The Importance of Boundaries and Norms for Children
One of the most important tasks, and at the same time the most difficult, is the setting of boundaries. It’s a responsibility with many hidden nuances. It needs firmness, but also flexibility, affection but also discipline. It also requires the kind of dialogue that includes certain commands but also explanations.
Boundaries educate and transmit values. Not only this, but they also make children feel safer. In fact, boundaries are clear references to what they can and can’t do in situations in which they have no experience.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are red lines that mustn’t be crossed. They refer to the physical and emotional integrity, safety, and health of others. They transmit security to the child, as long as they respect their development and primary needs.
Boundaries are like the borders of a territory, within which the child can move, experiment, and play freely. They acquire the character of reference, of a containment framework, a guide, which tells the child what can or should be done and what shouldn’t. They’re rules that order their behaviors and allow them a better perception of reality, by recognizing right from wrong.
What should a boundary look like?
Good boundaries should be:
- Coherent. They provide security and confidence to the child.
- Positive. Instead of telling them what they mustn’t do, they should suggest what they can do.
- Participatory. If the child participates in establishing the boundaries, they may feel more responsible for them and will be more intent on complying with them.
- Concrete. The instructions must be clear and explicit so that the child can understand them. For example, they should be asked to “Put away your toys” or “Wash your hands”, but not to “Be good”.
- Optional. This doesn’t mean giving a range of possibilities, but respecting the previous characteristics, giving options such as: “Do you prefer the red or the green pants?” However, it’s essential to keep in mind that children do and say what they see and hear. Therefore, when they lash out or disobey, we should ask if they’re doing it because it’s how they’ve seen their parents behave.
- Respectful. It’s the behavior that needs to be limited, not the accompanying feelings. In fact, boundaries should always be set in such a way that they don’t affect the child’s respect and self-esteem. The child shouldn’t feel humiliated, ridiculed, or ignored. Boundaries don’t mean disqualifying the child, but disapproving of their behavior. They need to realize that our love for them remains the same. Indeed, children need to feel unconditionally accepted.
- Remembering. Children don’t internalize boundaries immediately, they do so through a process of reinterpretation and reconstruction. They only manage to internalize them when they develop capacities such as language, reasoning, the ability to focus, and the understanding of cause and effect. However, these acquisitions can be unstable and often lead to states of tension, fatigue, or anger.
Norms establish how to coexist respecting the needs of oneself and those of others. They mark the organization of a family. They regulate and refer to behaviors, not boundaries.
Norms don’t contradict boundaries but they’re negotiable. They’re more flexible. If one day, they’re not met, nobody’s integrity will be put at risk.
Norms indicate to the child how to live in society, but they don’t suggest how they should act. As Patti Cancellier, educational director of the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Maryland, says: “Children are usually more willing to follow the rules when they see that they affect everyone”.
How to set boundaries and norms
Below, we provide you with some keys to establishing boundaries and norms at home, which will help you create a respectful family atmosphere.
- The objective is to maintain children’s safety without restricting them.
- Boundaries and norms must be respected by all family members. Similarly, they must be respectful toward everyone.
- It’s extremely important to teach children that freedom implies that they must take responsibility for their actions and behaviors, based on the decisions they make.
- Boundaries must always respect the primary needs of children. Furthermore, their needs must be understood with respect to their current stage of development. It must be taken into account that these needs won’t necessarily correspond to ours as adults.
- The fewer boundaries there are, the better. The fewer there are, the easier it’ll be for children to respect them.
- The boundaries and norms must be simple, specific, known, and the same for everyone.
- They must be flexible throughout the life of the children. Ideally, both parties should negotiate and reach agreements. It should also be remembered that boundaries and norms (except those that aren’t negotiable) are constantly changing, depending on the family’s needs and the ages of the children.
- They work poorly when they’re only used to gain authority.
- They may have to be repeated a few times. Children are particularly impulsive since their prefrontal lobe hasn’t yet fully developed. Thus, it’s more complicated for them to control their actions. For this reason, they need to be patient to internalize certain boundaries and know not to cross them if we’re not present.
- Use positive language. Replace “Don’t run” with “Slow down”, “Don’t throw your toys around” with “If you throw your toys around, they might break” and “Don’t jump on the sofa” with “If you jump on the sofa it might break. Shall we jump on the bed instead?” Then, when you say “no” it’ll be easier for your child to accept.
The importance of setting boundaries
Boundaries act as protective barriers, padding, shock absorbers, and filters that are necessary to reduce risks. Children become difficult and uncontrollable when their parents can’t deal with the fact that they’re unable to tolerate frustration. This is because the parents aren’t upholding the boundaries they’ve set.
There’s no benefit to assuming that children shouldn’t experience frustration. In fact, they simply learn that they can get what they want with their tantrums and crying. As a rule, the situation worsens and then polar solutions, irrational refusal, punishment, challenges, and often inadequate negotiations are resorted to. Eventually, the necessary boundary will be imposed, but by then it’ll be too late.
The balance in imposing boundaries
Children are able to gradually incorporate the idea that they can’t have everything now. Successful boundaries are dependent on adults being able to tolerate their children’s tantrums, help them develop, and not give in to their own insecurities.
Boundaries also give children the opportunity to think, take the initiative, seek solutions, favor the development of their identities, and promote autonomy. In fact, all children need to grow up with certain standards.
Norms teach children that their desires aren’t always going to be satisfied or at least not satisfied in the way that they’d like. On the other hand, boundaries make them feel safer. For example, when parents tell their child not to go further than a certain point, deep down, they’re telling them that they can, effectively, move to that point as it’s where they’re able to protect them.
“Any unnecessary aid is an obstacle to development.”
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
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- Durán, C. M., & EP, E. (2009). Normas y límites. Innovación y Experiencias Educativas, 22.
- López Sánchez, P. (2003). Los límites y la sobreprotección. Aula libre.
- Wild, R. (2011). Libertad y límites. Amor y respeto: Lo que los niños necesitan de nosotros. Herder Editorial.