How to Decide Which Gentle Boundaries to Make With Your Children

Years ago, I used to think being a good caregiver or parent basically meant you were good at getting children to do what you wanted them to do.  And in that definition, I was a "good" caregiver.  I was often praised for my ability to manipulate children into doing what I (or their parents) wanted.

These days if I'm being honest, I'm repulsed by how I used to treat children.  Often times, I was disrespectful to the sweet little people I cared for, though I didn't realize it then.  At that time, I was unaware and focused on controlling rather than working with children.

My views today on what it means to be a respectful, mindful & empathetic parent are light years away from how I used to think.

Today, I know from experience and a deep inner wisdom, that boundaries are meant to give gentle guidance, not stroke a parents ego or show how powerful they are.
- Stephanie Aberlich

Similarly, my views on boundaries are very different than what I believed (and was taught) was beneficial.  Today, I know from experience and a deep inner wisdom, that boundaries are meant to give gentle guidance, not stroke a parents ego or show how powerful they are.

Setting boundaries is largely dependent on the needs of your child and where they are in their physical, emotional and mental development.  Paying close attention to what they need and how they interact with the world gives you amazing clues about the boundaries they will benefit from.

Boundaries are also extremely different depending on the age of the child.  In the first 3 years of life, boundaries around safety and needs will look much different then they will when your child is 4 or 7 or 11.

Gentle boundaries are dependent on several factors which are constantly changing as your children change.  For this reason, setting boundaries can feel very confusing.

Here are some things I take into consideration when choosing which boundaries to set:

Boundaries That Are Not Beneficial

Boundaries which aren't beneficial are on the extreme ends of the spectrum:

Zero Boundaries

This means no boundaries or a lack of boundaries. Often this looks like children who will hurt others without their parents stepping in to let them know it isn't ok, or homes in which there are no boundaries around screen use, food intake (type of food, not amount), or amount of sleep for young children.  Many times this happens when parents are worried about upsetting their children by reinforcing a previous boundary that was agreed upon.

I see this happening when parents are afraid to do anything they perceive will limit their child's freedom or choices.  In reality, a lack of boundaries is just as unhealthy for the child's development and ultimately the family, as the opposite - too many boundaries.

Too Many Boundaries

This means an overabundance of boundaries, arbitrary boundaries, ones made in power or anger, and boundaries which deny children their freedoms & needs.  They are often based in power or fear of what other people might think.  These boundaries would include requiring children to do things based on mainstream ideas of respect, politeness, and conforming to social norms, for the sake of trying to "fit in".

Arbitrary boundaries are also boundaries made in fear of allowing children to experiment and learn in their own way.  I often see arbitrary boundaries disguised as "safety", but in reality they are denying children their right to practice and master new things.

The Gentle Boundaries You Need

The beneficial boundaries I believe are necessary to have are concentrated in two areas:

Safety Boundaries

Boundaries that keep children or other people physically or emotionally safe. These include things like: holding hands when crossing the street, only giving young children dull knives to cut with, kicking balls not living beings, encouraging high fives or waves when a hug isn’t wanted, requiring a floatation device to go in the lake alone before a child can swim, etc...

Needs Boundaries

Boundaries around basic & emotional needs for child or parent. These include things like: noticing when a child is showing signs of being tired and encouraging sleep, very gentle boundaries around nursing when biting, pinching or nursing gymnastics start, some time for mom or dad to get self care while a very loved and consistent caregiver is with the child(ren), etc…

How to Know What Boundaries To Set

As with most things in parenting, I believe the easiest way to know where guidance is needed is to pay attention to our children.  Their behaviors and actions will let us know where to set boundaries.

For example, a child who watches tv, and then becomes irrationally hyper, can't sleep, or becomes frustrated, clearly needs boundaries around screen time.  However, a child who likes to watch a little tv and then wants to play, or doesn't become immersed in it to their own detriment, won't need boundaries around screen time in my opinion.

Similarly, a child who plays with moms hair while nursing to her mother's annoyance, needs boundaries around it so the mother's needs are respected.  However, if mom is fine with the hair twisting, then no boundaries need to be made.

Since boundaries vary greatly due to individuals needs, the boundaries you make in your family will be unique to your family and likely different from other families.

Want to learn more about gentle boundaries?
Check out these posts.

Awareness Over Perfection

After reading this you may have realized you set some arbitrary boundaries, or that you lack boundaries.  Do not worry, you can always make changes.  As with any change start small, go slow, and give yourself and your children loads of grace during the transition.

Tell Your Story

How did you determine what boundaries to make in your family?  How have those boundaries changed over time?  How have you noticed your connection with your children change when you used beneficial boundaries?  Tell me in the comments.

With Harmony,