We love our kids, but parenting them is a complex and often confusing task! To simplify things, it’s helpful to understand that we can reduce the job of parenting to one guiding principle: to equip our children to meet the demands of reality. Boundaries with kids can be difficult to set, but ultimately they are necessary.
One day your children will need to face reality and handle it without your guidance. On their own, they will need to make mature choices to follow Christ; find great relationships to support their growth; set their core values and morals; handle romance, dating, marriage and family paths; and craft their passions and career.
In other words, God’s plans for parenting are designed to take a small person, who is helpless and dependent, and over time, produce an adult who can make great choices and decisions: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
One of the most valuable tools you can use to help your kids develop, no matter what age they are, is that of healthy limits, also called boundaries. Research shows that children who experience a household of clear and appropriate boundaries, delivered with love and warmth, are much better equipped to meet the demands of reality over their lifespan. Why is this important and how do we set boundaries?
How Boundaries with Kids Help
Here are three key results that kids with boundaries learn:
A Sense of Self
Kids need to know that their thoughts, feelings and choices are theirs, so they can take responsibility for them. They flourish when they can know where they end and others, including parents, begin. This allows them to guard and take ownership over their lives: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). That is why over-compliant children, whose only concern is pleasing their parents, often struggle greatly in their adult relationships. Help your kids have their own minds, even though they must also obey and follow the house rules.
Children are by nature impulsive and controlled by their whims. If you’ve ever taken your kid to a mall and given them lots of sugar, you have experienced this. Parents who help their kids have boundaries also teach them to control their impulses and focus on what needs to be done, such as homework and chores. This is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23) and will help them the rest of their lives.
Children need to know how to make friends with the right kinds of kids and to say no to the wrong kinds of kids. Boundaries help them know how to play appropriately, instead of intruding on others’ space. They also help them say no to those wrong kinds of kids and habits that aren’t good for them.
How to Set Healthy Boundaries with Kids
Boundaries are set through these four steps:
Convey to your children, with warmth and words, that you love them unconditionally. Kids embrace boundaries in an atmosphere of love rather than in one of emotional detachment or anger.
Give your kids clear ground rules for their behavior in your home, such as obeying parents, treating others respectfully and doing chores and homework. Put these on a simple list on your fridge so your kids can easily see them.
Tell your kids they can choose whether to obey the ground rules — that it’s up to them (except in common-sense urgent situations, such as a small child running into the street).
Let them know the consequences for following the ground rules and the consequences for not following them. Following means great times and freedom for your children. Not following can result in a range of outcomes, such as time outs, loss of playdates, losing cellphone privileges, digital devices or stricter curfews. That is, they are free to choose, and through their choices, they are also choosing the outcome.
As you move forward, resign from nagging. It’s tempting to remind our kids over and over to behave. But nagging without a consequence is useless. It simply trains them to ignore you until you give up or blow up. When you take them through the four steps, follow through with the consequence — and don’t give empty threats.
Final Thoughts on Boundaries with Kids
Hang around boundary-friendly parents. Our culture tends to move toward loving their kids without the hard work of helping them develop boundaries. So connect with other parents who believe in these principles. Share tips, wins and losses, and pray for each other. This will help fuel you for the ongoing task of raising kids with boundaries.
Dr. John Townsend, is the co-author, with Henry Cloud, of Boundaries Updated.