As with all physical matter, we all know that kids need limits and boundaries! But, it is another thing when it comes to setting and enforcing those limits.
If you have not at least once, try telling a kid “no”.
It is uncomfortable for many parents to start putting boundaries into place, especially if you haven’t before! As parents, we love our kids, and we would never want to see them upset over something we did (or could have prevented).
Even so, we need to remind ourselves that setting limits for our children is necessary. Not only will it benefit them, it can also make our parenting journey a lot easier as our children grow! We all need to learn what’s expected of us, and childhood is the best time for children to learn this. What’s more, it aligns perfectly with their developmental goals. Children are all attempting to explore their environment at this stage--keenly observing their environment, imitating behaviours they observe, noting down cause-and-effect relationships, and forming beliefs about rules based on what they see.
Don’t worry if they’re too young to be taught such boundaries.
Learning about boundaries early in life gives children the skills to navigate future relationships, such that they are less likely to do things that make others uncomfortable. It all boils down to knowing what is acceptable behaviour, and what is not. This important life skill is one for you to teach as parents, and one for them, as children, to learn and hold.
Next, comes the important question: how do we go about teaching children boundaries in a healthy way, such that they are able to learn and still understand that we still love them? Here are some tips!
1. Give Clear and Direct Rules
This leaves little ambiguity or loopholes. Your child is less likely to cross the line as it’s easier for them to follow and understand the rules. Remember, they are still developing their language capabilities too! Your language should be directive and close-ended (and not open-ended or open for misinterpretation).
Let’s have a look at two instructions:
A: “Why don’t you finish your dinner before playing with your toys?”
B: “Please finish your dinner before you play with your toys.”
The second instruction is direct, close-ended and impactful. It is more effective in getting your point across to your child. Not only will your child understand what you want quickly, they would also be able to know how firm you stand by these rules.
2. Consistency is key!
With consistency comes familiarity. By enforcing rules consistently, there is structure and discipline at home, both of which are important elements of effective parenting. It would be easier for your children to know how to stay within the limits that you impose on them. Moreover, they would also know that you are serious about the boundaries, which helps teach them about being accountable for their actions. Hopefully, this will make them think twice before they commit a (potential) transgression!
3. Appropriate, Congruent Body Language
We’ve all heard about how verbal language contributes only a small percentage of how convincing a message is. This applies to teaching children boundaries as well!
When teaching or disciplining your child, give appropriate eye contact, speak with a firm voice, and have a neutral facial expression. Consider giving eye contact at their level, which means that you have to stoop down. This is done so as not to intimidate them too much.
Do not attempt to discipline them while still laughing or smiling at them--if you don’t think that you would be convinced when someone does this to you, chances are, your child won’t as well. As long as whatever you say is congruent with your actions, your child will understand that you’re serious about what you say. This makes them more likely to keep within the set boundaries.
4. Remain Decisive and Follow Through with the Consequences
In an ideal world, our children will never be upset. Especially not with us.
However, know that it’s alright if your child is upset with you in the process of setting boundaries. They need to learn what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. Moreover, the experience can also help them learn how to cope with negative emotions in a healthy, rational way. These lessons you have for them are very necessary, so don’t feel bad for it.
It can be tempting to withdraw whatever you’ve said or done but do know that empty threats are not the way to solve things, either. While they may make your child happy with you for now, empty threats just show your child that you are not serious about the boundaries. They might choose to defy these boundaries in the future.
5. Recognise when they have stuck by the boundaries you’ve set too!
This is a great way to show your child that you still love them even though they did something wrong! When they’re done something good, praise them and acknowledge their efforts. Children love to be acknowledged and praised for something they did, especially when it’s from their parents! This makes them feel loved and cherished. They will thus be more motivated to stick to these boundaries in order to feel these positive feelings again! Positive reinforcement is great at maintaining a child’s good behaviour.
6. Have Developmentally-Appropriate Expectations
Understand what can be done at certain ages and what might be too advanced for your child. This prevents you from setting expectations that are too high and will save you lots of agony later.
Look up what healthy expectations you can have for your child and use these as yardsticks for their growth. You can keep track of their progress and let them know about their improvement! This can also serve as motivation for them to continue sticking to your limits and exhibiting prosocial behaviour.
7. Don’t Give Them Too Much Power and Control in the Family
Basically, do not spoil your child.
Children develop an inflated sense of influence and authority when they are given too much power and control in the family. The boundaries that you’ve set for them get blurred. They might feel emboldened to test the limits set and will be less inclined to stick to what you’ve told them. This effectively sets the stage for future parent-child conflicts and power struggles when they grow older.
Worse still, if not curbed from young, it might become more challenging to place limits on your child as they enter adolescence, which is a stage highly associated with independence-seeking and identity-formation.
Loving our children means teaching them the right, albeit difficult, lessons to better navigate life, values, and relationships.
Teaching them appropriate behaviour happens to be one of these important lessons.
We can start doing so in their childhood as they are keenly exploring their environment. Not only will an early head start help them in life, it will also make your parenting journey an easier one as time passes by!