10 Ways to Establish Clear Boundaries for Children

In his book Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours, Dr. Kevin Leman writes: “The permissive parent essentially says, ‘Oh, do your own thing. Whatever you want is OK.’ My years of counseling parents and children have shown me that in a permissive environment, kids rebel. They rebel because they feel anger and hatred toward their parents for a lack of guidelines and limit setting.”

So true. A very important way to show your children love is to have clear, defined limitations for them. Your kids want guidelines for their lives that are reliably enforced. You are the one who creates a safe environment for them. Setting boundaries is an important piece of parenting. It doesn’t mean they won’t push your boundaries; they will. It is a part of their learning process and they may even be upset when you uphold certain boundaries. But they will also feel safe and secure at the same time. Here are 10 ways to establish clear boundaries for your kids.

1. Be trustworthy.

Your kids need to know that they can count on you. When you fail to back up your words with action, your words will cease to mean anything. Your discipline and boundary setting will become hollow.

2. Less is more.

Follow the guideline of a special education teacher we know: “Five rules respected 100% of the time are better than 20 rules with haphazard compliance.”

3. Be precise.

Miscommunication is not the way to establish a positive environment. Effective communication is necessary. Ask your kids to repeat back to you what they heard you say to verify it’s understood. It pays to make sure everyone is on the same page.

4. Involve the kids in boundary setting.

Have a family meeting. Family communication gets everyone involved in setting the boundaries. When children share ownership of the rules, they’re more invested.

5. Draw up a contract.

Once the “Family Ten Commandments” have been established, write up a document that everyone will sign.

6. Post the rules.

Post copies of the contract in the kitchen and in each bedroom. Remember, these are not restrictions so much as rules to live by.

7. Recognize appropriate behavior.

Teachers refer to this as, “Catch ‘em when things are going well.” Too many of us come down on violations like a ton of bricks and never pay attention to what’s going well. If it’s attention they’re after, they’ll get it one way or the other.

8. Avoid labeling children as “good” and “bad.”

Children—and adults—behave in ways that are acceptable and in ways that are unacceptable. Labeling a child as “bad” will do little to improve behavior and a lot to create a negative self-image.

9. NEVER undermine the other parent.

“Good cop, bad cop” is not a useful game at home. “Don’t tell your mom!” suggests you and your wife are divided. Parents must have each other’s backs. It’s another way to be consistent.

10. Employ natural or creative consequences when possible.

When raising teenagers, natural consequences just make more sense. If they don’t study for a test or procrastinate on a project, you may need to let your kids fail in order to learn a lesson. If little kids continue push to do things that could get them hurt, you may need to let them get that small cut or scrape to trust what you’re saying.

Creative consequences can also help associate negative outcomes with specific behavior. If a room is not cleaned as instructed, missing a fun activity while cleaning the room is less a punishment and more of a consequence. Inappropriate talk? Instead of a spanking, try having the child look up 10 appropriate words in the dictionary and copy them all down, including definitions, etymology (origin of the word), etc.

Sound off: What boundaries have you set for your kids that have been the hardest to hold?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Why do you think I set boundaries for you?”