Closeup Rachel Wigglesworth

Rachel Wigglesworth, once a wildlife biologist, turned her research skills toward another passion: childhood development and parenting.

More and more I am coming to see how important it is to set clear boundaries with my children. I’ve been slow on the uptake with this, and it’s not always easy for me. I have been blessed — or cursed — with the ability to see both sides of any argument, making it easy for me to be swayed in my opinions or decisions. Being firm in my conviction has not always been one of my strong points.

Yet I’m realizing that this lack of conviction does little good at times for my relationship with my kids. Here’s how it can go: I set a boundary, my kids push against it, I see their side and agree with why they are pushing. Sometimes this is OK. I believe in the power of negotiation, giving my kids a voice, and teaching them to argue their beliefs.

Other times this backfires. When my boundary is steeped in a strong value and I bend it for my kids, I can end up angry and resentful. That feeling, and how I express it, does nothing for our relationship or for my kids’ sense of self-worth.

My favorite tea bag wisdom of all time goes, “Say it straight, say it simple, say it with a smile.” When I say what I mean and mean what I say, all expectations are clear. This works especially well when, as a family, we mutually agree upon these expectations. If I hold firm with my boundaries there is no room for a power struggle.

Brené Brown shares a lot of wisdom about boundaries in her work. She defines boundary as “what’s OK and what’s not OK” and goes on to say that when we let someone get away with something or engage in a behavior that is not OK, we end up resentful. How we uphold boundaries with our children, she says, teaches them how to hold boundaries with others.

She gives the following examples:

Let’s say you have a firm boundary if your teen misses curfew: She is not allowed to go out with friends at the next opportunity. Your teen would be obviously and understandably upset. Let’s say she responds with anger, saying, “I hate you,” pleading that she really wants to go to the next party because she wants to be with friends or because “all the cool kids will be there.”

Any of those arguments could tug at your heartstrings. You want your child to have the confidence she might gain from “fitting in.” You want her to have friends. And you certainly don’t want your teen to hate you. If you give in and relinquish your boundary, here’s the message you are sending: If I am being asked to partake in a behavior (sex, drugs, alcohol or other) that I am unsure of, not comfortable with or that is against my family’s rules, it’s OK to say yes because it’s really important to fit in, be cool and be liked.

That may sound far-fetched, but our kids learn how to uphold boundaries by how they see boundaries being upheld. If we relinquish our boundaries because of outside pressures, they are more likely to do the same.

Here’s another example: Let’s say you have a family agreement about picking up after yourselves — toys, backpacks, snack items, clothes — and your children aren’t following through. It’s easier for you to pick up rather than nag or listen to them whine and complain. So you pick up after them. The message your kids learn? If I whine, protest, complain or “forget,” Mom or Dad will do it for me. And they don’t learn they are capable of doing these things themselves.

It is a healthy and normal part of development for our children and teens to push up against boundaries; our kids are hardwired to do this. At the same time, kids need our healthy, respectful and reasonable limits, and it is our job to hold those boundaries firm. The earlier we start this with our kids, the better. If we aren’t setting firm boundaries, our children will continue to test them, over and over and over. If there is nothing to push up against, they will keep pushing forward. If there is a firm boundary in place, maintained with kindness, they will learn that no matter how or where they push, the boundary does not change. Cease and desist.

I know all too well how hard holding firm boundaries can be. We want our kids to be happy. We want them to have what they want, we want a strong relationship, and we don’t want to deal with any potential emotional fallout. It can be hard to say no. Yet we are the parents, and, as both my previous articles and other research results suggest, holding firm boundaries and not giving our kids everything they want is exactly what they need to develop resiliency and strength of character. Being consistent will teach them to stop pushing. With less frequent pushing comes more ease.

Boundaries also help us feel safe — they give us limits within which we can move freely. Think of it this way: When driving over a narrow bridge in the dark we feel safer and can drive with more speed if the bridge has railings. Without railings we creep along hesitantly for fear of driving over the edge. The same is true for our children.

It might look like this for your toddler who won’t get into the car seat: Talk to your toddler about the rules about the carseat in advance. For toddlers, rules will need to be repeated until they internalize them. When he gets into the car try offering a playful choice: “Do you want to get into the carseat like a monkey or like a robot? Or do you want my help getting into the carseat?” Practice this on a low stakes day (perhaps on a day off) when you don’t need to be anywhere, and you have the presence to be playful and the patience to remain calm.

If your toddler doesn’t get into the carseat follow through saying, “I know you don’t want to get in the car seat, and it’s time to go. We can’t go until everyone is buckled up.” Follow through: Get out of the car and say, “I guess you are not ready to go. We can try again this afternoon.” Be consistent day after day, and likely your toddler will learn that you mean business. I know this is hard to do while maintaining calm, but being calm in this process is essential. We can extrapolate this for older children and teens to boundaries about chores, respectful behavior, maintaining a curfew, following limits on screen time, risky behaviors and so on.

I want to note that while boundaries are important, this does not mean that we are constantly saying no to our kids. We want to say yes to them as much as we can and give them control over their own lives. We also want to give them boundaries within which they have such control.

“Yes, you can ride your bike into town with your helmet on.”

“Yes, you can go out with your friends if you are home by midnight.”

“Yes, you can have screen time after your chores are finished.”

Say it straight. Say it simple. Say it with a smile.

Rachel Wigglesworth has a master’s degree in parent and family education. She offers classes and coaching to parents and caregivers of children and teens at GrowingGreatFamilies.org. Email her at growinggreatfamilies@gmail.com or find her on Facebook.

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