Setting respectful boundaries

I want to set something straight. This blog is all about “letting kids lead,” yes, but that doesn’t mean I’m a pushover. Children need respectful boundaries in order to freely play and explore.

Respect does not equal letting kids do whatever they want. On the contrary, I believe that children need routine and predictability in their lives. They need boundaries and safety nets. They need a loving adult to provide their needs, while also keeping them safe from danger. They may (and probably will) protest when you enforce a boundary, but deep down, they need that feeling of security that comes from knowing someone is looking out for their best interests. The world is a big and scary place to a toddler who feels unprotected, but a wondrous place of exploration to one who has a hand to hold him back when necessary.

A lot of people have a misconception that “respectful parenting” means “passive parenting.” Just sit back, let the kids raise themselves. Yeah, right. As I wrote in an earlier post, “respect means listening and responding with honesty, having appropriate expectations, and without exploiting emotions.” That “responding” bit refers partially to setting respectful boundaries. When it’s 8pm and Pippin says, “I want to play tag,” I listen and respond with my boundary: “It’s time for bed. I understand you want to play tag. Tag is pretty fun, isn’t it? We’ll play it tomorrow.”

Every child needs discipline. I mean discipline in its truest sense, not in the way it’s commonly perceived. I’m not talking about spanking, name-calling, shaming, or even time-outs. These are all types of punishment.

Discipline in general refers to the entire process of giving a child the tools they need to succeed in life, to learn self-control, to be safe and healthy, and to become a person that you generally want to be around. I’m not ashamed to say that I truly believe “passive parenting,” or parenting without discipline, is not respect, but neglect. Respectful parenting means letting kids lead when appropriate, and giving them guidance and boundaries when appropriate.

At play time…

Let children lead how they play and what they play with. Maybe a child wants to stack blocks or maybe he wants to mouth them. Maybe a child doesn’t want to play at all, and prefers to sit quietly watching others play — that’s fine, too, and he shouldn’t be pushed into playing.

You decide what is off-limits for playing with or for going into mouths (it’s best to remove unsafe toys completely from the play area), and what the boundaries are in terms of how they play. Climbing on the couch is okay, but climbing the bookshelf is not. Opening a bedroom door is okay, but opening the front door is not. Roughhousing might be okay if all involved are having fun, but as soon as one person doesn’t like it, it’s time for everyone to stop. You decide your own house rules.

At meal time…

Let children lead in how much they eat and what dishes they eat (out of the options you serve). You decide what options to offer. Toddlers don’t get to choose the family menu.

In some families, mealtime is whenever the child is hungry (feeding on demand), and in others, there’s a fixed meal schedule. In our family, feeding on demand applies to breastmilk, but solids are loosely scheduled. We have breakfast around 7:30, optional snack around 10, lunch around 11:45, snack around 3, and dinner around 6:30, followed by warm milk before bedtime at 7:30. Everything is flexible but we aim for those timings. If Pippin is really hungry earlier, then we will eat earlier, but if she’s just a little hungry, then she waits. This works for us, but if a stricter schedule is what works for you, then enforce that. It adds predictability and structure to the day for a child to know that lunch will be served exactly at noon.

In terms of safety…

There are some things that are unquestionable. In our family, holding hands in a parking lot is one of them.

I find that giving choices often helps to minimize a potential tantrum and also makes it seem more like it’s actually the child’s choice. For example, I might say to Pippin, “we’re going into the parking lot now. Would you like to walk and hold my hand, or would you like me to carry you?” She gets to choose between two equally safe options. (Although I always secretly hope she’ll just walk and give my arms a break, I don’t show any negative reaction to her choice if she chooses to be carried.) If she lets go of my hand even once, I enforce our rule: “You let go of my hand. You are showing me that you cannot walk safely here, so I will carry you.”

The same goes for toys that are being used inappropriately. When a push toy is being used to hit things or people, it is immediately taken away: “You are showing me that this toy is not safe to play with right now, so I will keep it with me until you are able to play with it in a safe way.”

In any situation that requires discipline, there are respectful boundaries that need to be set. Even if it’s something like, “you are screaming very loudly and I am getting annoyed. I need you to go to another room until you are able to speak at a normal volume.” Follow through by picking the child up and putting him in his safe play area or bedroom.

If we don’t set boundaries that prevent us from getting annoyed, that annoyance quickly turns to anger and rage, and then we end up in a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde scenario where we aren’t really in control of ourselves, let alone our children. Boundaries are there to protect children from everything, including ourselves sometimes.

Find the boundary, set it in an honest, respectful way, and follow through. Children understand more than we often think. Punishment often doesn’t have any effect except to create a distance between parent and child. Respectful boundaries create closeness and a feeling of protection.



  1. appreciate you including examples in this post. it’s often difficult to properly visualize concepts and suggestions. keep it up!

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