Imagine for a moment that you live in an alternate society. In this society, your home and community laws are determined solely by an all-powerful ruler that monitors everything you do, both day and night. The laws are fairly clear, but occasionally you find yourself restricted by a new rule, seemingly arbitrary and out of the blue, based on the whims of the all-powerful ruler. You can try to protest the rule or push against it, but you don’t really have a say. Sometimes, you are able to convince the all-powerful ruler to change a law or bend it, but it’s not entirely clear when and how often it will work.  

How soon can we get out of this dystopian hellscape, right??

And here’s the bad news…sometimes this is exactly what it’s like to be a kid! Children enter the world completely dependent on the people around them. And, it’s a very long time before they become full-fledged participants in the decision-making processes that govern their world. 

As parents and caregivers, we have an important role to play in keeping our children safe, teaching them the way the world works, and, slowly but surely, training them to be fair and thoughtful rule-makers themselves.

Raising children to respect boundaries and follow rules is essential. And, depending on the temperament and tendencies of the child you’re raising, this can be tricky to navigate.

The Adlerian principles of Individual Psychology offer valuable insight into how to effectively set and enforce limits on everything from screen time to bed time, with kids of all ages. Let’s explore how parents and caregivers can apply some of these principles to create a healthy, balanced home where kids follow rules, respect boundaries, and feel secure in their environment.

Why Is It Important to Create and Enforce Boundaries?

Imagine you were handed the keys to a shiny, new sports car. “Enjoy the ride!” you’re told, “Just mind you, there aren’t any working brakes on this model.” 

Are you starting up that car… or jumping out as fast as you can?1

Though they might sometimes rail against restrictions, without them, children may feel as uncertain and anxious as someone getting into a brake-less car. Setting and enforcing limits can promote healthy habits, such as regulating  screen time, and encourage positive behaviors, such as showing respect and kindness towards others. Boundaries create a structure that allows children to thrive. 

The Surprising Truth

Enforcing boundaries can be a challenging task for parents and caregivers. From toddlers to teenagers, children may resist boundaries and push back against them. They may throw a tantrum when you limit their screen time, or refuse to follow rules that you’ve set in place. 

It’s tempting to think that’s just what kids do, but let’s explore WHY kids test limits and boundaries.

Jump back into that sports car for a moment. 

Let’s say you were told that it has working brakes…sometimes. How would you drive the car? Perhaps you would be tapping the brakes every couple of seconds to see if they’re working for the moment.

The surprising truth is that often our kids are pushing against boundaries we’ve set because we’re not consistently upholding them

It feels uncertain and scary for kids when they don’t know who’s really in charge, when it’s unclear if or when the rules will be enforced. Consistency provides stability. Kids who aren’t sure will continue to test the limits. It’s on us as adults to provide that consistency.

And, we don’t have to be autocratic in nature to do this successfully. In fact, it works much better when we model responsible, respectful limit-setting and uphold those limits with compassion. 

Start With You

When it comes to setting and enforcing boundaries, Adlerian Psychology offers a perspective that can be incredibly helpful for parents and caregivers. Instead of seeing children as “problematic” or “difficult,” Adlerian principles emphasize the importance of understanding each child’s unique perspective, and finding ways to work with them in a way that respects their individuality and helps them develop their own sense of responsibility.

Here are a few places to set your mind before you begin: 

  1. I will start with a listening, empathetic ear: Before setting a boundary, take a moment to try to understand your child’s perspective. Ask questions, listen deeply, and show that you care about their needs and feelings. By doing so, you create a foundation of trust and respect that can help make the boundary-setting process more effective.
  2. I will be clear and specific in the limits I set: When setting a boundary, it’s important to be as clear and specific as possible. Don’t leave room for ambiguity or misunderstandings. Use concrete examples and language that is easy for your child to understand.
  3. I will create a positive context for the limit: Instead of simply saying “no” to something, try to create a context that supports the boundary. The contexts of health, cooperation, harmony, support, or even joy, can all set the stage for limits that make sense to your child. 
  4. I will focus on the long-term: Setting and enforcing boundaries can be challenging in the short-term, but it’s important to remember that you’re doing it for the long-term well-being of your child. Keep your ultimate goal in mind, and stay focused on the bigger picture.
  5. I will be consistent: Once you’ve set a boundary, it’s important to be consistent in enforcing it. This can be difficult, especially if you’re tired or stressed, but consistency is key to helping your child understand that the boundary is non-negotiable.

Remember, effective boundary-setting isn’t about control or dominance – remember, we’re trying to get AWAY from that negative experience!. Instead, it’s about creating a safe and supportive environment that helps your child thrive.

Two Strategies for Success

This may sound really simple…and it is:

  1. Co-create respectful limits
  2. Respectfully uphold the limits

The key word in both cases is RESPECT. 

1. Co-Create Respectful Limits

Children are more inclined to follow rules that they co-create and help to enforce. Co-create a few limits/rules that are consistently held with dignity and respect.Work together to set rules that help create a strong community based on the needs, hopes, and dreams of your family. 

As new needs arise and people grow, the shared agreements and rules can also grow and flex.

The Steps to Co-Creating Limits

Set a positive tone  Begin by acknowledging and appreciating each other’s strengths.
Frame an idealBuild on hopes and dreams for the whole. What’s the ideal behavior or state we want to see? 
Generate ideasRules that we might agree on to meet our hopes and dreams could be: ________.
Let everyone involved contribute to the discussion and share their thoughts.
Consolidate ideas to select a few rulesStrong rules are general guidelines and encourage thinking and reasoning. 
Review and reflect together regularlyWhere will you put the rules so everyone can reflect on them regularly? Instead of setting them indefinitely, try experimenting with a new rule for a week or two, and make a plan to revisit the new guideline to assess its effectiveness. 
Adapted from the book, “Rules in School: Teaching Discipline in the Responsive Classroom”.2

2. Respectfully Upholding Limits

A limit worth setting is a limit worth upholding! Wise limits require time, thought, caring, consistency and resolve. Once a rule is co-created, how will you uphold it?

Good news! You don’t have to become the “Rule Police”…or “The Bad Guy”. You don’t have to use threats or punishments. You can be kind and firm while upholding the boundaries. 

Here are a few ideas and examples for upholding a rule or limit, while maintaining respect and dignity for everyone involved:

Say it with a message of care“I love you too much to let you stay up late when you have an important game/test/trip tomorrow.”
In response to objections, resist the temptation to lecture Simply ask: ‘What was our agreement?”
Give permission to have wish in an acceptable place and timeI hear that playing Minecraft is fun and relaxing for you. Right now, it’s time to have fresh air and person-to-person play time, then help with dinner. Let’s block out a reasonable time on the weekend when you can plan to meet up with your friends online.”
Provide choices, whenever possible: “either / or”“In this family, everyone who eats also helps in some way. You may either clear the table or wash the dishes. It’s your choice.
Speak kindly, quietlyRather than yell out the limit from another room in your house, walk over to your son, lay a hand gently on his arm and wait quietly until he gives you eye contact. Then deliver your message succinctly. “The lawn awaits you and the mower!”
Listening reflectively (listen for the feeling behind the words) while clearly holding the bottom line  “Looks like you really wish you could keep playing with your friend and it’s time to go.”“Sounds like you’d rather stay home today and are sorry you ever signed up for dance lessons and it’s time to go.
Give leeway as a speed limit gives a range; 55 MPH allows for some choice and personal judgment up to the limit“You could bathe before dinner or right after. What works best for you?”“You can use your 30 minutes of free screen time anytime before 7PM. All screens are off at 7PM.”
Apply Grandma’s Rule & Use “when/then”Work first, then play:When the lawn is mowed, then we’ll go to the skate park.”
Model that a little discomfort is not to be feared or avoided“You don’t want to do your homework. I also have a work report to complete that I wish I could skip. I would be happy to work side by side at the dining table, you game?” Essential message: Both children and adults don’t always like to do what needs to be done and they do it anyway.
Use humor: In this case, in the form of short note“Dear Jack, The family keeps tripping over me. It is humiliating to lie in the middle of the entry. When you take me off, would you hang me on my hook? With love and gratitude, Your Jacket”
Invite the child to engage in outlining the plan“What’s your plan for completing your homework?”“I’m worried that I’m more concerned about your grades/assignments than you are. I don’t like hearing myself remind (nag) you about your work. Could we plan to talk later today about what is important to you and what your goals are? I want to support you and also make sure you (not I) are in the driver’s seat for your life.”
Be quiet, friendly, and use nonverbal communicationPoint to your watch. Smile knowingly. Give a hug. Point to your watch again.
Say it once, then act.
Leave off the shame/blame
Delivered calmly, quietly, clearly: “Chips are for eating. When food is thrown, lunch is over. It’s your choice.”  Be ready to pack it up without adding shame.
Act “as if”and give positive power“The clock says it is time to go out the door. I’m going to put on my shoes and jacket and head to the car. Should we drive the route by the fountain or town?”
Give encouragementNotice what is working. Express appreciation and acknowledge effort. Give special time.

Notice how many of the limit setting strategies follow the essential principle: 

Act more, talk less.

When it comes to setting and upholding limits, actions and gentle, firm follow-through speak louder than lectures. 

What Strategies Resonate with You? 

Remember, you are the “just right” caregiver for the children in your life. When considering the list above, what one or two suggestions might you take with you and practice more? What tidbits might you fold into your way of parenting and make your own? 

Put yourself back in that alternate society we imagined in the opening of this blog, where arbitrary limits and inconsistent enforcement of rules were stifling and oppressive. Take a moment to give yourself a pat of encouragement for being the kind of adult who brings thought and care to the children in your life, so they can grow up to be fair and respectful citizens of our world. 

1 Reference from Parenting with Courage and UNcommon Sense by Emory Luce Baldwin and Linda E. Jessup; 2015.

2Adapted from Rules in School: Teaching Discipline in the Responsive Classroom by Kathryn Brady, Mary Beth Forton, and Deborah Porter; 2011