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Boundaries of the heart - Effective Parenting

Guest Blogger
by Linda Kavelin Popov

One summer morning, I was speaking at a family retreat center in rural Alberta, when suddenly the excited call rang out, “Moose! Moose!” The adults rushed out of the building to find their children pouring out of their classrooms, racing ahead toward a meadow where a moose and her calf were grazing.

Mother animals in the wild can be dangerously fierce when their young are threatened, and I could feel the alarm in the voices of parents as they yelled, “Don’t run!” The children seemed to hear only the word, “run” as they flew toward the field.

Knowing that children focus better on what we DO want them to do instead of what we don’t want them to do, I looked for a natural boundary, and called out, “Stop at the mowed line and hit the ground!” The children obeyed instantly, skidding to a stop and going down on their stomachs at the mowed edge before the tall grasses of the meadow  – a safe distance from Mama Moose and her baby.

As I caught up to them, I acknowledged their respect for the moose and their cooperation in staying safe. The adults joined the children on the ground, and we were all mesmerized as the moose and her calf danced on their hind legs to nibble the succulent leaves of a tall willow, and nuzzled each other. A potential disaster became a sacred memory. 

How do we set boundaries with our children and youth that inspire cooperation rather than merely require compliance, that build character instead of resistance? Three simple practices create lasting, healthy boundaries that work:

1.  The KISS principle: Keep it Sweet and Simple

Keep boundaries very simple, positive, and moderate. Have only three or four for your household or organization. Focus on what you DO want, not what you don’t want. For example, one boundary of an outdoor adventure program is: “We use respectful language at all times.”  “No curse words” fails to express the true intent of the boundary found in the virtue of respect. Use memorable phrases such as “This house is a Peace Zone. We don’t put each other down. We lift each other up.” Include youth in deciding “how we want to treat each other in our home/group/school.” Create no more than three or four boundaries and use virtues words in each one. They are the meaning at the heart of any rule.

2.  Be Assertive and Trustworthy. Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say.

Don’t make it a boundary unless you intend to enforce it every single time. Once the boundaries are agreed on, stand absolutely firm. Children learn that you can be trusted when you are an assertive leader. Any kid worth his or her salt will test a boundary to see if you mean it. Too many of us want our children’s approval and we beg, nag, plead, or use guilt and threats, or let things slide when we feel helpless. All that does is to give kids a sense that they have too much power over us, which isn’t healthy or helpful. When discipline is fair, constant and reliable, it empowers children to develop self-discipline.

3.  Offer Restorative Justice

Have immediate educative – not punitive -- consequences when boundaries are violated, with a way to make amends. A good example is the adventure program with the boundary of respectful language. Youth on a three-month outdoor experience were nearing the end of a long trek in the rain carrying heavy back packs. At one point, one of the kids lost it, threw down his pack and started cursing, “I hate this f---ing program!” Immediately, the counselors called out “Circle up!” and instructed him and the group to come up with 20 ways he could have expressed what he was feeling while still using respectful language. A groan went up from the group, all of whom were exhausted. They began. “I hate this program!” “I’m sick and tired of this hike.” “I can’t stand this much longer.” “I’m really tired and hungry. I wish we could stop,” “I need some mercy!,” until they reached twenty. The counselors then shocked them all by taking three steps forward, saying, ‘Okay. Here’s the campsite where we are stopping.” They cared enough and had the integrity and trustworthiness to enforce the boundary every single time.

A word about personal boundaries. Be a good example of self-care by scheduling  a massage, a daily walk , or time with a friend to restore and recharge. You’re worth it!

Linda Kavelin Popov is author of The Family Virtues Guide and The Virtues Project Educator’s Guide,  co-founder of The Virtues Projecttm , and an international speaker on personal and global transformation.  See for a list of virtues definitions.


Julie said…
I love "kids focus better on what we DO want them to do instead of what we DON'T." Sometimes DON'Ts or CAN'Ts are unavoidable, if you start with a positive it works better. "You can play kindly with your little brother. You don't hit." Clear boundary on what is kind playing.
Thank you so much for your comment Julie! You are right...appropriate boundaries are so important.

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