Your Kids Want Boundaries

Yes, you read that right. Your kids want boundaries. They crave routines. They thrive within limits. And yes, they’ll kick and scream, whine and moan, but that’s part of the process that will enable them to develop a strong sense of self in an uncertain and frequently changing world. 

They will also require you to be firm and act as a parent instead of a friend or sibling. Through this process, your own limits will be tested. You’ll need to tolerate discomfort and risk being temporarily disliked. Ouch! I know. It hurts.

Trust me, do I know. When I have to tell Reeve, the 3-year-old in my life, that he can’t have that second cookie (even though it’s organic and made of whole wheat and figs!), it’s often the beginning of a knock-down, drag-out fight complete with histrionics (his) and tears (mine).  But the central roles of a parent or caregiver are to model healthy behavior and provide a sense of safety and security in an all too often unsafe and insecure world.

So what is it about boundaries and routines that make them so valuable? First of all, there’s great value in their clarity. By making them unambiguous and crystal clear, your kid will know what to expect and will begin to rely on them. If Reeve knows that by eating his dinner he will be rewarded with only one cookie, then there’s no wiggle room (try though as he may).

Second, boundaries and routines need to be consistent. The finish dinner = one cookie equation needs to apply each day of the week. It can’t be one cookie one day, two the next, and on the third we go back to one cookie. The lack of clarity and consistency create the very things we are trying to avoid: chaos and uncertainty. Third, boundaries must have consequences. If Reeve doesn’t eat his dinner, he doesn’t get a cookie. Simple in theory, but difficult in execution.

But is it worth the effort? In my personal and professional opinion I can answer this question with an unqualified yes. Even though Reeve appears to hate boundaries and routines, he does much better in them. And my personal experience is supported in my professional realm in working with children (of all ages) as well as by the scientific literature. A well know study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that families with healthy boundaries and routines experience greater emotional health, contain children with stronger sense of selves, and enable parents to enjoy happier marriages.  Wow! Now that’s quite a return on an emotional investment.

So the next time you are faced with the difficult decision of whether to enforce a boundary or let unacceptable behavior slide by unnoticed, think twice about the seemingly “easier and softer way.” In the short run, boundaries are hard and require effort. In the long run they will provide both you and your family with the structure it needs to thrive and grow. (But please don’t ask Reeve for confirmation of this fact. He’ll just bat his baby blue eyes and try to charm you into another cookie).