Setting Boundaries with Kids: A Simple Guide

Setting boundaries with kids is a healthy way to help kids learn about natural consequences and make good choices.  Healthy boundaries with young children can identify clear limits and lessen power struggles as children are growing and trying to define the difference between their own needs and wants and the best way to navigate healthy relationships.  

children waiting for crossing guard holding a stop sign - showing setting boundaries with kids

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Depending on the child’s age, setting boundaries with kids can be as simple as saying “no” to touching a hot stove, to learning how to appropriately express their own feelings and emotions in a manner that is safe and consistent.  

As children are growing and learning to navigate the world around them while and the natural consequence of their choices and behaviors, it’s important to have clear expectations and good role models to set a good example for how to express themselves, treat others, and obey.  

What Does God Say About Parenting

The Bible provides many examples of good parenting as well as parenting gone awry.  Even though a parent can’t control and determine the outcome of a child choices as they grow up, we can provide lots of great instruction, consistent boundaries, natural consequences, and positive reinforcement.

Our children are blessing!  God created us to be social, and He created families to fulfill that need in us.  With those blessings are also responsibilities to steward, shepherd, and teach those children God has given us.  The parenting work we begin with our children when they are young will impact their entire lives. 

  • Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him Psalm 127:3.
  • Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it Proverbs 22:6
  • These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children Deuteronomy 6:6-7.
  • Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you Deuteronomy 5:16.
  • Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them Deuteronomy 4:9.

​Teaching Kids Boundaries

When you set boundaries with kids, you are setting limits to what you will and won’t tolerate, what’s acceptable behavior and communication, and the general rules for how to get along well in your family and social situations.  

When you have clear boundaries, your child will be able to make choices, knowing those boundaries have natural consequences.  Whether your own boundaries include the amount of screen time, or bedtime, or how you display your frustration at having to share, each of these personal boundaries will help your child, even at a young age, learn to navigate the relationships around them.  

​Children (and adults) love to know where the edges are.  For example, if there is never a bedtime boundary, kids may become so exhausted they have a complete meltdown.  This can result in a huge crying and screaming fit until they exhaustedly fall asleep.  Then, if there’s no boundary about healthy eating, your child may just want to eat junk food and candy all day long which will probably result in a tummy ache at best and ultimately, more serious issues down the road.  

God created boundaries when He wrote the ten commandments.  They weren’t given to restrict our lives and make us miserable, but rather to set boundaries to help us live in peace and happiness.  Just like setting a specific bed time or limiting screen time, the boundaries you set within your family for your children can create freedom and peace.  When everyone knows the expectations and follows them, you will live happily together.  

Just like a guardrail along the edge of the road on the side of mountain, boundaries can represent safety and security.  When there are no boundaries, a child’s feelings of safety and sense of security fly out the window.  When you don’t know what the expectations are, it can be very frustrating to know how to navigate social interaction with others, negative outcomes, and impulse control.  

Boundaries provide children with a sense of control where they can know and understand what to expect.  They may not always like the boundaries, but having consistent and healthy boundaries provides that guardrail along the edge of the road to protect and keep you safe.  

Setting Boundaries with Toddlers – Starting When They’re Little

No matter what developmental stage your child is in, a consistent set of rules or effective boundaries can be a positive way to encourage the growth of a child’s learning process.  Learning what’s expected in different scenarios is a part of their learning process.  The most important thing when setting boundaries with kids, is to think about the important lessons you want your child to learn.  

If your child is prone to having temper tantrums when they don’t get their way, there are probably some boundaries that may be need to be established and practiced for how a child talks to mommy and daddy when they are frustrated.  This may include a time out, some quiet time before talking about the frustration, or it may even be recognizing that a child hasn’t eaten enough recently or needs a nap.  

Setting those expectations about how to talk to others when you’re frustrated and providing a consistent role model can help a child build social awareness, and social skills as they grow up.  

A toddler will need to learn how to be understanding of the needs of others as they learn to share, take turns, and talk kindly and respectfully.  Their consistent bedtime routine will help your child’s behavior be less erratic as they have a consistent schedule on a regular basis.  

If a child expresses negative emotions by hitting their younger sibling and hurting them and the response is not addressed, the next time might be worse as the child is trying to figure out how to handle the feelings.  

If, however, you have set the boundary that we don’t hit other people, you can practice other methods of expressing your frustration like talking to an adult, finding a different toy, or making some personal space for a bit.  

When younger kids learn to live within the social and family boundaries or expectations, it will be easier for them to develop a close relationship with those around them as they navigate real life and living within such boundaries. 

​You may have had close friends whose kids were out of control.  Perhaps they ran through your house, jumped on your couch, pulled food out the fridge without asking, let the dog run free and set off the smoke detector all while their parents were sitting at the dinner table.  You might be tempted to never invite them over again or only get together when you’re at the park or at their house.  

When my daughters were young, we visited some friends with children a bit older.  Their toys were for older kids and they have built an elaborate “house” out of special wooden blocks.  When we walked in, my friend sat down with my girls and told them the expectations for how they could and should play with the toys.  Her simple explanations to my children gave them the framework for how to build a friendship and play with these older kids and their toys.  

Setting Boundaries with Kids that are Age Appropriate

Setting boundaries with kids isn’t the same as controlling your child. You may need to put up those guard railings to keep your children safe, protected, and fitting into life well. When you control someone else, you are making them do exactly what you want them to do or else. Boundaries often offer natural consequences which are a part of life. Sometimes, they will result in the need for discipline, but often, the results come on their own.

As your children grow older and mature through their teenage years, your family’s age appropriate boundaries might include a curfew time, getting home work done before playing video games, doing chores to earn trust before getting to drive the car, etc.  All of these boundaries help to create a safe environment for children to grow up.  The bottom line is that we all need boundaries and want to know what those boundaries are.  

Setting up your expectations and boundaries for your children is sort of like creating a road map with the guard rails in place.  Using effective communication with your children, you can help them develop empathy for others, strong and positive relationships, and be ready for the important jobs that come with growing up.  

As a school principal and teacher, I have often seen kids who are lashing out, acting out, and being disrespectful of people and property because they have not been raised with consistent boundaries.  When children get to their teenage years, that’s not the best time to try to start setting boundaries with kids if you don’t already have a healthy framework that’s been in the works since they were little.  

You teen child may be ready for some decision-making power that you can work through together.  For example, what time is a good expectation for bedtime when you’re 13?  If you’re child is able to get up in the morning without you having to nag them and they are on time and get their school work done, then perhaps you can negotiate on the specific detail while maintaining the boundary that you care about your child and you expect them to be functioning at their best.  

two boys behind a safety barrier as an example of setting boundaries for kids

Practical Ways of Teaching Kids Boundaries

There are many practical ways to provide healthy limits for your child.  In simple terms, boundaries are just that – healthy limits or expectations.  When your child knows the expectations, they can make positive choices while working on the important skill of following those expectations.  When you give a clear message, make appropriate eye contact with your children when you’re explaining the limits of their environments and the physical boundaries of life, you won’t have to issue empty threats to get your child’s attention.  

Reading stories, or providing examples of where those choices went against the boundaries can also help children process the important question of whether or not they are going to obey and live within the boundary or face the natural consequences of disobedience.  You don’t have to give a long explanation to help your child understand the reason for the expectation.  

As your children grow, they will probably also notice situations where children don’t seem to have boundaries.  Talking about other people and their situation can be a great way to process what you don’t want to have in your family.  Looking at other kids and their behavior is not to judge them or make you feel better than someone else, but to help your kids see what it looks like when you throw a fit in the mall, or speak rudely to your mother.  

As your children grow, setting boundaries with kids may become less arbitrary and more negotiable as your kids are able to set their own boundaries for their behaviors, expectations, and responses to others.

Today’s parents have a tough job of raising kids who are respectful, kind, empathetic, and trustworthy, but a good parent will set firm boundaries through open communication and consistency and love.  God calls us to raise our children in the knowledge of love of Jesus to be good citizens here on Earth and ultimately in Heaven someday.

RELATED: Boundaries with Kids from Focus on the Family

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