Parental Advice

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Giving Your Children Boundaries

When you are the mother of a toddler/schoolchild/teenager and you describe to a friend or relative or even the nice lady you got talking to on the bus, something your child is doing that is driving you crazy, I bet they will nod wisely and say, “Ooh yes, they’re testing their boundaries.”

People used to do this to me and at first I hadn’t the faintest idea what they were talking about. I soon learned. I learned as well that there are different types of boundaries that we can impose on our children and they are not all good ways of “controlling” their behaviour.

Perhaps “guiding” would be a better word than “controlling” because if we were to control our children totally then the boundaries we would be putting on their lives would be absolutely constricting.

If we deny our children opportunities to make choices about their actions then we are not keeping them safe, we are keeping them prisoners. I am not advocating sending a four year old off on their own to learn road safety or a teenage girl to roam the streets at night to see what it’s like. But neither should we take our small children everywhere by car so they never know about waiting at a safe place on the pavement in order to cross the road, or ferry our big children in the same way, so they don’t know about always walking home with a group of friends or taking a licensed taxi.

Just as the constricting boundaries are bad for our children’s growth and experience, so are inconsistent limits and restraints. When we give children a code of behaviour we would like them to follow, we should try always to be firm, fair and consistent.

If we tell them that they must never answer the front door unless an adult is beside them, then we shouldn’t ask them to take the parcel from the postman just because we are on the phone. If we tell them they must never touch any tablets or medicine, then we shouldn’t ask them to climb up to the bathroom cabinet for some paracetamol, even if our headache is so bad we can barely move. If the rule was important in the first place, then it should be applied on every occasion. If it’s that manoeuvrable then it’s probably a daft rule.

Worst of all are the boundaries that don’t exist at all. Despite what our children may tell us, they actually do like rules and structure to their lives. They feel very lost without them and it makes them feel scared. They like to know that bedtime is 7.30 or library day is Thursday or Granny always grumbles about the price of sweets these days but it never stops her having a bar of chocolate in her handbag.

It might seem to every child that paradise would be staying up all night, eating junk food for every meal and never having to tidy their rooms, but reality is knowing that someone cares that they have a good night’s sleep, a healthy meal and a reasonably tidy bedroom.

So what are the best boundaries that our children can test? They are the ones that are clear and consistent. They may not like them – they usually don’t; they may kick against them – they usually do, but they will understand them and know they will be the same tomorrow and the day after.

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