The 3 R’s of Setting Boundaries for Children

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Setting boundaries for children can seem unnecessary. Just adopt a “Go with the flow” attitude or make it up as you go along may seem easier. But the truth is that kids need boundaries. (Psst – so do adults!). And that means that your children need boundaries.

But before looking at the why and how, you need to understand what boundaries are. Other terms you may be more used to include rules, limits, guidelines, or expectations. They all mean the same thing: sharing with your children, no matter their ages, what type of behavior you will and will not accept from them.

I taught elementary school for 16 years and did home daycare for 6 years before that. Plus, I raised and homeschooled (8 years – while doing daycare) our two sons. So I’m a little familiar with children’s need for and resistance to boundaries! My experience has led me to focus on three facets of boundaries for children: relationships, rules, and routines.

NOTE: I am writing and posting this in April 2020, when much of the United States – and the world – is quarantined to try to stop the spread of COVID-19. Although I planned to write on this topic before the world shut down, I think establishing boundaries for children is even more important when families are together all day, every day. I hope and pray you will find something useful for your family during this challenging time.

Relationships: The Foundation of Effective Boundaries for Children

It may seem strange to focus on relationships when talking to parents about setting boundaries for their children. But the truth is, in the busy-ness that is parenting, relationship-building can get sidelined. A strong parent-child relationship does not just happen; it is built day-by-day, moment-by-moment.

Your relationship with each of your children will be unique. It will need to be nurtured separately from your relationship with your other children. This can seem overwhelming if you have more than one child if you work outside the home if you are a single parent, if you are building a business, or if you a merely human! But it doesn’t have to be a chore or challenge.

boundaries for children

Ideas for Building Relationships

Building a relationship with your child takes love and time. So, do things together (time) as much as possible. Hug, kiss, and talk sweetly (love) to your child as much as possible. Those two things could take any form:

  • Cuddling while reading books together – check out this list for suggestions
  • Having a ‘tea party’ while you do you devotions and your daughter draws a rainbow
  • Folding towels together and saying “you are a big help”
  • Teaching your son how to make pancakes
  • Having a yard work day where mom and dad pair off with their two kids to tackle the work
  • Taking one child per week out for a special “date” – even if it’s only 30 minutes for an ice-cream cone
  • Asking open-ended questions about her day before tucking your middle-schooler in at night (try this one: What were the best and worst things that happened today?)
  • Going to every baseball practice and game you possibly can
  • And many, many more that would fit your unique family, child, and situation

Also, don’t forget to pray for and with your child!

 Remember – time and love.

You’ve probably heard this: “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” That is doubly true for children. Relationship is the basis of setting boundaries with children because, if your relationship is strained or broken, they will have little motivation to stay within those boundaries.

Ideas During Quarantine

NOTE: During this COVID-19 quarantine, you have an excellent opportunity to work on strengthening your relationships with family members. You may have to be more creative, since ‘going out on a date’ is obviously off limits for now. Here are some additional ideas to get you thinking:

  • Playing board and card games – no electronics!
  • Having electronic free (including TV) meals so you talk to (and listing to!) each other
  • Dragging out any and all creative materials you have around the house at least once or twice a week – from crayons and paper to beading supplies. Maybe try making homemade playdough – you probably have all the ingredients on hand. And don’t just set supplies up for your children – jump in and make a mess with them!
  • Take nature walks. Depending on where you live, you may be able to get outside on a regular basis. This is a great idea whether you and your children are quarantined or not. But especially during times of high stress, nature is a wonderful escape. Set a goal for your walk to engage your children, such as “let’s count all the birds we see,” or “let’s take pictures of anything we see that is yellow (blue, pink, etc),” or “let’s see how many different kinds of leaves we can find.” You get the idea.
  • Read. Read aloud. Read together. Read some more. Just read.
  • And definitely take advantage of this time to establish routines that will serve you well both now and in the future. Bedtime routines. Morning routines. Mealtime routines. Devotion routines. More on routines later.

Recommended Parenting Books:

boundaries for children

Rules: Establishing the Boundaries

As an elementary teacher, I had two practices that were the bedrock of my classroom management: rules and routines. We’ll get to routines next. But first – rules. Think of rules as the framework for hanging all your routines on.

Like building a house, relationships are the foundation, rules are the basic structure, and routines are the different functions or rooms. Once the foundation is in place, you can build almost anything shape or style of house you desire. But you must choose wisely because the framework will determine the function. You can’t put a bathroom in a room with no plumbing!

In the same way, your rules will in large part determine your routines. For example, if you have a rule (boundary) that says, “No eating in the living room,” your routines cannot include sitting on the couch watching a movie and eating popcorn every Friday night.

How many rules you have is your decision, but I recommend no more than five. Yes, only five. The number of rules needs to be small so that everyone can easily remember them all. The fewer rules you have, the easier they are to teach and enforce. So, while I’ll be giving suggestions and guidance, what rules you ultimately choose for your family needs to be guided by your needs and theirs.

Before you establish your rules, you need to be clear about your family values. Do you value hard work? Creativity? Honesty? Time together? Serving others? Working and learning together? Punctuality? Humor? You will have many values. The important thing to remember is that your rules need to support your values. For example, if one of your family values is creativity, then your rules might include following family guidelines on screen time, even when not supervised.

Examples of Rules

In my classroom, I had three basic rules: Respect Yourself, Respect Others, and Respect Possessions. These rules were explained with examples of showing what respect looked like. For example, “Respect Others” meant that students didn’t argue or backtalk to the teacher, didn’t hit or yell at their peers, followed the established routines so that everyone was treated fairly, and used manners like please and thank you.

To help you get started thinking, I am including a list of suggested rules and brief explanations. Two things to remember. (1) These are only suggestions. (2) Keep the number of rules low.

  • Follow directions the first time
  • Be honest
  • Be respectful to everyone
  • Be kind to everyone
  • Respect your possessions and others’ possessions
  • Keep your promises
  • Be safe
  • Be responsible
  • Use your manners
  • Be grateful
  • Speak kindly
  • Respect yourself
  • Be helpful

Some of these ideas could be combined. For example, you might decide to use the rule “Be responsible” and explain that it means respecting possessions, being honest, and helping others.

One Plan for Rules

If I were raising young children today, I would probably choose these rules and teach them as indicated:

boundaries for children
  • Follow directions the first time
    • This is a safety and respect issue. Children need to learn to obey. Period. End of discussion.
    • A second statement of directions would always be accompanied by, “This is your only warning.” After that, the consequences are given.
  • Be respectful always to everyone
    • No arguing or backtalking
    • Speaking kindly, not yelling
    • Sharing
    • No hitting, kicking, or fighting
    • Asking permission
    • Don’t interrupt or talk over others
    • Listen when others are talking
  • Be safe
    • Ask for help when you need it
    • Outside toys and voices are for outside
    • No personal information on the Internet
    • No going anywhere with anyone without permission and without providing details
    • If you’re playing hard (e.g. wrestling, tickling, racing), stop when asked
  • Respect possessions and environment
    • Clean up after yourself
    • Put away your toys and possessions where they belong
    • Do your chores correctly the first time
    • Don’t litter
    • Food is not allowed in bedrooms
  • Respect yourself
    • Be honest
    • Admit when you are wrong
    • Follow family routines (e.g. teeth brushing, bedtimes, no phones at mealtimes) without complaining
    • Apologize when you are wrong or hurt someone

You can always search “rules for kids” for more ideas, but to get you started here are some suggestions to consider.

NOTE: during quarantine, rules are as important as ever – but be flexible with routines!

Routines: Children LOVE Schedules

Some of you are probably thinking, “Say what? My kids don’t love schedules!” To which I would say, if that’s the case one or more of the following probably applies.

  • Your children have never experienced or been on a schedule.
  • Your children might not see you as someone with the authority to set their schedules.
  • They probably spend a lot of time either watching a screen (TV, movie, gaming, videos, etc.) or saying, “I’m bored.”
  • You are clueless about how to set a schedule.
  • You are a bit rebellious about following a schedule, so you expect them to not like it also.

There could be other reasons also. This is not an exhaustive list. But if #1 is true for your family, I encourage you to give it a try. It’ll be rough for anywhere from 4 – 10 days. But after the routine of a schedule is accepted, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without one!

Why Routines and Schedules Matter

The one thing that children most appreciate about schedules is knowing what is going to happen and when. For children, the world can be a scary place. There is so much they don’t understand and so much they can’t control. Schedules and routines give them reliable predictability to count on.

Schedules are like fences that keep them safe and the scary stuff outside. The younger a child is, the more important a schedule and reliable routines are. But the truth is, everyone benefits from the routines a schedule puts into practice.

Every family’s schedule and routines will look different. Schedules and routines will change, sometimes with the season, sometimes with the years. And schedules and routines can be suspended for special occasions like vacations and birthdays.

A schedule and its accompanying routines provide you with the flexibility and freedom to have new experiences while also ensuring the important parts of life (which are not laundry and dishes) don’t fall through the cracks.

What Routines to Include in Your Schedule

I hope I’ve convinced you to try setting up routines and following a schedule. What is included in your schedule and what routines you establish will – just like rules – be different for every family. But here are some ideas.

  • A regular wake-up time, even on weekends (but not on vacations)
  • A regular bedtime
  • A morning routine
  • A bedtime routine
  • Family game night every Saturday
  • For young children, nap or rest time every afternoon (until they start kindergarten)
  • Family read-aloud time every evening
  • Family yardwork and chores every Saturday morning from 9:00 to noon
  • No phones at mealtimes
  • Free, unstructured playtime every day
  • Creative time every day
  • Outdoor time every day
  • Daily limits on screen time
  • Family devotions
  • Big breakfast together every Sunday morning
  • Church together every Sunday
  • DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time for the entire family three times a week
  • Monthly or weekly family meetings

Routines and schedules really will make your life easier. But you also should remember, it is OK to occasionally take a break from the schedule and routines. The key here is ‘occasionally!’ If you ‘take a break’ every other day – you don’t have a schedule, and neither you nor your kids will benefit.

NOTE: During the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine, routines and schedules may save your sanity. For special circumstances like these, I would be sure to include quiet time for everyone in the house – from babies to grandparents – every day. You will be getting on each other’s nerves and having a predictable breather when everyone goes to their corner or their room for one or two hours can be a saving grace. Children and teens my whine about this. But don’t give in! They need it as much as you do.

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