Why Boundaries Work

Why Boundaries Work

by Henry Cloud, Ph.D. and John Townsend, Ph.D.

It was a day that forever changed Allison and Bruce’s parenting. After the couple and their dinner guest, Henry Cloud, finished their meal, Bruce fielded a phone call, and Allison left the dinner table to complete some chores. A few minutes later, Henry saw her cleaning up her 14-year-old’s room. He was stunned.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“I’m cleaning up Cameron’s room,” Allison said. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I just feel sorry for Cameron’s future wife.”

Allison froze for a moment, then hurried out of the room. Henry found her in the hallway. Breaking a long silence, she said, “I’ve never thought about it that way.”

Nor have many of us. We tend to parent in the present without thinking about the future. Even though we should help our children become responsible adults, some of our actions, from cleaning rooms to rescuing delinquents, undermine this important goal.

What skills can parents pass on to help their children succeed? Based on years of counseling experience, we believe the answer lies with teaching our children about boundaries. A boundary is a “property line” that defines where one person ends and someone else begins. If we know a person’s boundaries, we can trust that he will demonstrate self-control. We can expect that he will take responsibility for his feelings, behaviors and attitudes.

This is why parenting is so difficult. Children are not born with boundaries. In order for children to learn their roles and responsibilities, parents should set clear boundaries of their own and help their children do likewise. Easier said than done.

While we’ve identified 10 laws of boundaries for kids in our book Boundaries with Kids, you can start with the following three:

The law of sowing and reaping

This law deals with consequences. Many parents misapply the law by using punitive consequences, such as getting angry, sending guilt messages, nagging and withdrawing love. Instead, moms and dads should employ what we call “reality consequences,” which include pain or losses of time, money, possessions, things enjoyed and people valued. Reason: Reality consequences yield long-term results; punitive consequences don’t. To use reality consequences in your parenting, try these suggestions:

  • Discern the motive behind the misbehavior. Children often act out as a result of family stress, such as a move or a divorce. To discover the cause of a misbehavior, say to your child, “I want to understand why you do such and such. Are you angry or hurt about something? How should we respond the next time that happens?”
  • Save consequences for serious offenses. Even though we all need flexibility and understanding, if someone uses excuses for every fault, they are no longer excuses, but rationalizations. Employ consequences only after reasoning, talking and warning fail.
  • Make consequences a natural outflow of the crime. For example, if a child perpetually comes late to dinner, she misses meals. If she doesn’t do her chores, she loses a privilege the rest of the family enjoys. If she doesn’t say where she is going, she stays home next time.
  • Give immediate consequences. A good rule of thumb: the younger the child, the more immediate the consequences. With very young children, a firm no, a time-out, isolation, a swat on the behind or removal from the situation can work wonders.

The law of responsibility

When it comes to emotions, attitudes and behaviors, many children see no difference between impossible and difficult. Unfortunately, parents of these kids often get stuck with uncomfortable responsibilities that their children should bear.

Galatians 6:2-5 offers a way out. The passage says we should “carry each other’s burdens” (verse 2), and “each one should carry his own load” (verse 5). The burdens that we should bear for each other are the overwhelming “boulders” in life, such as financial, medical or emotional crises. The loads that we need to carry ourselves are “knapsacks”— that is, the normal responsibilities of working, going to school and fulfilling duties for our friends, family and church.

Kids often see their knapsacks as boulders and look to their parents for rescue. Resist the temptation. Tell your children that you will help them deal with matters beyond their abilities (transportation, opportunities to make money, crises), but you also expect them to handle most things on their own (grades, behavior, chores).

The law of power

To paraphrase the Serenity Prayer, children should learn what they can control, what they can’t control and how to tell the difference. Unfortunately, many kids struggle with these distinctions. They try to manage the unmanageable (other people) but fail to manage the manageable (themselves).

How to pass on the law of power? Teach your children their limits. Some examples:

If I whine long enough, I’ll get the toy.
Ask me once, and I’ll decide. But whining gets an automatic no.
I can push my friends around.
Let’s hold off on inviting friends over until I teach you how to treat people.
If I am polite and helpful, I won’t stay grounded for my last curfew violation. I’m glad your attitude is so good, but you are in for the duration of your sentence.
I can ignore your requests to clean up the family room. I won’t ask more than once, and you have 15 minutes. After that, you miss the game with your friends.
I can intimidate you by yelling and showing anger. Your rage does bother me, and it’s a big deal. So until you can talk to me respectfully, your privileges are suspended.

Apply the laws of sowing and reaping, responsibility and power to your parenting, and your child should be better equipped for adulthood. But remember your own boundaries in the process. Even though you can influence your child, you can’t control him.

Adapted from Boundaries with Kids by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, published by Zondervan. This article first appeared in Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine. Copyright © 1998, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend; Zondervan. All rights reserved.