Setting Boundaries with Respect

What would you do if your six-year-old was kicked out of school for his bad behavior? Would you blame it on the teacher, punish your child, or assume it was caused by other kids in his class? There are a lot of reasons kids act out in school, but the first thing you can do is take a look at yourself and the boundaries you set for them at home.

Some years ago my younger daughter lived next door to neighbors who had a three-year-old son. She often heard him screaming through the walls of her apartment. The parents told my daughter that they didn’t believe in discipline, per se, and preferred talking and reasoning with their child about everything—from what he wanted to eat for dinner to how he behaved and when he went to bed at night.

It’s an interesting idea and valid up to a point, but they had forgotten that a toddler has quite limited reasoning capacity. Instead of the parents teaching their child appropriate behaviors, the child taught his parents to put up with his unruliness. So when he went off to school, he began to hit his little friends without restraint and was suspended from school for his unacceptable behavior.

How can children learn boundaries and socially acceptable behaviors if parents don’t teach them? Even small children need to learn there is a line they cannot cross. You can’t just talk to them and then let them get their own way. When you say no, it should mean no. This is key in teaching discipline. Without follow through, none of your well-meaning discussions are likely to work.

A stern no is a good place to start with a small child, followed by a short, succinct explanation. You demonstrate that behaviors do have consequences. Authority is a reality in our world, and even small children need to learn to obey reasonable requests, instructions, and rules. “No! It hurts the baby when you poke him,” you might begin. Then you follow up: “Please don’t ever do that again.” If children repeat the behavior, it’s appropriate to move to a more serious measure. An immediate time-out helps to connect their misconduct to a consequence and teach them better behavior.

In any kind of discipline, leave your anger behind. Imposing discipline out of anger gives your child the message that they get punished when you get angry rather than when they misbehave. Tie the discipline to the behavior rather than to your feelings about it. You can get angry, you can express your anger, but wait until you’ve calmed down before you take action. It may take you five seconds or five minutes to release your steam, but take the time. Otherwise, your children may become afraid of you and your feelings because you appear unpredictable and out of control—the opposite of being worthy of your child’s trust and respect.

The younger the child, the more immediate a disciplinary action needs to be so that the child connects the infraction with the consequence. If you need to let a small misbehavior slip by because you’re too angry to respond in time, remember you will have the opportunity to respond the next time. Be sure to separate your children from their behavior. Their behavior can be bad, but children are not bad, and letting them know that makes it much easier for them to correct their behavior.

Restricting privileges can teach kids powerful lessons. When you take away privileges—like a favorite activity or a playtime—try to do it with care and compassion, to protect the concept that you are on the same team with them. “I’m sorry, Jesse, that you didn’t get your room cleaned up. Now you won’t be able to watch your favorite TV program. I hope you’ll get it done by tomorrow so we can watch it together.”

Of course, the preferable way of disciplining is always reinforcing good behavior—like giving stickers or coins toward buying something special. Kids of every age love added privileges, and the most nurturing of all is giving regular, honest, and specific praise for what they’ve done well. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t bask in the warmth of positive affirmations, which all parents should be giving to kids on a constant basis.

When you set boundaries for your children, be fair, reasonable and logical. Keep an open mind to listen to their thoughts. Stay flexible and change the boundaries when you realize they aren’t appropriate. Most of all, be respectful of them and sensitive to their feelings. They’ll respect you in return and honor the boundaries you set for them as they grow older.

By Joanne Stern, Ph.D. Author of “Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life”