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Boundaries - kids will always test them

Claire Winter Claire Winter | 17:50 UK time, Saturday, 12 March 2011

Setting boundaries is really important and I know that children test them to see where they fit in the world. Whatever the latest parenting fashion is, most experts will tell you that children feel more secure if they know what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. The BBC parenting site has some good advice about this. 

Young children need boundaries to keep them safe; don’t talk to strangers; take care crossing roads, etc. When children grow into adults, boundaries make them nicer people to be around. Without them, they will find adult life much harder.

mother and daughter @ Rob - Fotolia.com

So in principle, I am completely up for setting firm boundaries for my own children (eldest is 8 and twins nearly 4) but in reality, it is not that easy. I am really struggling with this issue at the moment. It feels like my kids are really pushing them in our house. It is always at key times of the day, dinner time, bedtime and when we leave the house in the morning.

I do get cross when my children completely ignore what I say or don’t the eat the lovingly home cooked food they have been given for dinner. My biggest bug bear is when they won’t put their shoes and coat on to go the school run, after being asked three or four times. I often raise my voice to get them to listen to me. 

When I was recounting these basic parenting gripes to a good friend, she gave me a good piece of advice she had picked up from attending a parenting course. “When the parent has lost control, the child has gained it.”

Essentially, my children weren’t consciously being badly behaved they had just got involved in a really good game: hiding behind the sofa with their teddy bears was much more fun than getting to school and nursery on time. They didn’t know that we had to be at school for a certain time. It should be my responsibility to set the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour and to enforce what I say, without losing my temper.

The only way I can get this to work, when I feel under pressure, is to do everything the night before. I lay out the clothes that the younger ones are going to wear, make their packed lunches and sometimes even set the breakfast table. It is important that they all know what is expected of them. If I state clearly what I need them to do early on in the morning, they are much more likely to do it. But when the phone rings and I am also stacking the dishwasher at the same time, things can go off the rails. Multi-tasking and boundary setting at the same time, is not always easy. 

There are many proponents of positive parenting, who stress that is important to remember to praise our kids for behaving well, instead of criticising them for bad behaviour. This is a great way to enforce the boundaries you have already set. Praise and cuddles often work far better than the ‘naughty step’. Although, taking kids away from a situation when they are being disruptive can be effective too.

When our kids get older, boundaries can also help prevent risky teenage behaviour, such as underage sex, drinking and drug taking. If we teach our children boundaries, they can learn to set their own.

Boundaries and discipline, do go hand in hand. It seems that a successful technique is to pick your battles and not be overly strict. In Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, they dedicate a whole chapter to teen rebellion. According to their research, the best parent and teen relationships are those where parents enforce a few basic rules successfully. The children who have very permissive parents or hundreds of rules to follow, are most likely to lie about what they do.

Boundary setting is not about controlling our kids, it's about helping them learn how to stay within certain limits and not to stray outside for their own safety. Following the crowd is not always the right option and hopefully through firm, loving parenting we can help our children make positive choices for themselves.

Claire Winter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.


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