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Setting boundaries for children can seem unnecessary. Just adopting a “Go with the flow” attitude or making it up as you go along may seem easier. But the truth is that kids need boundaries. (Psst – so do adults!). And that means that your children need boundaries.
But before looking at the keys to setting boundaries for children, you need to understand what boundaries are. Other terms you may be more used to include rules, limits, guidelines, or expectations. They all mean the same thing: sharing with your children, no matter their ages, what type of behavior you will and will not accept from them.
I taught elementary school for 16 years and did home daycare for 6 years before that. Plus, I raised and homeschooled our two sons for 8 years while doing home daycare. So I’m a little familiar with children’s need for and resistance to boundaries! My experience has led me to focus on three keys to setting boundaries for children: relationships, rules, and routines.
Relationships: The Foundation of Effectively Setting Boundaries for Children
It may seem strange to focus on relationships when talking to parents about setting boundaries for their children. But the truth is, in the busy-ness that is parenting, relationship-building can get sidelined. A strong parent-child relationship does not just happen; it is built day-by-day, moment-by-moment.
Your relationship with each of your children will be unique. It will need to be nurtured separately from your relationship with your other children. This can seem overwhelming if you have more than one child, if you work outside the home, if you are a single parent, if you are building a business, or if you a merely human! But it doesn’t have to be a chore or challenge.
Ideas for Building Relationships
Building a relationship with your child takes love and time. So, do things together (time) as much as possible. Hug, kiss, and talk sweetly (love) to your child as much as possible. Those two things could take any form:
- Cuddle while reading books together – check out this list for suggestions.
- Have a ‘tea party’ while you do your devotions and your daughter draws a rainbow.
- Fold towels together and say “you are a big helper!”
- Teach your son how to make pancakes.
- Have a yard work day where mom and dad pair off with their two kids to tackle the work.
- Take one child per week out for a special “date” – even if it’s only 30 minutes for an ice cream cone.
- Ask open-ended questions about her day before tucking your middle-schooler in at night (try this one: What were the best and worst things that happened today?).
- Go to every baseball practice and game you possibly can.
- And many, many more that would fit your unique family, child, and situation.
Remember – time and love.
You’ve probably heard this: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” That is doubly true for children. Your relationship with your child or children is the basis of setting boundaries because, if your relationship is strained or broken, they will have little motivation to stay within those boundaries.
How to Build Relationships With Your Children – Without Leaving Home
- Play board and card games. It’s great fun and gives your kids practice in losing gracefully.
- Have a no-screens policy for meals so you can talk to and listen to each other.
- Drag out any and all creative materials you have around the house at least once or twice a week – from crayons and paper to beading supplies. Maybe try making homemade playdough – you probably have all the ingredients on hand. And don’t just set supplies up for your children – jump in and make a mess with them!
- Take nature walks. Depending on where you live, you may be able to get outside on a regular basis. This is a great idea all the time. But if your child is facing a lot of stress, or you are, nature is a wonderful escape. Set a goal for your walk to engage your children, such as “let’s count all the birds we see,” “let’s take pictures of anything we see that is yellow (blue, pink, etc),” or “let’s see how many different kinds of leaves we can find.” You get the idea.
- Read. Read aloud. Read together. Read some more. Just read. And talk about what you read.
Rules: What’s Necessary for Setting Boundaries for Children?
As an elementary teacher, I had two practices that were the bedrock of my classroom management: rules and routines. We’ll get to routines next. But first – rules. Think of rules as the framework for hanging all your routines on.
Like building a house, relationships are the foundation, rules are the basic structure, and routines are the different functions or rooms. Once the foundation is in place, you can build almost any shape or style of house you desire. But you must choose wisely because the framework will determine the function. You can’t put a bathroom in a room with no plumbing!
In the same way, your rules will in large part determine your routines. For example, if you have a rule (boundary) that says, “No eating in the living room,” your routines cannot include sitting on the couch watching a movie and eating popcorn every Friday night.
How many rules you have is your decision, but I recommend no more than five. Yes, only five. The number of rules needs to be small so that everyone can easily remember them all. The fewer rules you have, the easier they are to teach and enforce. So, while I’ll be giving suggestions and guidance, what rules you ultimately choose for your family needs to be guided by your needs and theirs.
Before you establish your rules, you need to be clear about your family values. Do you value hard work? Creativity? Honesty? Time together? Serving others? Working and learning together? Punctuality? Humor? You will have many values. The important thing to remember is that your rules need to support your values. For example, if one of your family values is creativity, then your rules might include following family guidelines on screen time, even when not supervised.
Examples of Rules
In my classroom, I had three basic rules: Respect Yourself, Respect Others, and Respect Possessions. These rules were explained with examples of showing what respect looked like. For example, “Respect Others” meant that students didn’t argue or backtalk to the teacher, didn’t hit or yell at their peers, followed the established routines so that everyone was treated fairly, and used manners like please and thank you.
To help you get started thinking, I am including a list of suggested rules and brief explanations. Two things to remember: (1) these are only suggestions and (2) don’t use every suggestion so you can keep the number of rules low.
- Follow directions the first time
- Be honest
- Be respectful to everyone
- Be kind to everyone
- Respect your possessions and others’ possessions
- Keep your promises
- Be safe
- Be responsible
- Use your manners
- Be grateful
- Speak kindly
- Respect yourself
- Be helpful
Some of these ideas could be combined. For example, you might decide to use the rule “Be responsible” and explain that it means respecting possessions, being honest, and helping others.
One Plan for Rules
If I were raising young children today, I would probably choose these rules and teach them as indicated in the subpoints:
- Follow directions the first time
- This is a safety and respect issue. Children need to learn to obey. Period. End of discussion.
- A second statement of directions would always be accompanied by, “This is your only warning.” After that, the consequences are given.
- Be respectful always to everyone
- Don’t argue or talk back
- Speak kindly to everyone and don’t yelling
- Don’t hit, kick, or fight
- Ask permission
- Don’t interrupt or talk over others
- Listen when others are talking
- Be safe
- Ask for help when you need it
- Outside toys and voices are for outside
- No personal information on the Internet
- No going anywhere with anyone without permission and without providing details
- If you’re playing hard (e.g. wrestling, tickling, racing), stop when asked
- Respect possessions and the area where you’re playing or working
- Clean up after yourself
- Put away your toys and possessions where they belong
- Do your chores correctly the first time
- Don’t litter
- Food is not allowed in bedrooms
- Respect yourself
- Be honest
- Admit when you are wrong
- Follow family routines (e.g. teeth brushing, bedtimes, no phones at mealtimes) without complaining
- Apologize when you are wrong or hurt someone
You can always search “rules for kids” for more ideas, but to get you started here are some suggestions to consider.
Routines: The Final Key to Setting Boundaries with Children
Children LOVE boundaries!
Some of you are probably thinking, “Say what? My kids don’t love schedules!” To which I would say, “If that’s the case, maybe these things are going on…”
- Your children have never experienced or been on a schedule.
- Your children might not see you as someone with the authority to set their schedules.
- They may spend a lot of time either watching a screen (TV, movie, gaming, videos, etc.) or saying, “I’m bored.”
- You are clueless about how to set a schedule.
- You are a bit rebellious about following a schedule, so you expect them to not like it also.
There could be other reasons also. This is not an exhaustive list. But if #1 is true for your family, I encourage you to give it a try. It’ll be rough for anywhere from 4 – 30 days (depending mostly on their ages). But after the routine of a schedule is accepted, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without one!
Why Routines and Schedules Matter
The one thing that children most appreciate about schedules is knowing what is going to happen and when. For children, the world can be a scary place. There is so much they don’t understand and so much they can’t control. Schedules and routines give them reliable predictability to count on.
Schedules are like fences that keep them safe and the scary stuff outside. The younger a child is, the more important a schedule and reliable routines are. But the truth is everyone benefits from the routines a schedule puts into practice.
Every family’s schedules and routines will look different. Schedules and routines will change, sometimes with the seasons, and sometimes with the years. Schedules and routines can always be suspended for special occasions like vacations and birthdays. These are tools, not dictators!
A schedule and its accompanying routines provide you with the flexibility and freedom to have new experiences while also ensuring the important parts of life (which are not laundry and dishes) don’t fall through the cracks.
What Routines to Include in Your Schedule
I hope I’ve convinced you to try setting up routines and following a schedule. What is included in your schedule and what routines you establish will – just like rules – be different for every family. But here are some ideas.
- A regular wake-up time, even on weekends (but not on vacations)
- A regular bedtime
- A morning routine
- A bedtime routine
- Family game night every Saturday
- For young children, nap or rest time every afternoon (until they start kindergarten)
- Family read-aloud time every evening
- Family yardwork and chores every Saturday morning from 9:00 to noon
- No phones at mealtimes
- Free, unstructured playtime every day
- Creative time every day
- Outdoor time every day
- Daily limits on screen time
- Family devotions
- Big breakfast together every Sunday morning
- Church together every Sunday
- DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time for the entire family three times a week
- Monthly or weekly family meetings
Routines and schedules really will make your life easier. But you also should remember, it is OK to occasionally take a break from the schedule and routines. The key here is ‘occasionally!’ If you ‘take a break’ every other day – you don’t have a schedule, and neither you nor your kids will benefit.
You have the 3 keys for boundaries: relationships, rules, and routines. What you do with those keys is up to you. But I can guarantee you this: if you don’t give boundaries an honest try, you’ll never know how much they can help.
Why don’t you do this? Have a discussion about rules and routines. Start small with only one or two problem areas – such as screens or disrespect. And give yourself at least 30 days before ditching the plan. Those rules and routines really will make a difference.
And you can sweeten the deal with your kids by including fun, relationship-building activities weekly in your new plan. Let your kids help you decide what those fun times will be.