Many of us have a love-hate relationship with boundaries, but the reality is that boundaries are a part of our adult lives on a daily basis. The speed limit signs dictate how fast we can drive on the highway, on neighborhood streets, and in school zones. Coupons and sales dates limit when we can receive the discounts available. Orange construction fences caution us about areas that are not safe for us to travel. We will experience boundaries all our lives. As parents we have the opportunity to introduce boundaries to our children: first for health and safety reasons, and then as they grow, to establish our authority in their lives and to help them grow and mature in wisdom and skills. How early is it appropriate to establish boundaries in our children’s lives?
For our first wedding anniversary, we bought a grandfather clock. It is a beautiful piece of furniture. It was a dream of mine. We were finished with college and had two incomes. We decided to make this extravagant purchase. I remember when our first child was born. From the beginning, my husband would stand in front of the clock and tell our son, “This is Mommy’s clock. You can look at it and listen to its music, but you may not touch it.” Do you know that most of our children didn’t challenge that boundary? If they did touch the clock as a toddler, once or twice we reminded them that they could look at the clock, but not touch it. It seemed like a little thing, but in hindsight we were establishing our right to rule in their lives. It wasn’t harsh. We told them what they could do first. Enjoy looking and listening.
Fast forward thirty years and now we are grandparents. Little people come to our house and of course that clock is still fascinating. Their parents set the boundary to look but not touch. As the toddlers started walking, they could access many wonderful new things in their world. I realized that their parents are teaching them many things, but I had some ways that I wanted the children to honor our space and property. I decided that two small boundaries would help me enjoy their visits more. We have a baby grand piano in our great room that attracts small children. I told them (in their parents’ presence) that I wanted them to ask me if they could play the piano before they touched it. This way, their parents could help me enforce the boundary, and they did. When a child went to play the piano, their parents directed the child to, “Ask Gramma first.” The child would toddle to me and mumble something that I could discern, “Piano, please.” At that point I could use the opportunity to teach into the situation. Were their hands clean? I wanted them to sit on their bottom on the bench and play with their fingers, not pound with their hands. While little hands were not going to pound too hard, I was beginning as I meant to go in the later years. I showed them what I meant and they nodded their understanding that they would sit on their bottom and use their fingers. Later, “Yes, Gramma” became the response. Compliance with these boundaries was rewarded with the joy of making music for a time, usually 30-60 seconds. Reminding them to ask Gramma before they played the piano continued for many months. In time, I could assess if the time was right to play. Had they been directed to something else first? Was playing the piano appropriate now considering the others in the room who were having conversation? Most of the time, my answer was, “Yes” with a reminder of the two expectations to sit on their bottoms and play with their fingers. I realized the other day that it’s time to train sibling #3 to this boundary.
The second boundary I set was that food and drinks needed to stay in the kitchen rather than travel all over our home. I didn’t want the carpet stains that I knew would come with dribbles along the way. To establish this boundary, I had a small fold-up stool in the kitchen that I would get out of the cupboard, open, and set the child upon. Handing him his cup was the reward for staying on the stool. He could get up at any time, but I took the cup back. If he wanted more to drink, then I set him on the stool again, directing him to stay there so he could have a drink. It was painless for both of us. Usually I smiled at him and praised him for staying on the stool. In time we even lengthened the time he sat on the stool. We began these boundaries when he started to walk, so sometime between 12-15 months.
Notice that I had purpose to protect my things with these boundaries, but I also wanted to establish my authority in these children’s lives. I wanted the time they came to our house to be full of fun, memories, and teachable moments for all of us involved. Our grandchildren’s parents have helped their children honor these limited boundaries when they are present, but when they are not there, we do the teaching with lots of smiles and hugs.
We noticed that with these two simple boundaries, we enjoyed our grandchildren’s visits more. In time, we learned how these simple boundaries also yielded greater fruit than we originally sought. The older grandchildren get the stool out for themselves now when I offer a snack. They model for the younger ones how to do it and are helping train the younger siblings and cousins. My efforts and yours can be multiplied. As they learned to sit longer on the stool in the kitchen, they were also learning greater self-control to stay there themselves without my hand on them. When they were 2 ½ – 3 years old and other behaviors became evident, I realized I could set the child on a stool in the next room (still in my eyesight) to get his self-control and tell him I would return when he had his happy heart. The child stayed there to my surprise! Blanket time (another helpful tool) boundaries were bearing fruit in other areas! When they quieted down, I returned to help them process their outbursts or offenses. Was it that easy? Why didn’t I know this when my children had been toddlers and preschoolers? The little things you are employing in your parenting journey will build on themselves. Start with what you know and grow together! What age-appropriate boundaries will you set for your child today? Start with one or two so that you can be consistent in enforcing the boundary. Training takes time, but the fruit is sweet.