Setting BoundariesImagine if you walked into your first day at a new job and told to “Do a good job”, but nothing further.  Imagine you were given:

  • no clear boundaries or expectations about what criteria defines doing a “good job”
  • only corrective feedback when you didn’t do a “good job”. ie “That was not okay! Don’t do that!”

How would you feel each day at work? I imagine you would be quite frustrated.  Some people would shut down and not try anything, while others might scream and throw a fit.  Others might just try all day to see what you could get away with before getting in “trouble”.  This is how our children feel when we don’t define boundaries for them.  A child’s job is to test rules and boundaries, to see what happens when they do.  They are looking for adults to provide clear, loving expectations – so they can know how to do their “best”.  Here are three ways to improve setting boundaries.

The key: Take Time to Teach. You can read lots of great information about this tool at Positive Discipline’s blog.

Define clearly the behavior you expect in each situation, just like you would want a boss to define what “doing a good job” looks like.  If you are going to a grocery store, you might say, “We will not be buying any treats (toys, candy, etc), but I’ll purchase a bag of grapes at the start of our shopping and you can munch on those in the cart as we shop.  We don’t yell or have a loud voice in the store because it would hurt the ears of others around us.  And when you do a good job of having a calm body and calm voice, without asking me to buy toys/treats, we will go by the bakery at the end and get a dough-nut sample”.  This is what we do in our local grocery store, but your routine may look a little different. The key components for success include:

  • Telling the children what behavior is expected and why (connecting it to the feelings of others can help instill empathy for others).
  • Finding ways to meet the child’s needs in an appropriate way (ie. If they child is likely to feel hungry as we go by food for 30 minutes, I like to offer them something they CAN eat, so they don’t start craving sweets or other treats we pass by).
  • Look for a motivator at the end of the challenging situation, to help motivate good behavior. We have a bakery that always has bite-size parts of donuts available to sample, so I make that the last point on our shopping, and it usually helps them make it through the trip with more success.

Another great place to set boundaries is in regard to dinner time, bedtime and time to get out the door.  Many parents voice these as the most difficult times in their day.  With regard to dinner, here are our rules:


This is a week where my children wanted to sit as close to Dad as possible at every meal.:)

  • We all sit down to eat together.  When you are done, you can ask to be excused
  • People who finish their dinner get to have a fruit snack with their first stories of bedtime.
  • No touching anyone else while you are at the table.  If you can’t be a good boss of your body, you will be moved and don’t get to sit in the location you chose.
  • We all eat the same food. No special meals are made for the children (although I do make small accommodations, like keeping the thai peanut sauce off the children’s serving of meat, or giving them veggies without sauce on it.   Generally it’s just that they don’t like the complex sauces that me and my husband enjoy on our food. So, they have the same meal as we are eating, but with the sauce on the side, and the option to try that if they’d like).
  • No snacks or other food is available after dinner (besides the designated snack with stories). If you are still hungry after dinner, you can eat more dinner food. (If they eat very little for dinner and say they are full, they are reminded that they can’t have fruit snack till the dinner food is eaten, and sometimes that eat it right before going up for bedtime.  I always keep the food they haven’t eaten in case they are still feeling hungry any other time in the evening).

We have some pretty frustrating and sometimes funny dinner nights, but these consistent expectations have lead to my children to be great guests at other people’s homes for dinner, and for the most part – enjoyable dinner times.

I’d love to hear your comments and questions about how this is working for you.


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