The Voices In Our Heads: Effective Boundary-Setting Tips for Kids of All Ages

By: Michele Timmons

Random fact: One of my favorite songs is Chris Young’s Voices. For those of you who don’t know the song, the lyrics focus on the “voices” that run through the singer’s mind, and how these voices helped make him into the man he is today. As a parent, it’s a nice concept to think about as we set boundaries for our children because it’s one thing all parents have in common. We all aspire to raise kids who will grow up hearing our own voices, reinforcing the boundaries and expectations we’ve established early-on in their lives.

Recently, my friends and I chatted about the “voices” we remember hearing from our childhood that we now use in our parenting. Some common sayings came up: Nothing good happens after 10 PM, or If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?,and If your head wasn’t attached, you would probably lose that too. There were also a few random ones like: Never try to out-shout a lunatic, and If it’s wet and not yours, don’t touch it.

You may find some of these sayings fun, funny, or puzzling, but the actual quotes aren’t nearly as important as the messages behind them: There’s a good reason for a curfew; Think for yourself; Get organized; Sometimes it’s just not worth the argument, and, well… If it’s wet and not yours, don’t touch it!

As our children grow and develop, we have the opportunity to spend less and less time with them. By taking the time to set and enforce clear boundaries and expectations when they are young, our voices will stay with them when they’re out on their own.

That in mind, here are some tips to help with setting and managing boundaries.

Tips for Parents with Kids Ages Birth to 5

Setting boundaries is pretty easy during this stage. If our kids aren’t doing what we want, we can pick them up and move them somewhere else or distract them to correct the negative behavior. So, during this stage, our most important task is creating high expectations. As a friend so eloquently stated, “Our expectations set the standards of achievement” for our children as they grow. Small children need to hear how terrific they are, how proud of them you are, and that you know they can succeed. For specific ideas on building up small children, check out Search Institute’s Developmental Assets for early childhood.

Ages 6 to 12

Once children enter school, life becomes so much more challenging. Children need to spread their wings and learn to fly, but they also need more support than they want to receive. Many of the “cute” things they said and did as small children can now perceived as sassy or disrespectful. To take some of the pain out of boundary setting/monitoring at this age consider these suggestions:

Set and enforce safety rules, always! Things like wearing bicycle/skateboard helmets, seat belts, stranger danger rules and using buddy system in public bathrooms need to be standard family procedures. If you create the rules and then enforce them all the time children quickly realize safety is non-negotiable. A friend’s favorite saying is: “I don’t care what happens in other families, in our house _____ is what we do.” For example, in my house, the car doesn’t start until everyone is buckled-in (myself included). My kids may be the only ones in the neighborhood wearing bike helmets, and that’s okay. As the kids got older and became “independent” bike riders, I began spot checks. If they didn’t have a helmet on when I checked, they lost their biking privileges for a week.

Create a firm bedtime routine on school nights and non-school nights. Children need at least 10-11 hours of sleep before school in order to reach their peak academic performance. Setting up a nightly routine helps make it less stressful for you and your child. Make sure he or she knows the time the routine begins and ends. I have also found that including a bath or shower in the evening tends to help kids settle down more quickly and go to sleep. Experts recommend not letting kids use any electronics or having any screen time (TV, iPod/iPad, computer, xbox, etc.) an hour before bed.

Develop high academic expectations and enforce them with compassion and creativity. As we all know, all children have different strengths and challenges. What works for one, doesn’t work for another. It is okay to have different academic plans for each child. The plans should match their interests and abilities, but challenge them to do their best –always. My sister is struggling with her first grader following “Elena Directions”. Her daughter, Elena, often puts the right answer on papers, but does the work the way she thinks it should be done, not according to directions. Most parents’ first instinct is to take away something when children are in trouble at school. For some children this strategy works fine, for mine – nope! It doesn’t work for my niece either. So, when Elena chooses to follow her own directions, my sister has asks the teacher to send the work home and Elena has to re-do the assignment at home. No punishment is needed because the “torture” of having to re-do school work at home is usually punishment enough. This will create a few nights of pain and suffering (for parent and child) but quickly she will realize it’s easier to just do it right the first time.

The Teen Years

The boundaries we set when our kids are young really help formulate the relationship we have with them as teenagers. If we are too lenient when they are little, it’s next to impossible to rein them in during teen years. It can be done, but is extraordinarily painful for all. My rule of thumb with my teenage sons is the same as buying a used car “Always put it in writing.” My sons are masterful at only remembering what they want and insisting I am making things up and changing rules. So, if it matters, I put it in writing.

Chores. We create lists for house cleaning where each son puts his initials by the items he is cleaning. (Tip: Be specific. We once listed “throw rugs” as a task and that is exactly what my son did. He picked it up, threw it and put it back down again.)

Text curfews and reminders. If it is important for him to know or do, I send him a text message. Then he can’t say he didn’t know about it.

Calendar events. I control the master calendar electronically and send my husband and kids appointments for most things that need done. Each appointment has automatic reminders so their phones and iPods are nagging them – not me.

Teens in this age group are perpetually pushing for freedom, and it may be tempting to let them do their own thing, especially when it comes to academics. But remember, it’s crucial to stay connected with your child’s school. Continue to talk to your kids’ teachers and get to know their friends. Independence High School in Columbus, Ohio offers this handout with tips for staying connected to school.

Academic Goal Planning. My sons always seem to take 2nd quarter grading period as their personal vacation time. Their grades aren’t terrible, but definitely not up to par. Our school has an online grading system so I can check grades regularly, but when that wasn’t solving the problem, we decided to do some goal planning. My husband and I created our expectations based on our sons’ ability levels. We also created incentives and consequences for meeting or choosing not to meet our expectations. Then I met with the boys individually and asked them to create their own GPA (grade point average) goal and an incentive to go along with achieving that goal. Now, my responsibility is to follow through on grade checks each Friday and monitor incentives/consequences. Here is a copy of our template. Feel free to adjust it to your child’s academic skills and family financial needs.

Most importantly (and this applies to parents of kids in all ages and stages), remember that parenting isn’t easy. Post-discipline guilt is a real struggle for me, but as long as I remember I am their mom, not their best friend, I can keep going. I also find it fun to post some of their more memorable antics and my responses on Facebook (I’m not friends with my kids on Facebook, so they don’t see it.). It’s just my way of “unloading” to my friends, and it helps to get positive feedback and reassurance that I’m doing okay as a parent.

So, try to maintain a sense of humor, and use your parenting mentors to help you get through the journey of parenthood.

The bottom line is that as our children grow, they need to develop a firm grasp of right and wrong. The earlier we set clear boundaries and expectations and the more we enforce them with compassion and creativity the stronger our “voice” will be when our children are on their own.

If you need some additional strategies for discipline check out:

Tell Us:—->We would love to hear how you make sure your “voice” is with your kids. Tell us the strategies and sayings you use.

1. Search Institute’s Development Assets for Early Childhood.

2. Image via limaoscarjuliet on Flick’r.

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