Setting healthy boundaries and encouraging good choices help children feel more secure, less anxious, and relieved to not be in charge. In Chapter Three of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I affirm that children will test the limits. This is a developmental imperative. Why do they do this? To be sure that the limits are there.
Lauren sat down with her daughter, Grace, to have breakfast. She fixed herself a bowl of fruit and some eggs for her daughter. As they were chatting about their coming days, Grace pushed her eggs back toward her mom, wrinkled her nose, and concluded, “Yuck. I don’t like these eggs. They’re squishy inside. Can I have cereal instead?”
Her mom dutifully put her eggs in the sink and then got Grace a bowl of cereal. She pushed the cereal around as she talked about the kids at school. “Come on, Gracie,” mom urged, “Your time is running short now. Eat.”
Grace looked at her cereal, and then at her mom’s fruit bowl. “Nah. I think I want your fruit bowl.” She switched her bowl with her mom’s and began devouring the fruit. Lauren rolled her eyes, sighed, and thought, and to think that I went to all that schooling just to do shift work and become a short order cook.
Not much limit-setting here for Lauren, and Grace took advantage of it. Now, mom may be thinking, at least I found what she wanted to eat and she’s having a good breakfast before a long school day. However, the longer goal is also important. Mom needs to work on setting healthy boundaries for Grace and helping her make good choices. If mom is feeling taken advantage of or ignored, then she needs a sit-down with her daughter.
Set a time with relatively few distractions, where you can talk with your daughter. Perhaps after homework and before bedtime. Review the scenario in question and share your feelings with her. Encourage her to help you think of solutions to the problem of Gracie getting a nutritious breakfast without mom feeling taken advantage of.
After discussion, mom and Gracie settled on their going shopping for groceries weekly, or Gracie adding to the shopping list the kinds of breakfasts she would like. Then, each night before bedtime, mom and Grace decide on the next day’s breakfast items. Each goes to bed looking forward to the morning, rather than dreading the back and forth hassle.
Here, the boundary has been set for a good morning routine. The limit is defined as, “no takebacks.” That is, mom serves what Gracie decides the night before and finishes her breakfast before heading out to school. Mom gives Gracie a week of the new routine before reviewing to see how it is working. They could add some rewards and consequences, depending on how Gracie respects the boundaries and accepts the limits.
Most children will start such a discussion with, “No fair. You’re being so mean.” Active listen her feelings, but stay the course. With the limits firm, and boundaries secure, children with go with the flow and feel more secure, less anxious, and involved in a mutual problem-solving relationship and teachable moments with their parents.