Important rules on setting boundaries

Published 9:00 am Sunday, April 12, 2015

Families First by Maryanne Law


Maryanne Law

Maryanne Law

What is the most important thing to know when setting boundaries for children?

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First, set boundaries about things that are important to you because you want to keep your children safe and healthy, and because you want to enforce your values. Second, recognize that children are scientists and they will test your boundaries. Third, children like energy, so they like drama; when parents show fear or anger, children feel powerful because they have been able to create dramatic energy.

When children test our boundaries, we want to stay firm and friendly when we respond with consequences. The best way to accomplish that is to set boundaries that we know will be tested, that don’t frighten us when our children cross them and to have consequences ready to implement that are reasonable. Effective consequences do not have to be extended or painful. In fact, if they are, we will likely only threaten to do them, but not actually follow through. Effective consequences happen quickly and parents are prepared to repeat them consistently.

Think about a small child learning not to ride her tricycle in the street. The boundary should not be the curb. If she crosses that boundary, her parent will feel and act very distressed; that’s lots of energy. Instead, the tricycle needs to be ridden in the driveway, with the boundary perhaps being the end of the fence line before the sidewalk. When that boundary is crossed, and it will be, the parent needs to stay firm and friendly — no more riding that day and the tricycle is put away. The child can try again tomorrow. Be prepared to be tested several times and be ready to calmly enforce the same consequence.

It’s the same pattern for adolescents. Set the curfew early enough that you are not frantic when your teenager breaks it. The next evening out, the curfew is much earlier and after that she can try again with the original curfew. Be prepared to be tested more than once and be prepared to enforce the same consequence, but make the earlier curfew for three of the next evenings out, rather than one, to show you are serious. With a pattern of compliance comes the privilege of later curfews.

If you would like to talk with a parenting specialist about the challenges in child-raising, call the toll-free Parent WarmLine at 1-888-584-2204. For free emergency child care call Crisis Nursery at 1-877-434-9599. Check out and resources at the PRC Specialty Library at 105 First St. S.E., in Austin.


Maryanne Law is the executive director of the Parenting Resource Center in Austin.