The Importance Of Maintaining Consistent Boundaries

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A few weeks ago my wife, my son, and I went out for dinner. My son, though usually well-behaved and pleasant, was boisterous and disruptive, alternately leaping off his seat to crawl under the table and banging his silverware on his water glass to see what different volume of sound he could make it produce. Our tolerance for disciplining him patiently having been exhausted in us both by our respective challenging days, we decided to do something we almost never do while eating a meal: allow him to play a game on my smartphone.

My wife and I both feel strongly not only that the amount of time we allow him to do that should be limited in general, but also that during a family meal we’re all careful to remain present with one another and aren’t allowed to disappear into our electronic devices (including she and I!). Yet that night we gave in to him.

Though the games immediately took over his attention and allowed my wife and I to enjoy the peaceful meal we craved, at almost every meal since he’s asked to play a game on my phone. When we say no, he pouts and acts out, continuing to cite that one time we said yes. “I did it then!” he cries. “Why can’t I do it now?”

My son is just five. He’s only beginning to learn how to regulate his emotions. Reasoning with him works only when he’s in a certain mood—that is, not activated by boredom, hunger, or a strong desire (which is to say, rarely). He usually respects the boundaries we set for him not because they’re (mostly) reasonable but because we set them (mostly) calmly and firmly. He sometimes tests them, of course, but he usually backs off quickly when we refuse to change our minds having learned over time that we rarely give in to whining.

This is because every time we have, we inevitably face days afterward of increased reluctance to respect the limits we set. Like almost all children, he’s a master of probing his parents’ weaknesses, searching for and taking advantage of any openings that lie exposed. This isn’t malicious on his part, of course. It’s how children learn to get what they want—to fulfill their desires—as their parents typically represent the main obstacles in the way of their doing so. As parents, we must constantly make judgments about those desires—about their safety, the message that allowing them to be fulfilled communicates, and so on. It may seem mean—or, at the very least, arbitrary—to anyone observing a parent-child interaction in which a child is being denied something he wants, but wise parents understand the importance of placing limits on their children. That, after all, is how you teach them appropriate behaviors and attitudes.

The challenge here isn’t figuring out what boundaries are appropriate to set. It’s setting those boundaries consistently. Because when you set them inconsistently, you create not only a more difficult child but also a more confused one. How can you justify to a child, who after a certain age not only understands fairness but demands it, why he can play a game on a smartphone at one meal but not at another? You can tell the truth—that you’re a flawed human being who’s sometimes just too tired to be consistent—which is what my wife and I ended up doing in the week that followed our misstep, but that rarely satisfies either parent or child.

The reasons for parents finding themselves lacking the will to set boundaries consistently are many. But the reason they must strive to do so anyway has to do with only one: the difference between psychological reinforcement schedules. Positive reinforcement is generally accepted to be superior to negative reinforcement in changing behavior as it leads to more lasting behavioral modification. In a positive reinforcement schedule, a reward is given after a desired behavior occurs (e.g., a dog gets praise after pooping outside). The most powerful positive reinforcement schedule is called the variable ratio schedule where rewards are given after a random number of responses (meaning a rat will get food after pressing a bar once, then five times, then seven times, then three times, then eight times, etc.).

This, then, is exactly the reinforcement schedule that giving in to a child’s demands on an occasional basis yields. You are in effect priming your child to continue to challenge what you’ve already set as appropriate boundaries. On the other hand, if you were to schedule exceptions on a regular basis, it would reinforce his challenging behavior far less. (In fact, my wife and I do just that by allowing our son to watch cartoons on weekend mornings only and half an hour of iPad “movies” on weeknights, limiting his total number of hours in front of a screen to 7.5/week. By scheduling exceptions to our basic rule of “no television” we limit his screen time to reasonable levels and he feels like he’s getting what he wants.)

The same is true of setting boundaries with adults. Many of us, of course, have great difficulty doing so for a variety of reasons. But what we may not realize is how we set ourselves up to have our boundaries tested more often in the future when we allow random exceptions in the present. This isn’t to say such exceptions shouldn’t sometimes be made. But even when they’re appropriate to make, the effect is the same. The point here isn’t that we should never make exceptions. It’s that we should be prepared, when we do, to have our boundaries challenged even more. Because when we are prepared, we’re better able to return to setting them consistently.

Next Week: Truth In Body Language

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  • How the more difficult is it, too, when parents differ in the behaviours they allow and disallow in their children.

  • To me, taking a five-year-old to a restaurant for dinner is not about setting boundaries but rather having reasonable expectations and being considerate of the child’s needs and abilities. A five-year-old probably won’t sit quietly at the table for hours like a miniature adult unless he has a fever and falls asleep. And as you found out, their will can bend yours simply because they are willing to be loud in public!

    Dinner out for a young child typically means eating later than usual, having to wait while hungry, being offered unfamiliar food, and being told to sit still and be quiet while adults talk endlessly. What fun is that?

    My sons are both teenagers now. When they were little and we wanted to go out to eat (which usually meant we were tired and wanted a “vacation” from the daily grind—itself a set-up for poor parenting), we fed our kids beforehand and brought a bag of “table-top” activities [books, Legos, coloring paper, etc.] for them to keep busy while we enjoyed sitting at the table and being served. Even so, we usually enjoyed dessert and coffee at home. Another strategy was to choose a restaurant that had a playroom and supplied Crayons with the menu.


  • I don’t have children but I have a young adult friend who is consistently testing my boundaries. Always joking when there is work to do and asking for too many favors. It’s hard to say no when you have become friends but at the same time I feel like I have to “act” the adult to someone who is not a child but acts like one. It’s frustrating.

  • Having raised two boys, I cannot help but be impressed with your zeal to explain everything to your darling boy. This is why first children, and especially only children (I am both) tend to display a faint sense of entitlement to attention and explanation from authority figures, if not a certain disdain for mere peers. Once the second child arrives, parents typically give up on going out to dinner (as alluded to above) or give up on elaborate explanations. “Because I said so” or “because that’s the rule” can be perfectly acceptable parental responses to a five year old. Or, if you must, “sometimes parents make exceptions.” You are the grown up, own your authority! That is the constant—and you have discretion to make exceptions. Clearly your son is smart enough to figure that out!

  • One of the most functional approaches (in my opinion) I’ve ever witnessed by parents reacting to their less than cooperative child at a restaurant happened recently when my husband and I were out to dinner.

    Mom, dad and child sat down at a table. The child was cranky and antsy, probably tired and hungry. I mean, I get that way too when I’m tired and hungry.

    Parents ordered dinner as the child still acted up. The parents gently tried to talk the child down. Didn’t work. Parents gave a warning, that they’d leave if this continued. The behavior continued. The father then got up, walked to the hostess, asked for their food to go. The mother in the mean time, put on her coat, had the child put on his coat, and walked out to the car, waiting for her husband. There was no fan fair, no pleading with the child, no anger, no yelling, no bargaining, nothing. It was so simple—if you continue to act this way, then we will leave. And they did. Usually I see parents either completely ignoring the child’s behavior much to the dismay of others in the restaurant trying to enjoy their meal, or parents so consumed by trying to negotiate with the child that obviously they’re not enjoying themselves. Consistency yes, but follow through, DEFINITELY.

    PWNOONE: I could not agree more.


    • Dr. Lickerman, I really need your advice on this:

      Every time I reach out to my mother and my sister, both of them are indifferent towards me and don’t seem to make much of an effort to be a part of my life, but when I mention how hurtful this feels, they blame me for their behavior rather than their own attitudes towards me.

      They come up with a litany of excuses why we aren’t close rather than addressing their attitudes. These days I don’t even reach out anymore but I have a huge void & a lot of hurt in my life due to the gaslighting and mistreatment. What do I do or, what are your thoughts?

      dancingdeer21: Very difficult for me to give meaningful advice without knowing you or your family. However, I’d say this: if when you bare your heart to them they blame you, the only other approach I could think of would be to ask them how they’d ask you to change YOUR behavior to improve your relationships with them. Listen to them with an open heart and genuinely consider what they say. If what they say doesn’t make sense, or if they’re not willing to make any effort to reach back to you, if they’re more interested in “gaslighting and mistreating” you, I don’t see that you’ll be able to repair those relationships.


  • Be clear, be consistent, and beware of deviations. Any new precedent opens everything to negotiation. Having raised a natural master negotiator who knows when to use logic, humor or emotional appeals, I have learned that the “broken record” response is very effective. I am a widow with a teen-aged son, whom I adore and who is my life. Independence and negotiation now rule the day, with certain absolute limits, of course. Much harder than when I could just pick him up if “time to go” was not part of his plan.

    Enjoy your little guy. It goes fast!

  • Our daughter is five as well. I had a dharma teacher who claims “Having a child, instant enlightenment.” While that may be an exaggeration, your example (to which I can definitely relate) seems like an excellent illustration! 🙂