The Mistake Every Parent Makes When Setting Boundaries

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Setting boundaries with your children is rarely something you plan in advance. One minute, your kid was on the swings at the playground. The next, he’s hopped onto a fence and is teetering over a rocky creek. In the moment, your reaction is swift: “Liam, get down from the fence now.” Then, “OK, 3-2-1.” Finally, “GET DOWN NOW!”

But it doesn’t work.

Dr. Becky Kennedy, psychologist and authorof Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, says that’s because the words as we’re saying them—even in a firm tone—aren’t actually a boundary, they’re a request.

As she says in a recent Instagram post, “Too often I have parents coming to me and saying, ‘My kids don’t listen!’ But then I hear what they describe as a boundary: ‘We don’t talk to people that way,’ or ‘Get off the couch.’ These are requests. A boundary is something you tell a kid you will do and it requires a kid to do nothing.”

Let’s go back to that playground example and apply a different script. First, you try: “Hmm, I need you to get down from that fence, Liam.” No response? Follow up with: “If it’s too hard for you to listen to me, I will come over and pick you up and put you on the ground and show you somewhere else where you can climb.”

Again, it’s about describing the clear action you will take vs. passively standing by and telling your child to listen. By outlining your boundary in definitive terms, Dr. Kennedy says you remove a situation where your kid “can’t listen.” In other words, a boundary is only as clear as you spell it out to be.

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