When Do Kids Learn Boundaries?

I’m writing this post from both a professional and personal point of view today.

Professionally speaking, I’ve worked with families for over 15 years and I’ve consistently had parents ask me how to set and teach healthy boundaries to their children. From a personal standpoint, my wife and I are learning every single day, by trial and error, how to set up, and maintain healthy boundaries with our children.

Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com

Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com

The formulation of this post began yesterday when I arrived home from work. My youngest son Sam and my oldest song Andre were in trouble…big trouble, in fact! The one thing you need to know about both of them is this- they each think they run the world. They also think the entire world exists to cater to them. I can’t blame them, however. Sam is the youngest and Andre used to be the youngest before our family grew in numbers.

So, when do kids learn boundaries? When do they respond to them? How do I know I am succeeding in setting the healthiest boundaries possible for my children?

I think kids learn and respond to boundaries the best when:

They are clearly defined.

Stating it over and over, with little to no confusion, gives clear definition to the boundaries you are setting for your children. In our kitchen, we have “The Berry Family Expectations” hanging on the wall. My wife literally created a framed picture that lists our family expectations. It’s posted right beside the refrigerator. They are: first time obey, respectful talking, & respectful behavior. We felt these 3 simple boundaries/expectations were easy to understand and acknowledge. We also realized they encompassed a vast array of expectations. You can fit every poor choice or bad behavior under one of these expectations.

So, when Sam behaved poorly yesterday, the content of his crime was not the issue (well, it was, but that’s beside the point for this post). The issue was that his behavior was bad and that’s a violation of boundary/expectation #3. The same was true for Andre. He said something very disrespectful when he arrived home from school. The content was an issue but the consequence came into play simply because he violated expectation #2.

They are simple.

Along with being clearly defined, are your boundaries simple? Remember, these are children we are talking about (even if you have a teenager). Their brains are still in development, and will be until their mid-20’s. You will only confuse them by piling on complex or hard-to-figure out boundaries. You will also confuse them by setting up a bunch of them. Make your boundaries or expectations simple, clear & easy to comprehend. Following this with our 3 family expectations has helped tremendously. As I stated earlier, there is not a poor choice or behavior that does not fit under one of them, I promise.

They are reinforced.

In 2004 I went on a short-term mission trip to Tecate, Mexico with college-age students. Tecate is a town that sits right on the US-Mexico border. Our job for the week was to bring supplies to the youth groups serving on sites to build homes for families. As we moved from site to site one of the roads we traveled on was right next to the actual border. There was no denying where the boundary was. Why? Because all along the route there were marked border patrol vehicles reinforcing the border.

The boundary was already clearly defined by the large iron fence that stretched as far as the eye could see. My personal response all week was, “I’m not going near that boundary, ever!” This was because of the visible reinforcement.

When you clearly define your boundaries, keep them simple, and reinforce them visibly and consistently, you will see maximum response from your children. They might not like your boundaries, but that’s not the point. Of course they won’t like them. But deep in their hearts they crave them. It helps them to know they are cared for by you!

Clearly defined…simple to understand….consistently reinforced.

Anything else? I would love to hear from some of your parenting expertise on boundaries. Have you learned by trial and error like us? Have you spent time working with families and have some insight on this topic?

Comment now and join the conversation. 


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