Five mistakes that all parents make about boundaries

Parents often make mistakes when setting boundaries; it's natural. Here are the most common ones, and how to avoid making them.

 A child and his brother are with their parent, one playing a video game on a phone and the other having a temper tantrum (Illustrative) (photo credit: Direct Media/Stocksnap)
A child and his brother are with their parent, one playing a video game on a phone and the other having a temper tantrum (Illustrative)
(photo credit: Direct Media/Stocksnap)

The question of how to set boundaries for children is repeated in every parenting tutorial, and rightly so as we all want to be able to say "no" without it disrupting an entire day. So why is it so hard? A parental facilitator explains.

If there’s one topic that parents always bring up in any parenting workshop or clinical training, it’s the issue of boundaries. Many parents ask how to set boundaries successfully without crying, anger or tantrums so that kids accept them with love. So let's start from the end - it isn’t really possible.

Here are 5 myths about boundaries that most parents need to let go of.

1. Who’s responsible for maintaining boundaries?

Many parents think that the responsibility for drawing the line lies with the child, but this is a mistake. The responsibility to maintain the boundary or respond when the child crosses it is solely on the parents. Children, as well as adults, allow themselves to cross the line sometimes, especially when it’s not established properly, and the responsibility over the line is always on whoever draws it. For example, our house door is also a border, but although everyone knows not to enter a neighbor’s house without permission, we all make sure to close the door of the house and lock it. None of us trust others not to come into our home. If you set a limit, take responsibility for it.

2. Agreements need to be met

The second myth is that children abide by agreements. No, children don’t abide by agreements, certainly not when they have to do tasks they don’t like such as homework, showers or going to bed. When they are busy with their games or screens, they really don’t feel like stopping, just like us adults who sometimes have a hard time leaving the screens even though we have tasks. The only difference is that no one will be angry with us.

3. Choose our wars

Many parents say it’s important to choose the wars or battles with our kids. I used to say this until I realized that words have power. Wars and battles are waged against an "enemy" and our kids aren’t the enemy. These words introduce a sense of war, and inadvertently cause us to speak forceful language to our kids. It’s better to say that we choose to insist on what’s important to us.

4. Children need to accept our "no"

Parents expect children to accept their "no" with love. In my recent lectures, I did an experiment and asked parents how important it is to set boundaries for children and 90% of parents said that boundaries are really important. When I asked how much you like being set boundaries, how much you like to find out you've received a parking fine or hadn't heard from your boss about your vacation request, 90% said they don’t like being told no. Kids who hear “no” all day just like us don’t like it, so they get angry and cry.

5. Is a parent who sets boundaries a difficult parent?

Sometimes it seems to us that if we say no to our kids, it conveys that we don’t like them, especially when we’re away all day or very busy. Without noticing we say yes, until we get tired, and then our ability to hold back is finished, like a glass of water overflowing; the liquid flows. Then we lose it in front of the kids.

So, how do you set boundaries?

Building a good infrastructure for relationships is the basis for any process of setting boundaries. The better the relationship, the easier it is to influence the child and set limits. In a good relationship, there’s no need to constantly set boundaries, and it’s easier for a child to cooperate and listen to you. One of the best ways to build a relationship is quality time with each child twice a week: 15-20 minutes where you pay 100% attention without screens and without educational conversations, but only enjoying a child’s company.

Choose what to insist on and what to give up. In parenting, you can’t insist on everything, so decide what’s crucial to you and on what you insist, and where you’re willing to negotiate or just let go and that's it. One issue worth considering is whether it's right to insist every evening that kids shower. From experience, kids don’t get sick without a shower and don’t really stink, even after a day or two. Once we stop arguing about it, kids go to shower without resistance.

Understand that the border will only be kept if we maintain it, and that parental presence is important to do so. It’s impossible to maintain boundaries on a remote control or make sure that the screens are closed with shouts from the other side of the house. Do you want kids to shut down the computer? Go to them a few minutes earlier, remind them of the rule, let them finish the game, and if they don’t stop on their own, close the computer.

Understand that kids are allowed to be frustrated, angry and dissatisfied, so let them express these feelings without being angry that they’re dissatisfied. If there’s a tantrum, you can empathize with the child's difficulty, tell him that you know they’re angry or frustrated and that's it. One can offer a hug if it’s soothing and if not just leave them alone. If you find it difficult to contain the crying and shouting, go to another room and come back after a few minutes. Sometimes when we release the stress from kids and leave the scene, they calm down. 

Finally, understand that in order to set limits, parents have to pay a price of time and energy that won’t allow them to do everything they want to and may disrupt their work or a pastime. When we understand that there’s a price and we pay it, we have fences which allow us to convey the message in a more secure way.

Dorit Hermon is a facilitator for parents challenged by the education system, accompanies education teams and author of the book For Authority - The Way to Happy, Safe and Calm Parenting.