Setting Boundaries with Your Kids

“Setting boundaries” is a term used to describe the process of making your expectations clear and being consistent about enforcing these expectations. You can set boundaries for three groups of people: yourself, your children, and others. All three of these types of boundaries are applied in different ways. This article specifically addresses how to make and maintain boundaries for your kids. I believe this is one of the most important aspects of parenting.

If you know how to set boundaries and enforce them correctly, there will be order in your home; you can avoid making decisions based on your emotions; and it will protect your children from getting into negative situations. In short, if you know how to make and manage your boundaries, you can be a much more consistent and loving parent than you could ever be without them.

Where Should We Set Boundaries with Our Kids?

Set boundaries for your kids if you have one of the following reasons:

  • Necessity
  • “You need to be at school on time because you need to do this to pass your classes.”

  • Protection
  • “Your curfew is at [fill-in-the-blank] because the chances of something bad happening to you increase if you are out after this time.”

  • Edification
  • “You can only watch [fill-in-the-blank] television because it is good for you to spend some time exercising or reading.”

It is very important that you never set boundaries simply for the reason that you want to show your kids that you have power over them. The attitude that thinks, “I’ll show her who the boss is,” is not going to help the situation. This is the worst reason to make a rule; it is guaranteed to cause resistance and resentment that will hurt your relationship with your child.

Consequences

It is very important that you establish consequences alongside of the boundaries for your kids. For example, you might say, “You must not get involved with any kind of illegal drugs. If you do, I am sending you to a rehabilitation center and taking your car away from you.” Since you told your child ahead of time, when she has the opportunity to cross this boundary, she already knows what the consequences are going to be if you find out about it. When she is at a party and someone offers her drugs, she’ll be forced to go through the following thought process: “If I do this and my parents find out, I will go to rehab and lose my car.” In many cases, knowledge about the consequences ahead of time will divert the child from crossing the boundary.

The consequences must be serious enough to make the behavior seem too risky for her. This will protect your child from being too tempted because she will not want the trade-off of the consequences.

When to Be Flexible

Setting boundaries is a difficult thing to do because you have to use your judgment. You may find there are expectations for you to hold exactly to your established boundaries in every situation. However, you should enforce the spirit and not the letter of the law, keeping in mind that sometimes the letter of the law is the spirit of the law. If your child technically breaks the rule, but it was due to unforeseen and extenuating circumstances, you should be understanding or merciful. However, when you do this, you need to let your child know, depending on what the situation is, either that you are giving them grace or that you saw their good intentions. This approach lets your child know that you are being merciful and not being a push-over. If you don’t clarify why you are being flexible, your child will just assume that you are no longer enforcing the rule.

An example of this would be the following: “I know that you technically broke the curfew, but since your car died and you had to wait for a tow truck, I am not going to punish you.” By doing this, you let your child know the rule is still valid. If you do not say anything, your child might think she can start coming home after her curfew every night. Grace is only grace when it is seen as grace; otherwise it is weakness. It matters more how it is received than how you meant it. Your child must understand and accept this. That is why I encourage parents to be consistent and not to give grace all the time. It should only be given very sparingly and when it truly applies to the situation.

Establishing and enforcing boundaries right now by following these guidelines will be able to save you and your child from months of complicated conflicts. If you have any examples of boundaries you have set with your kids, successful/unsuccessful stories, or questions about how to set boundaries in your particular situation, I would love to hear from you.