Over the years, countless parents have asked me if children are truly capable of understanding the concept of boundaries for their behavior … lines not to be crossed. The answer is an emphatic yes! Even very young children understand boundaries: Bathrooms have doors. Playtime has rules. Toys are shared.
The Bible is clear, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). This verse does not mean there’s only one ironclad set of boundaries for training all children and that parents who adhere to the enforcement of these boundaries are guaranteed perfect offspring.
The point of parenting is not to cultivate uniform perfection. It is to nurture the natural bent of each child so that all young lives become all that God created them to be.
Children learn about boundaries from everyday living. They also learn that, in most areas of life, when a boundary is crossed, the result is a repercussion. (In sports, if a child kicks a ball out of bounds, there’s a penalty.) And, when a boundary is maintained, the result is a reward.
Why are boundaries important?
Establishing boundaries in your home is not about getting your kids to do what you want them to do. External boundaries are designed to develop your child’s internal character. Read that line again. All conscientious parents want their children to develop internal character. Why? So that when they are no longer under your roof, they will be self-disciplined and make wise decisions under their own roofs, living in a way that is right in God’s sight.
Children who live without boundaries … without repercussions and rewards … tend to feel frustrated, insecure, and confused by the lack of order in their lives. Ultimately, parents who allow their children to get away with wrong are training them to do wrong.1
Conversely, when children consistently experience appropriate repercussions for breaking a boundary, those negative consequences provide predictable punishment. In turn, that correction motivates kids to develop discipline in order to prevent future punishment.
We’ve all encountered the results of permissive parenting … in the store, in the doctor’s office, on the playground. Without boundaries in place, children are more likely to control their parents, and when they don’t get their way, they can act out dramatically. The peace-at-any-price parent quickly appeases the child by giving in to disruptive behavior. Through manipulative tactics, kids learn that, with enough crying and screaming, they’ll bulldoze through mommy or daddy’s no. Thus, the family perpetually remains one tantrum away from chaos.
Peace-at-any-price parents fear public embarrassment and fear being disliked by their children. Ironically, abdicating their parental role is the surest way to bring about these very outcomes. Undisciplined children are more likely to:
- Disrespect appropriate rules
- Dismiss the need for self-discipline
- Disregard authority
- Despise their parents
- Dishonor biblical command
- Disown personal responsibility
In contrast, when parents establish clear boundaries with appropriate repercussions and rewards, the child is given the choice to stay within the boundary or not. And here’s the most freeing part for parents: This means the child, not the parent, is the one who chooses the repercussion or the reward.
Realize, doing right eventually feels right. Kids with character do the right things not to impress the world, but because they’ve been transformed by a powerful process described in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Consider the findings of a fascinating sociological study where young children played in a large open field. With no fences or boundaries, the children huddled rather closely together, playing cautiously. But, when the children were observed in a large field bounded by tall fencing on all sides, they wandered to the far corners of the field and played with greater confidence.2
This experiment illustrates a fascinating truth: Children instinctively search to locate their limits. Adults often misinterpret this search as a dislike for limits, yet the opposite is true. Kids keep pushing their parents and testing their limits until they find boundaries that do not change. Once they discover fair, unchangeable limits, they feel secure within those limits. They feel safe and can relax, and ultimately, you can too.
My prayer is that establishing boundaries will bless your life and your children’s lives as well.
Yours in the Lord’s hope,
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