something forced on them.
7 No Boundaries, No Responsability
The process of setting and imposing boundaries on your children is an experience that takes patience, insistence, and a lot of trial and error. You’ve certainly experienced this as a child with your own parents. But each generation adapts to new behaviors: if you were “educated” with spankings as a child, you certainly don’t want the same for your kids.
When creating house rules, remember that safety and health boundaries are non-negotiable: they cannot cross the street alone, they cannot leave the house alone at night, and they need to shower daily. But other rules can be adapted through dialogue and some negotiation.
If you’re having trouble asserting your authority at home, even with the tips above, don’t wait to seek help from a psychologist.