Setting Limits and Establishing Boundaries: A parenting gift that keeps on giving.

My husband is often flabbergasted at the disrespectful things that come out of my five year old boy’s mouth. “I WILL NOT brush my teeth, hmmph!” our little boy declares with a stamp of his mini, size 12 foot, or “GIVE ME another cookie!” My dear spouse’s jaw drops and he says, “I don’t remember ever speaking to my mother that way, how should we handle this?”


I don’t like his behavior, but I don’t feel as concerned…I know that my five year old son’s behavior is normal. He is pushing the limits and testing us.


Am I being naïve? Are we destined to raise a self-centered, narcissistic barbarian?


No! We are going to continue what we have been doing since he was a newborn, to set limits and establish boundaries. We didn’t let him stick a fork into the electrical socket, and we won’t let him be antisocial and disrespectful.  We will continue to parent with the understanding that children are not developed morally at five.

Does setting limits mean saying no, no, no, no, no ad nauseum? …well… no.


Setting Limits

Why set limits? Besides the perfunctory safety issues, setting limits teaches children how to gain self control, which in turn allows them to regulate their behavior so that it is socially acceptable.  Socially acceptable behavior is a good thing; it is very difficult to perform in school, play at a friend’s house, have meaningful relationships, raise a family, or hold down a job with socially unacceptable behavior. Regular people just don’t want to be around people who are boorish and ill behaved.


Setting limits helps children feel safe. Little children do not like to feel out of control. For children to grow and thrive they need a secure home with structure. Kids want a set bath time, bedtime, wake-up time etc. Knowing “what happens next” is important to a child’s sense of well-being. Without too much rigidity, parents should set a schedule and live by it.


It can be tough for parents to set limits because it means saying no. How does a loving mom or dad look into a sweet little face and deny a request? Knowing that part of a child’s development is pushing the limits in an attempt to gain independence is the key. If the parent gives in or fails to discipline, the family will suffer, power shifts from parent to child, and it becomes the classic case of the tail wagging the dog. A parent is doing no favor to a child by allowing the power to shift from parent to child.


Parents should parent, not befriend. They should guide with a warm, loving, comforting, patient, understanding, kind and firm touch.  By establishing and enforcing rules that, for instance, limit how long children are watching television or on the computer, parents remind children that they have limits, and that the parent is in charge. Setting limits helps build the child’s respect for the parents. Setting limits also teaches children how to set their own limits as they mature.



Learning to establish boundaries is a critical part of human development. Children need to understand both about physical and emotional boundaries. Parents should model good boundary setting, and discuss with children that setting boundaries teaches other people how to treat them. Discuss with children that they have a right to be treated the way they want to be treated. Setting boundaries teaches children how to protect themselves both physically and emotionally.


Parents can explain what appropriate physical boundaries are to children and how to establish their own personal space and to respect the personal space of others.  A child’s sense of physical boundaries is very different than that of an adult. Observe a well-loved teacher reading to a circle of little children; if the teacher doesn’t establish boundaries some of the children will literally be sitting on her by the end of the story. Help children to read the cues that people give them and listen to their own inner voice that tells them when they feel uncomfortable with the proximity of another person. Parents should be gentle; the goal is not to scare children away from other people. Instead, the goal is to teach what is socially acceptable in order for children to relate well and comfortably to other children and adults.


Emotional boundaries are a more difficult concept to teach. Many people go into adulthood without understanding how to establish healthy emotional boundaries. Adults who feel pushed around at work, or feel taken advantage of by friends and relatives, often haven’t learned how to establish good emotional boundaries. Parents should teach children how to communicate directly and honestly. Children must be taught to have dignity and respect for themselves and learn that they are priceless and special.


Parents should not blame children for “making them” whatever: angry, sad, heartbroken, or frustrated.  A good way for parents to model healthy emotional boundaries is to take ownership of their own feelings. Children act exactly how human children are supposed to act, they should not feel responsible for the emotions of their parents. Parents should teach children that people are responsible for their own feelings. Children should not be burdened in childhood thinking that their normal behavior can “make” their parents feel a certain way or vice versa, a parent’s lousy mood shouldn’t affect a child’s emotions. Parents do not want their children’s emotions to be enmeshed with their own. Quite the opposite: everyone should take ownership for their own feelings. 


By teaching limit setting and establishing good boundaries parents give an enormous lifetime gift to their children, self respect and dignity.  Modeling good behavior and taking the role of parent seriously allows parents to fulfill their greatest wish of raising happy, well adjusted and emotionally stable children.

And remember everything in moderation.


As the Buddhists say, if the guitar string is too tight it will break. If it is too loose it will not make a sound. Tighten just enough.




3 Responses to “Setting Limits and Establishing Boundaries: A parenting gift that keeps on giving.”

  1. Susan Scott Says:

    You make some excellent points in this article. It would be helpful for you to give some examples as well. I think many parents do not know how to state something to their child without saying “that makes mommy mad” or whatever. Our society does not promote self ownership of feelings, so some little suggestions might go a long way.

  2. momsonedge Says:

    Feelings are going to “come up” when we interact with our children. Parenting is much harder than anyone told us, and a much bigger responsibility than we ever could have imagined. As Steven Covey says in The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People:

    BETWEEN STIMULUS AND RESPONSE IS OUR FREEDOM TO CHOOSE. We have self-awareness, imagination, conscience and independent will. Responsibility is the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.

    Bearing that in mind, the responsible parent lets the feeling come up ie: frustration, anger, stress, disappointment etc., pauses to choose a response, and then responds based on what is appropriate not based on what she/he feels.

    Example: A four year old writes with magic marker on the wall. The parent obviously “feels” very angry. The parent recognizes the emotion, pauses, and then describes to the child what she sees, “You wrote on the wall. Walls are not for writing on. Paper is for writing on.” At this point the child will probably have an idea of how to fix the problem and the parent has not attacked the child’s character or blamed the child for “making her feel angry”.

    Our kids are so precious they deserve an appropriate adult response to their normal child behavior. It is hard in the heat of the moment to control our tongues but we owe it to our little ones and to ourselves.

  3. Sleepless in New England Says:

    Sounds so easy, but in our case, our 5 year old son refuses to recognize boundaries. If he does not get his way, he can and will scream endlessly. Doesn’t matter the time or place. He will not stop until he gets what he wants. In public, it is fairly easy. We just remove him from the situation, and strap him into his car seat and let him work it out in the privacy of the car. The hard part is at home. For instance, at night he will throw the most tremendous fit if mommy will not sleep with him. I will hold him in his bed, and he will scream until he passes out. Takes about an hour. In a couple hours he wakes up, and starts all over again. Short of locking him in his room (we don’t) nothing can deter him from sleeping with mommy.

    The same attitude comes with animals. He has been bitten four times by dogs. Nothing can convince him to leave them alone, he wants to hug, wake-up, tease them with food or play chase. All the things dogs hate. They growl, they menace, they bite. We are petrified to let him near them. We explain, we punish, we beg. When you turn your back on him, he’s back to playing with doggy.

    Just what do you do when your child absolutely refuses to recognize boundaries? No reason, no reward, no punishment will change his mind. He feels horrible about his actions, he expresses deep remorse, he apologises profusely when asked about it after the fact. But given the same opourtunity again, he goes right back to the same behaviors.

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