Why Your Child Needs Boundaries – and How to Set & Enforce Them

There is a pervasive myth that Gentle Parenting is permissive – because it allows children to “get away with anything”, doesn’t discipline, doesn’t have any rules, never says “no” and doesn’t uphold any boundaries. All of these beliefs are wrong (see more of them HERE). Boundaries play a crucial role in Gentle Parenting, in fact, so much so they really do form one of its cornerstones. I think the difficulty in understanding, comes from those who don’t really ‘get’ this style of parenting and also from those who practice it, but are a bit too scared to set and particularly enforce boundaries.

Why Are Boundaries Important?
Simply put, they help kids to feel safe and secure, by knowing – clearly – what is expected of them. As much as we may like to think we’re ‘rule-breakers’, it’s rare that people do well without any instruction at all. Boundaries are in essence the blueprint of behaviour for kids to follow – if they know what’s expected of them, it’s much easier for them to behave in ways that adults would prefer. To add to this, boundaries keep kids safe (our own children as well as other people’s children), it keeps the environment safe (by reducing breakages and damages) and it helps kids to grow up to be kind, respectful individuals who are capable of forging good relationships with others and functioning in the ‘adult world’.

What Boundaries Should You Have?
That’s entirely up to you. There will be some obvious basics that all families share – those that involve safety (“no running into the road”, “no going off with strangers”, “no playing with fire”, “no hitting/biting/kicking others” etc..). Then there will be others that are more unique to your own beliefs, albeit some may be commonly shared with other families (“no shoes inside”, “no jumping on the sofa/bed”, “no painting without covering the table/floor first” etc.). What you choose is entirely up to you. Some parents have no issue with jumping on beds or sofas, so that’s a boundary they wouldn’t need to set, for others it really matters – so they would set that boundary. That’s the beauty with boundaries – they really are flexible. You simply choose what’s *really* important to you. My only proviso is that non-safety related boundaries need to be really mindfully set (ask yourself WHY am I feeling the need to set this boundary?) and the number kept to a realistic minimum. A home with way too many boundaries (aka Authoritarian parenting) is in many ways worse than a home with barely any boundaries (aka Permissive parenting). Gentle parenting tries to strike a balance with boundaries – not too many, not too few. It also aims to keep them realistic based on the age of the children and their physical and psychological capabilities.

When Do You Discuss and Enforce Them?
Depending on the age of your children, once you have decided upon a boundary (and therefore set it), it’s a good idea to discuss the boundaries with them. Of course, if you have a baby or a toddler, this is a pretty pointless exercise, the chances are they won’t understand (although it gets you into a good habit of communicating with them, regardless of their understanding!), but if you have a 3, 4 or 5 year old (and definitely older) then discussing your boundaries when you set them is a great idea. Make this discussion appropriate to their age – for instance with a three year old, reading a story book about not hitting others is a great age appropriate way to help them to understand. If you have a seven year old, then sitting and discussing with them, watching some videos together – and even getting them involved in drawing a poster of ‘our family rules’ is probably the way to go.

When should you enforce them? Every time they are broken (or about to be broken). The thing with boundaries is that you must be consistent with them. if you’re inconsistent, it’s confusing for kids. They never know whether to test your boundary (ie break it) or not. All parents involved in the child’s care need to be on the same page too, inconsistency between adults, is just as confusing as one adult being consistent over time. If you find yourself being inconsistent with boundary enforcing, then it’s quite likely that you need to cut back on the number you have, and ask yourself that question again “why do I feel the need to set this boundary?”. Inconsistent enforcing is a huge cause of increasingly problematic behaviour.

How Do You Enforce Them?
This is the one where people get confused the most I find. Because a lot of people think it’s not gentle to make a child cry. That’s just not true. Most of the time it’s impossible to reinforce a boundary without making the child cry. Similarly, sometimes you’ve just got to say “NO!”. Saying “no” and making the child cry often go hand in hand with boundary enforcing. The gentle part comes in when you set the boundaries (mindful and considerate) and in what you do when you enforce them.

Here are two examples of boundary enforcing. In both cases the scenario – and the boundary broken – is the same. The child in your care has hit another child.

Scenario One
“(screaming) Stop it!! How DARE you hit another child, what have I told you?”, “Get over there now, stay there for five minutes and think about what you’ve done, you naughty little boy”…..(child eventually quietens)….”I’ve told you not to hit, why don’t you ever listen? Stop crying – what are you crying for? You were the one who hit, it was your fault! If I can’t trust you we won’t come to the park again”

Scenario Two
(loudly) “STOP! I won’t let you hit!” (moves in to physically move the child away as quickly as possible)….(after you have moved the child away) “Remember, we don’t hit – it hurts people!”….(child inevitably cries)…….(following cues from child – stay at the distance they prefer)…”let me know if you’d like me to help you calm down, I’m right here”…(when the child is calm/has stopped crying)..”do you remember when we read the book about not hitting? Why don’t we do it?”….”What could you have done instead of hitting if you were feeling angry?”

Hopefully you can tell the difference between the two. Scenario one is very authoritarian, yes, it upholds the boundary – but completely ignores the fact that children hit for a reason. The adult misses the cause of the behaviour and as a result, any resulting discipline is fairly ineffective. The child is left to deal with their upset alone and punished by being excluded from their carer – and then further punished by not being taken to the park again.

In scenario two – the boundary is enforced, but it’s done in a way that is considerate to the child, understands that there is always a reason behind ‘misbehaviour’, seeks to teach the child how to behave better and reconnects and supports the child while they cry.

In this scenario – ie your child hitting another, unless you distract from the hitting (before it happens) there is no way to enforce this boundary without making the child cry. Crying is not the problem – it’s what you do when the child cries that matters. The key is to stay calm, stay consistent, stay connected and once everyone is calm – and capable of listening – use the opportunity to communicate and reinforce not only why the boundary is important – but more appropriate ways to behave in the future – ie to allow learning and growth to happen – this is the true meaning of discipline! This is what makes reinforcing boundaries gentle, not the absence of crying.

For more on boundaries – including what to do when parents and carers clash on them, check out my Gentle Discipline book (in the UK/ROIUSACanada and Rest of the World).


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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