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Top Tips for Setting Boundaries With Your Kids to Improve Their Behavior

By Kylee Sallak
May 03, 2018
7 min read

There are four major tools all parents need when it comes to resolving many of the behavior issues we have with our little one. We’ve discussed the first tool, understanding power, and this article will focus on the second tool you need; setting boundaries.
Babies aren’t born with the knowledge of what behavior is and isn’t okay. While that is a seemingly obvious statement, it’s important to start putting boundaries into place when your child is still a young baby.

It seems silly to think about giving a tiny infant any kind of boundaries given the fact that they just lay there in one place. This is where so many parents accidentally get off track early on, assuming your baby isn't learning and adapting all the time.

The very first form of manipulation and absence of boundaries your baby learns from you is so subtle and so sneaky almost every parent falls into the trap. Here’s how it happens:

Your tiny baby cries and you pick them up to meet their needs for food, snuggling, diapers, discomfort, etc. This is just a healthy response to your baby crying. Nothing wrong, in fact it is exactly what we are supposed to do! The first three months roll by and you have gotten into the healthy and normal habit of picking up your child when they cry to meet their needs. This is where the subtle trap is being set and you are in the process of falling into it.

Your baby is smart, and he prefers to be held so he learns within the first 8-12 weeks to cry even when everything is fine so you will pick him up. This transitions into him crying when you try to put him down. You, being the unsuspecting first-time parent, are still operating under the impression that crying must mean they need you, and what has really happened is your baby has conditioned you to pick them up when they are perfectly fine to be down and playing somewhere safe.

As your baby gets bigger, you will begin to see three immediate results of not setting the first simple boundary around the second or third month:

  • Crying when you put him down.
  • Crying when you walk away for a moment.
  • Crying when you want him to sleep in his bassinet instead of on top of you.

I said three results of not setting the first boundary but I guess it actually boils down to one: CRYING!

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The very first way you can set a boundary with your newborn is to put them down after their needs are met. You don't need to wear him all day, he doesn't need to be in your part-ner's arms every time you take a shower or eat. Putting a baby down for some independent time is not only great for gross motor development, it also helps them internalize something emotionally important; I am just as safe, secure, loved, and happy on a play mat or in a bouncy seat as I am in my parent’s arms.

For clarity’s sake, I am not suggesting you ignore your baby when he/she needs you. If your baby has recently woken up, had a diaper change, ate and had a nice burp, you know his needs are met. So if he is crying at this point, let him go for a few minutes. Don’t ignore your baby when he really needs something, but remember that babies cry for other reasons besides being upset. Crying releases pent up energy that they can’t release in any other way yet through physical exercise. It is also the precursor to babbling, cooing, and speech. Crying is also the only way your baby will learn that they are able to entertain themselves without your constant intervention.

There are plenty of interesting things they can explore without you rushing in to pick them up 30 seconds into crying. Keeping a watchful eye on them, it really is okay to set them up with a couple age appropriate toys and let them play and learn they can be happy in other places besides your arms. You can eat your food, or finish that email, or finish your conversation with your spouse without sprinting over to rescue your perfectly safe baby.

Setting Boundaries with your Young Toddler

As your baby becomes a young toddler and starts becoming more demanding, you can start asking them to use words or nice sounds rather than whining or crying for something. For example, your child has learned to pull themselves up to standing and can now stand at the bottom of your legs and make a fuss to be picked up. Picking them up while they whine and fuss is giving positive reinforcement to a behavior I think we all agree is unpleasant. Just like the first subtle trap I described with babies, this one with toddlers also sneaks up on us. It seems harmless to pick them up when they are whining and fussing, after all, they can’t talk yet!

Even if they aren’t talking yet, or have very limited verbal skills, you can look down at them and smile and say with an upward inflection, “Up? Would you like to be up?” In the beginning, they obviously won't say, “up” right after you do. You may pick them up if they do any of the following:

  • Any attempt to utter the word.
  • Any nice sounding noise.
  • Silently looking up at you.
  • Briefly stops the whining.

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Rewarding silence or a nice word/sound will encourage them to do that again when they want up, rather than screaming, crying or whining up at you from your knees. Before you know it, your little non-verbal young toddler will have more and more words, and the expectation will shift from making a nice sound, to actually saying, "up" or "up please" in order for you to pick them up. Your job is to start this training with them BEFORE they are verbal. If you wait until they can say, "up please" you will have several months behind you of picking up your child because they scream, cry, or whine. The goal is to attempt to avoid learning those bad habits in the first place.

This is obviously only one specific example for this age, but it applies to all situations you are in where they want something, are not yet verbal, and resort to screaming at you to ask. In any situation like this, as much of a pain as it might seem, you can't simply give them the thing they want because they begin to scream. Same rules apply in any situation:

  1. Model for them the words they will eventually learn to say with a warm tone of voice and a smile.
  2. Reward them by doing what they are screaming for AFTER they have shown you a nice sound, a nice attempt at a word, or silence.

Setting Boundaries with your Preschooler

The boundaries you are setting before this stage are 100% dependent upon your action, be-cause you are communicating the boundary with your child who isn't yet talking. At this pre-school age (2.5-4.5) your child is talking and understanding everything you are saying to them as well. Even on the young side of 2, you have verbal communication on your side.

Let's say your preschooler is playing with puzzles. Then the blocks catch their attention and they decide to move onto a new activity. If you don't want the house to constantly be in a state of half-played-with items, then you need to set a boundary. This is your chance to set the boundary so she knows that she must clean up one toy before moving onto the next toy. If she has no idea that is a rule or an expectation, then it really isn't her fault for haphazard-ly moving onto the next activity leaving behind a mess.

Same rules apply for all behaviors that you don't want them to do. The idea is that you can-not expect them to know what the rule is, if you are not first setting the boundary. Another example is taking off clothes and throwing them on the floor. If you never tell them that is not OK, and show them where the laundry hamper is, and insist that they put their clothes in the hamper instead of the floor, how will they ever know that is an expectation?

If you never tell your preschooler that it isn't okay to grab a toy out of another child's hand, then they will not know that is an expectation. You have to communicate consistently what the boundary is, otherwise your child has no idea that there are these specific behavioral ex-pectations.

Make sure you are setting boundaries that you can consistently enforce. You have to pick your battles. If you are going to set the boundary or expectation that there is not climbing on the couch, you have to be prepared to enforce that all the time, which is difficult to do being as you can’t remove the sofa. Whereas an expectation like, crayons are only used on paper, is easy to enforce because you can just remove the crayons if they color somewhere else. So pick and choose what really matters to you and what you can realistically enforce.

Setting a Boundary with your Kindergartener

The odds are good your kindergartener will come home with homework assignments. Home-work assignments which they won't mention unless you check their backpack, so be sure to look every day. They will be used to preschool at this point which was easy breezy. They are used to coming inside and heading right over to their toys. Now that they are in kindergar-ten, they will need a new boundary put in place which teaches them that you have an expectation that homework is finished before playing begins. As with the other boundaries we have discussed here, it isn't fair for us to be unhappy with them if we never clearly set a bounda-ry and discussed it with them.

Discussing the boundary more than once is hugely important. They will not recall that there is a new rule in place if you mention it once. Reviewing the boundary (once they are verbal) and in general, reviewing their day, is very helpful for our little ones. For example, you can have a discussion over breakfast that sounds like this:

  • Parent: Today your class is heading to the fire station! How exciting! After your trip to the fire station I will pick you up and we will come home together. When we get home today, what is the very first thing we will do...
  • Child: Check my backpack and do my homework!
  • Parent: That's right! Great job! And as soon as your home-work is finished you can have some playtime! Fast forward to picking up your child from school:
  • Parent: How was your day?
  • Child: Blah blah blah, whatever your child reports for the day.
  • Parent: Sounds like a fun day! Can you tell me what we are doing first thing when we get home?
  • Child: Checking my backpack and doing my homework, and after that, I can play?
  • Parent: That's right!

The repetitiveness might seem like overkill, but your young child deserves a reminder of the expected boundary you set, in order to be fair to them. A child 6 and older does not need as many reminders and the tides will actually turn from helpful to harmful if you con-tinue to remind and discuss expectations all the time with older kids. It ends up be-ing a crutch for them, robbing them of a helpful life skill. Part of getting bigger and being treated like a big kid is that they need to remember on their own what the rules and expectations are. But the 5 and under crowd, they need reminders and repetition in order to set them up to really learn these expectations.

As your child goes through every stage of development, day in and day out, there will be endless new opportunities to set a boundary such as the few I’ve described here. Far too many examples to continue listing. The bottom line is, it isn’t fair to expect a child to just know how to behave without first giving them a boundary to be aware of.

Tone & Delivery of Setting Boundaries

Tone and delivery is important while setting the boundary initially, as well as every time you have to revisit the boundary. Be firm with your tone and your eye contact when you speak to them. I won't go too in-depth here, but let's quickly touch on the importance of a parents delivery:

If you are setting a boundary with your child, it will be much more effective if you use a firm tone of voice, a serious look on your face, strong eye contact, and get down on their level.

If you say, “please don't throw your food OK?”, from across the room in a light tone of voice while doing the dishes, that means nothing to them. What's even worse than this, is using a “silly” tone of voice when you are trying to set a boundary or ex-pectation. Your child will not take your authority seriously if you make setting a boundary seem like a silly game or a joke. Your body language and tone say so much more than your words say. With something like throwing food, you also need to be firm in terms of telling them a boundary, not asking them if they want to adhere to a boundary. "Please don't throw food OK?” is not the way to phrase that. Strong eye contact, serious tone, on their level, then, “No. We don’t throw food.” This is immediately followed by the action of moving their food out of their reach for a moment before trying again. Or, if you prefer, you can scoot them away from the table for a moment. As long as the action is such that they cannot reach the food to throw it again.

Lastly, being firm doesn’t mean yelling. Raising your voice doesn’t accomplish what many parents think it will. Yelling at a child instills fear, affects their feelings of safety and trust with you, and teaches them that yelling is an OK way to handle conflict.

So there it is! The second parenting tool to raising a happy and well-behaved child is setting boundaries! Back To Basics Parenting is a lifestyle choice. Incorporating these four keys in your daily parenting choices will make a HUGE difference in your family dynamic and your child’s short and long term happiness.

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By Kylee Sallak
Keely Sallak Kylee Sallak

Founder of Back To Basics Parenting in New York City, Kylee specializes in newborn through 5-year-old sleep and behavior. The overall premise of Back To Basics Parenting is that happy parents raise happy children. Kylee brings the issue of managing parental happiness to the forefront of the conversation with all of her clients.

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