Hold the boundaries
Today’s task is to hold the boundaries for your young child.
In the preschool years the most effective discipline is proactive and preventative. We can prevent so many problems by putting our energy into connecting, guiding the rhythm, and giving young children plenty of time to play, move, and rest. We can be creative in our approach and redirect into positive behavior. Even still, children are learning all the time and they need plenty of healthy boundaries in order to learn well!
What is a healthy boundary? It’s a boundary that helps your child learn how to be in the social world of your family and your community. It’s a boundary that feels authentic (not arbitrary) to you and that fits in with your vision for your family. It’s a boundary that you can hold consistently.
It is the parent’s job to hold the boundaries. Sometimes I notice adults (and I do this too) putting the responsibility on the young child to understand how to behave, to remember how to do things, to follow through on things, to know how to function in certain environments, or to be cheerful about boundaries. What’s more important than any expectations for your preschool child is that you hold the boundary consistently.
There’s a division of responsibility here. Let’s say you have a boundary that your four-year-old wears her coat outside in cold weather. Your job is to ensure that she does so. It isn’t your four-year-old’s job to know what clothing to wear, to remember her coat, or to be grateful to you for your excellent understanding of appropriate clothing. Her job is just to put on her coat when you ask her to. There isn’t any need for frustration here on the parent’s part (“You forgot your coat again! How many times have I told you?”) - just a need to state a boundary (“We put on our coats before we go out.”) and help her follow through.
Here are some ideas to help you set effective boundaries:
Try to only set boundaries that you feel clear on. Before you say yes or no to a request you might like to say “let me think about that” to give yourself time to decide. To be an effective leader in your home it’s important to be clear on what boundaries you need to hold. And yes, sometimes that’s the most difficult part!
When you want a young child to do something just ask in a respectful, simple, and clear way. “Please put your coat on now.” You could also sing or make a game out of it! "My little lamb needs her wool coat!"
If your child does not comply, just continue to state what needs to happen in a direct but positive tone. “We put on our coats before we go out.” “First your coat and then out to play!” Many adults will launch into a lecture at this point or a long explanation about the boundary but for a very young child it is much more effective to just keep it short and sweet.
Give your child your full attention when you set a boundary or make a request. Gordon Neufeld has a spot-on phrase for this: “Collect before you direct.” Your child is much more likely to “hear” you and respond to what you are saying if you get down to your child’s level, get his attention, make eye contact, and speak like what you are saying is important.
Make your mantra “kind but firm.”
Use positive language even when the boundary is to stop doing something. Preschoolers can understand what to do better than what not to do. “Gentle hands.” “Hands are for helping.” “You may touch gently.” “You may sit still now and take a deeeep breath.” Or if you really need to get attention, “You may stop!”
Assist your child as much as necessary. Please don’t push your child to be independent too quickly - this really can backfire. Instead just gently but firmly help your child into her coat if that’s what is required in this moment. (I promise she will eventually just put on her own coat, wipe her own bottom, sleep in her own room, and so on!)
Insist on follow-through - just stick with it until the boundary is held and you can move on. Remember: Positive, kind, and firm. A boundary that you give up on because you meet resistance is going to be even harder to hold the next time. (Think about the child who learns to throw tantrums in stores to get candy - if it works of course she’ll keep doing it!)
This one is counter-intuitive - but it really helps if you don't talk too much. Young children will respond better to fewer words. They tend to tune out adults who talk all the time. If you speak only when you need to your child will know that what you are saying is important.
How to hold the boundaries for your preschooler:
1. Always start with proactive parenting, especially rhythm and connection.
2. Collect before you direct.
3. State boundaries in simple positive language (no lectures or long explanations required!). Take responsibility for holding the boundary and helping your child.
4. Don’t talk too much - make your words count. Do your best to only set boundaries that you are going to follow through on consistently.
5. Positive, kind, and firm. Be the leader in your home and teach your child!
What helps you hold the boundaries in your home? When do you struggle with holding the boundaries?