Top 10 Ways to Set Boundaries With Your Kids

By Freddie Silver
Kids of all ages need to have boundaries that help them grow.
Kids of all ages need to have boundaries that help them grow.

Most of us know children need lots of love, but they also need limits. Establishing boundaries is essential, if you want your children to become responsible, independent adults. Setting boundaries means teaching your kids life comes with restrictions and limitations so they'll learn to accept authority, delay gratification and develop self-control. Boundaries give children a sense of security and show we care about what they say and do.

Don't Be a Bully

Parents must remain firm when setting limits, but temper your firmness with compassion and love. Being firm means knowing you are right and maintaining confidence in your approach to your children. It doesn't mean refusing to listen to their complaints and it doesn't mean losing your temper and shouting at them. But it does mean not giving in because they've worn you down with their whining.

Be Fair and Reasonable

Choose which boundaries are the most important and don't impose too many limitations. Remember, the goal is to raise healthy, well-adjusted kids, not resentful ones. suggests offering kids an alternative whenever you need to deny them something. For example, if your 5-year-old wants candy before dinner, you might suggest a healthy alternative such as a piece of fruit.

Be Consistent and Patient

Resign yourself to the fact that you'll probably need to repeat yourself many times before your kids understand you aren't going to give in. The Parenting Assistance Line at the University of Alabama reminds us that children have poor memories, especially for things they don't want to remember. If you remain consistent and don't give in whenever you're tired and they're cranky, it gets easier.

Respect Is a Two-Way Street

Set boundaries that protect your privacy and show you respect theirs. For example, insist your kids knock on your bedroom door and don't enter freely whenever they choose. Show them the same respect. But maintain the boundaries between child and adult -- it's not wise to allow your young children to call you by your first name because it might blur the line between you -- a parent is not the child's equal. You are in a position of authority over them.

Know the Norms

Do your homework and learn what acceptable limits look like at various stages of children's lives. Dr. Laura Markham on Aha! suggests the limits you set should be age appropriate. Talk with other parents you respect to compare their rules with yours. This doesn't mean you shouldn't establish a limit you consider important if other parents hold different values. For example, you might feel strongly about not allowing your children to watch TV on school nights, even if other parents feel differently.

Explain, Negotiate and Compromise

Engage in open discussions with your kids. They're more likely to respect the boundaries if you collaborate when setting them. Explain the rationale behind the limits you want to impose. Carefully consider their appeals, but reserve the right to stand firm on health and safety issues.

Clear Communication

It's a good idea to set the consequences for transgression at the same time you set the boundary and let your kids know what these are. Kids need to understand what is at stake so they'll make good choices. Make sure there's no ambiguity in the boundaries and punishments to be expected.

Moral Boundaries

Don't hesitate to use the words "right" and "wrong" when discussing boundaries with your children. If you want them to be honest, caring and loyal, you'll want to discuss moral and immoral issues when they emerge.

Positive Reinforcement

Don't wait for a transgression to reinforce your expectations. It's more effective to recognize the times your children respect the boundaries. Honest praise and positive reinforcement are effective in helping to ensure your kids continue to comply in the future.

It's Never Too Late

Although it's advisable to start setting boundaries as soon as your child is old enough to understand the meaning of the word "no," it's not too late to start whenever you recognize the need. Consider having a family meeting to introduce your new approach to parenting. It won't all be smooth sailing, but forge ahead with confidence.

About the Author

Freddie Silver started writing newsletters for the Toronto District School Board in 1997. Her areas of expertise include staff management and professional development. She holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Toronto and is currently pursuing her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, focusing on emotions and professional relationships.