During their developing years, your children
move from a world with no rules or boundaries set by you into a world of
maximum rules and boundaries. They then gradually move back to a world with no
parent rules or boundaries. You, in a parallel way, begin by setting no rules
or boundaries for your children. You then move to setting maximum rules and
boundaries. Gradually, you then eliminate the rules and boundaries.
Infancy is the time of life most nearly
approaching complete freedom for your children. By the age of three or four,
your rules and boundaries should be at their maximum. From that point to
adulthood, you gradually modify and then drop the rules and boundaries.
Failure to understand and accept this process
poses one of the biggest difficulties between parents and teenagers. Typically,
teenagers’ major hassle with their parents is over how quickly to discontinue
the rules and boundaries. Parents tend to do this gradually and somewhat
reluctantly. Teenagers feel the “childish” rules will never be
dropped and their parents will always want to run their lives.
Less frequently recognized but just as common
are parents who do not recognize the need for maximizing rules and boundaries
when their children are about three or four. This is the age when learning to
mind is most important and most frequently neglected. Parents say, “They
are too young.” In reality, they are just the right age to learn to live
successfully in a world of rules and boundaries.
Here is another way to think about this
important point. Consider childhood as taking place within an ever-expanding
circle. In infancy, the circle within which your child exists is larger than
him. About the time he begins to crawl and walk, though, he is fast filling up
this circle. Rather suddenly, from your child’s perspective, the circle of his
life is filled with do and do not, may and may not, not allowed to and have to.
There are rules and boundaries everywhere he turns.
You then let the circle expand gradually. You
take into account your child’s increasing skills, developing abilities,
expanding interests, and widening horizons. Still, you must not expand the
circle too fast. Your children need very clear rules and boundaries. Certainly,
they need the freedom to discover and explore their worlds. They also have to be
contained to avoid getting hurt or being exposed to unnecessary risks.
Within the circle of your child’s world, he may
function with relative freedom and with relative immunity from rules and
boundaries. At the limits of the circle, though, your rules and boundaries should
Your two-year-old may play in the yard but not
in the street. At eighteen months, your child may eat food at a high chair but
may not throw it across the kitchen. Your children may play with their toys but
not with the knobs on the kitchen stove. They are permitted to go some places,
play with some things, participate in some activities, but are forbidden other
opportunities and experiences. As your children enter school and move on to
adolescence, their circles expand to include family, friends, neighbors,
school, and community.
Sometimes parents wait until things have gotten
out of hand before trying to establish rules and boundaries. Your child does
not mind or he refuses to mind. Perhaps he does not even know how to mind. In
nine- and ten-year-olds, this is all too frequently seen. The challenge is to
establish the rules and boundaries that should have been in-place when your
child was three or four. It requires intense effort and sometimes counseling
for both children and parents when postponed until your child’s behavior is out
of control. Try to achieve this with your adolescent of fifteen or sixteen and
you face a potentially insurmountable challenge.