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How to Set Clear Boundaries for your Child….and Keep Them!

Young boy with his arms raised in victory on top of a rock, conceptual image for conquering challenges, pushing the boundaries, and continuous improvement

There’s a nasty rumor floating around the parenting circuit that children need rules and strict boundaries to become productive members of society. A generation of people saying “that’s how I was raised” is being challenged by co-parenting optimists, attachment parenting fanatics, and a few others that are just tired of doing things the way their parents did it. Still though, it is difficult to one to argue that children can live an entire life without boundaries or rules.

But what if there is a good balance that can be struck? What if you really can “pick your battles” as a parent and draw clear lines about some aspects of your children’s life, and loosen the reins in other areas? There are a few things you can do early on in your child’s life to set those boundaries and leave the door open to explore options together as they get older.

Communication is the key to success in almost every aspect of life. Communicating with your child is no different: you’ll spend hours talking to your child about nothing at all really, but it’s important to keep talking so that even the youngest children know you are there for them. Whenever you feel the need to set a boundary or rule for your children, tell them about it. Don’t do it in the heat of the moment while everyone is arguing, do it during dinner or a family discussion.

Let your child know your expectations and what the expected result is. Ask them what they think would prevent them from completing the task or meeting the expectation and then try to work out the barriers together.

When they slip up, ask them why they were not able to follow the rules and ask them what they think they could do differently next time. Ask them about why it was difficult for them to follow the rules. Children don’t expect their parents to yell at them when they do wrong; it is only through raising our voices that children come to expect their parents to yell. If you try to change that expectation by changing the conversation, you might be able to get your child to cooperate and listen on a regular basis. Don’t set your hopes too high though: children’s brains sometimes seem like they are hard-wired to drive their parents crazy, but with some confident conversation about your expectations, your children will come to learn that where and when things are appropriate.

You’ll hear a lot of parents say that you need to stick to your guns when it comes to parenting: “don’t give in.” That’s crazy. Of course you’ll give in. But how you give in is in your hands. From time to time, you’ll just be too tired, or sick, or having a moment of just not caring: you’re not alone! Kids get what they want from us when we are at our weakest – it’s like they know! But it’s okay to give in from time to time; what’s not okay, is letting your child push your buttons to the point that he or she is getting anything and everything from you. You call the shots here: you decide when you’ll cave and when you won’t. Children will be mad or upset if you decide against something, but they won’t be mad for long… and they’ll probably never bring it up again.

Knowing that your child won’t hate you for saying no can do a lot for your confidence and can help you to keep on trucking, even during the hard parenting times. Sometimes we just say yes because it is easier on our heads and headaches, but being open and honest about your expectations with your child before things go wrong can go a long way to avoid those stressful times.

Talk about the “rules” often in your home. Make sure that everyone is clear. Talk about the results of no listening and make room for lots of questions so you’re all clear about what should happen at home, at school or the playground. Before I would take my son to the playground, I would remind him that he needs to play nice with the other kids, he can’t throw rocks, and when it’s time to leave he can’t get upset. It took a few kicks at the can to get him to understand that if he throws a tantrum leaving the playground, we won’t go back to the playground, but he eventually realized that I was serious in my claim.

Here’s what I did: when my son had a tantrum leaving the playground the first time, I waited a long time before taking him again. When he would ask to go, I would tell him he didn’t follow the rules last time. He promised not to get upset again, and when we tried again, he got upset. So a few more days past and he kept asking to go to the playground, and I wouldn’t take him. Then finally, we tried to go and he didn’t get mad when we left. We had a conversation about how the playground was special because he couldn’t stay all day long and that if he was good when it was time to go, that he could go more often.

Whatever the rules are, you need to be consistent in your message. Remember that it’s okay to cave once in a while, but sending a positive message about your expectations can go much further in the relationship you have with your child, rather than scrambling to discipline your child after the fact.

Communication is the answers to all of our parenting problems: if we don’t know, we should ask. We shouldn’t food ourselves into thinking children will learn the first time around. Keep on talking it out and being clear about what you want and what they need. It’ll make parenting much easier for everyone.

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