If you find yourself saying ‘no’ to your child all day, if you follow behind fixing things, avoiding accidents, resorting to reminders and constantly telling offs – and nothing really changes – then it is probably time for a little tweak in the boundaries happening in your family life. Tweaking our boundaries is a proactive step that makes a big difference to the conflicts going on but more importantly it creates opportunity for you to train your kids in areas where they need it. So let’s look at boundaries.
In a parenting context, boundaries are the limits set by the parent. Just like fences keep cattle in the right paddock; a farmer doesn’t contain his cows because he’s the boss of them, or because he’s mean and controlling – no – the farmer has fences to keep his cows in the right paddock, knowing that is where they will find the right feed and water. The farmer will move the cattle to another paddock when it is the right time for fresh grass so they can continue to grow and be healthy.
Setting Boundaries is a tool that parents need to use for the same reasons – not to be controlling but to keep their children safe. To keep them in a place where they can be healthy and grow, where they can do the right thing according to their age and ability.
Parents have two main jobs – to keep their children safe and to help them grow up. In defining our roles that way, there is an inference that our children need our help to be safe and to grow up. They are not able to do this on their own. We also would infer that when a child grows up, they no longer need that same degree of protection and care – because the very definition of growing up means they take care of themselves.
It is when we get these ideas mixed up that confusion reigns in our family.
We might start thinking that our child has all that they need to make all the decisions for their day-to-day life and we step back and let them do what they want, when they want. This creates chaos because the child makes poor choices and family life becomes one drama after the other. Alternatively, we never let a child take care of themselves, always thinking that we know best and this also creates chaos as the child, now a teenager pushes back, demanding that they can take care of themselves regardless of what we think.
A child doesn’t have the capacity to make wise choices – spiritually, morally, emotionally, intellectually, socially, or physically- at birth. It is as they are taught and guided through practice, that they learn what is right and how to do what is right.
So when our child lacks the ability to do the right thing (in any given situation) – it is up to us to do the right thing for them or to set things up so that they can do the right thing. This is what a boundary is.
Parenting is so often seen as correcting poor or wrong choices. But we can be so much more effective when we are proactive. When we make choices that help our children do the right thing we will spend less time correcting them for doing the wrong thing.
For example, when you are offered to take a lolly from a bowl of lollies, the right thing to do is to take one. But if our child lacks the self-control to take just one, we put a boundary around him, we make a choice that will help him do the right thing.
- We might make the decision for him, take the lolly from the bowl and give it to him, or
- we might guide his hand, and squeeze as he is tempted to take more than one – our gentle squeeze is a reminder so he pauses and thinks.
- we may just stand there reminding him of the right thing to do.
Our presence beside him, or our decision to be there with him is helping him do what is right – practice self-control and show good manners. If we weren’t there he’d take a handful for sure!!
Boundaries are parents stepping up and being the parent. Making decisions that structure the day and activities in a way that help your child do what is right. Our children do not need to make the decisions on how family life is going to be – that is our responsibility. As a parent, I create a context where our children can make choices that are in keeping with their age, ability, and maturity. We are to step up and be the parent, hold onto our authority and balance that with our love and knowledge of our children. We need to be decisive, firm, and loving.
Examples of Parenting Boundaries
Here are some boundaries that worked in our home.
A daily routine was a boundary – I set up blocks of time that helped our children move through all the different activities that they needed in a day. When they were young they didn’t have the life skill of time management, they didn’t have the moral maturity to put responsibilities before fun, they didn’t have the social skills to walk away when play got too silly and was just a moment away from someone being hurt, they didn’t have the physical maturity to not need a nap or rest. So when I made these broad stroke decisions for them, it gave them a context to do life well.
I divided my kids’ clothes into town clothes and home clothes. This was a boundary. They were able to make a choice of what to wear, but I decided which box of clothes they chose from – depending on what was happening in our day. I set the boundary – they made a choice within that.
They also often chose what toy to play with though I directed where they were to play – was it quiet independent play, table time, or outside time? Within the constraints of what I wanted to happen in the moment, they made individual choices of what to play with. This helped me help them to manage their emotions, their problem solving, their relationships and their learning.
Whenever my son, who had sensory processing issues became overwhelmed and headed for a meltdown, I removed him to a safe place, a quiet place, so he could do that moment well. He didn’t have the self-control that was needed in that social situation, so I acted.
When we went shopping my young children couldn’t resist the urge to touch everything – so I put them in the trolley, when they were older and still struggled I got them to keep their hands busy by pushing the trolley for me. If they still couldn’t do it, I put my hands over their hands to help them push the trolley. This was a physical reminder to help them grow in self-control. My presence and decisions helped them do the right thing by not touching everything.
When my teen boy couldn’t get off the computer game at the right time I set myself a timer so that I could be that reminder for him – because He ignored the timer, but he couldn’t ignore me!
Boundaries Make their World Do-able
- If your child constantly makes a mess, then maybe they don’t have the skills to do that activity – or at least, not by themselves, or for an extended period of time.
- If they constantly fight with their siblings, then maybe they don’t have the skills to problem solve by themselves and shouldn’t be left to play with their siblings without your help nearby.
- If they constantly have emotional meltdowns, then maybe they don’t have the skills to self-regulate yet and need you to read the signals for them.
- If they constantly disregard the rules, then maybe they don’t have the skills to self-govern in those areas and shouldn’t be left to do so.
Unfortunately, we often leap to consequences as the training process. But so much more can be achieved if we step up, and make decisions that create the environment where our children can do well with where they are at today.
We need to take responsibility for what happens and
when it happens and
how it happens in our family life.
Heart Focused Action Step:
Take a piece of paper, a moment of prayer, and do some reflection and planning
- Write down each child’s name and list 3 things you have noticed they do well; it can be in any sphere of their life. Then make sure you take the time to praise them for these things in the coming days.
- Then write down 1-3 behaviours you are constantly dealing with. You might be constantly correcting or redirecting, or constantly recovering from some sort of fallout – either a mess or something or someone gets hurt or a break in relationships. Decide on which one you want to work on first.
- Then ask yourself – What are the circumstances around that behaviour? Is there something that you can change that will avoid that from happening? Can you make a decision that will make your child’s world smaller, that will help them do the right thing in this situation, instead of their world being big enough for them to constantly make poor choices?
Can you arrange the time, activities, and options in a way that sets your child up so that they can do this time of day much better?
Remember, it isn’t about taking away all your child’s choices or avoiding bad behaviour, it is about setting them up so they can learn to make choices to do life well.
Eph. 6:4 Father’s do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up by training and instructing them about the Lord.
We can frustrate our children by not giving them any choices – it is a natural thing to learn and grow and be able to make choices so if we don’t give our children any choices we are limiting their growth and they will be frustrated. But we can frustrate our children by giving them too many choices as well because they will be in too deep and they will flounder.
Step up; be the parent, be the responsible parent – not the bossy parent, not the controlling parent – but the parent who knows how to help their child do well in the current situation they are in.
Setting your Children up to Succeed: Setting your children up to succeed central to intentional parenting. First step is to help them gain self-control.
Is the Attitude of Slackness Stopping Progress in your Family? – Slackness is when things aren’t quite right – an attitude of nearly, but not quite.
4 Excuses You Don’t Want to Make as a Parent: When we hear ourselves giving excuses about our kids behaviour it is a signal we are missing some of our responsibilities.
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