Setting Boundaries


Children want our boundaries. Contrary to popular belief, they actually want to hear us saying no to them. The reason for this is that it’s human nature for a person to feel safe and secure when there are boundaries in their lives.  

As adults, we experience that as well. We appreciate when authorities enforce laws (though we may not enjoy the temporary consequence), and we feel unsafe when authorities are lax about law enforcement. It’s for good reason, because without it, chaos prevails. Imagine that a kind police officer gives you a ticket and says, “Ma’am, I need to give you this ticket because we are working hard to keep our city safe. I know it’s no fun, but you’ll thank me one day when this reminder saves you from tragedy.” The officer is setting a limit in such a kind way that it’s almost impossible to argue with him. 

Feel Secure in Setting the Limits 

Oftentimes, parents mistakenly cringe and make insecure faces  giving the news to their children that they need to say no, or they explain away why the child will be okay with the “no.”  This sends a message to the child that the mother feels insecure and that and that translates to the child as there is a problem with the child accepting “no.”  

A classic example is a child is begging a mother to go to a store. There is a three-minute back and forth between the parent and child where the child begs and the mother says all kinds of things like “not today,” “maybe we’ll go with different day,” “it’s not going to work out,” or “it’s not a good idea,” yet somehow the child continues to have a tantrum. Then, the mother picks up the phone and calls the store and finds out that the store closed for the day already. She lets the child know, and now somehow the child’s tantrum magically disappears. Why is this? It’s because the child doesn’t have a problem accepting an emphatic no. The child has a problem accepting a no that is not really a no. 

Setting Limits is Loving Behavior for Parents 

I recently heard a father tell me that he is afraid that if he sets limits he will be seen as aggressive. However, once he realized that setting limits is one of the most loving things he can do for his children, then was he able to start saying no. And of course he was pleasantly surprised that his children actually never had a problem accepting a confident no to begin with. They had a hard time accepting an insecure no.  

All children are capable of being cooperative. Children are not born defiant. All parents are capable of setting effective limits. Parents were not born insecure. 

 Learning How to Say “No”

Be Clear: Take a minute to think if this is something that’s best to say no to or to allow. If you decide it’s actually good for the child not to have the item or the experience, say no in a confident way. Be kind.

The Wrong Way: Mommy, can I please play outside till nine? All the neighbors are.

No, Joey. Maybe they play outside later than you, but you get other things they don’t get. (Now Joey senses that even Mommy believes that staying outside late is a good thing to “get.”)

The Right Way: Mommy please can I play outside till nine All the neighbors are. 

No, I love you way too much to allow that. 

Come, on Mom, you’re the only mother… 

With a calm and warm confidence, “It’s so normal that you feel disappointed. I don’t allow you to ask me again.”