It’s trendy to live with a belief in ‘no boundaries’ but in fact, just as we need to understand ‘fall off your bike’ before we can understand ‘don’t fall off your bike’ (the previous post, The Power of ‘Don’t’, explains this concept), we need to understand ‘boundaries’ before we can make sense of ‘no boundaries’.

A boundary may be something that is physical, like a fence, or it may be a limit of something abstract, like a subject or a sphere of activity. Boundaries speak of expected behaviours, choices and consequences, and are only true boundaries if the ‘fence’ or ‘barrier’ stays firm when it is pushed against. We try to build fences that keep the dog in or that keep the chickens safe, and we expect that the distinction of private property will be made by passers-by. We have walls and railings on the side of the road that protect against cars crashing through to other lanes and when a two-way road has no obstacle between lanes, the boundaries still remain and drivers are expected to stay to one lane. We have boundaries within all types of relationships that rely on respect, honesty and consent in order to protect those around us and offer a safe space to grow. Everywhere we go there are boundaries with consequences and outcomes, be it the laws of nature, ways of culture, or limits of safety. What does this mean for children and the way we teach them about the world? In the name of positivity, perhaps boundaries could be seen less as rules and more about healthy choices.

The family setting, with all of its members and dynamics, is the training ground that equips children to meet the demands of reality and thrive in the world around them. Their need for limits is obvious – one of the first times they really offend our boundaries is when they start to crawl and curiosity gets the better of that ‘no touching’ rule, leaving whatever was in the bottom of the kitchen draw or that expensive phone charging at the end of that ever-so-yank-able cord completely vulnerable to prying fingers. Boundaries are necessary later on when children are learning about their emotions. They can be seen as guidelines that help you learn how to act before you have the skill to reason through the consequences of your behaviour. Examples of when such guidelines are helpful could include teaching children who are especially affectionate about different types of relationships; or, for those who are learning to keep their temper, choosing to be gracious when they don’t get their way.

The boundaries that we set and adhere to at home (and in the school yard) are the tools that we use to teach our children the basic building blocks of becoming a mature, decision-making adult: a sense of self, self-control and strength of character, empathy, respect, and the ability to create and maintain healthy relationships.

Healthy boundaries are:
• clear and concise
• consistent and have meaning
• appropriate to the child’s age and needs
• seen as positive rather than disciplinary
• set with love and warmth, and
• adhered to by modelling parents

These allow an individual to become responsible for himself – his thoughts, choices, actions and words are his own. In this way, boundaries also teach the reality of consequences. We raise our children to be independent with the freedom to choose, and through their choices, they are empowered to choose their outcomes. Freedom within healthy boundaries shows the line where we, as parents, end and they, as separate individuals, begin. Lack of boundaries or boundaries that are far too restrictive work against a healthy sense of self and will see your child become a grown-up who hasn’t quite come to grips with the foundational concept of personal responsibility.

Things to consider when planning the appropriate boundaries to set for your children:

What are the core values you want to set in your home? Things like safety, respect for people, belongings and the world around us, empathy, self-control and kindness may make it to your list. Discuss these values with your family and see what you come up with as a team. Keeping these positive goals in mind is not only going to affect the boundaries you set, but the way you respond when they are breached.

Can you model what is expected? Whether it is the language you use at home, your readiness to apologise when you are in the wrong, your ability to keep your spaces tidy, or the way you stop that tickle attack as soon as your child says “Stop!”, the most effective type of leadership is by example.

Are my expectations achievable for my child? Setting a boundary or limit that is beyond the ability of your child will set them up for failure. Setting boundaries according to ages, ability and understanding will empower your child to make mature decisions at any age.

Are the boundaries in place clear, understandable and meaningful? Meaningless boundaries are not just a waste of time, but are detrimental to a positive home atmosphere. They cause fights, they teach children to have their own unnecessary boundaries and they limit maturity while encouraging unrealistic expectations of people and the world around them; you may find that your children will end up caring more about their idea of ‘fairness’ than having fun and enjoying the process of building meaningful relationships.

Remain calm in reminding your child of boundaries – in the first few weeks you may do well to keep a written set of boundaries displayed somewhere visible so that it can be easily referred to. If expectations and limits are based on a situation, be sure that they are expressed positively, e.g. “when your room is clean, you can spend the rest of the afternoon outside.” Practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to talk with your child about healthy limits and boundaries in hypothetical situations as well as real ones.