This is the place in which the caterpillar is protected, nourished and survives before emerging into the world as an “adult”, namely a butterfly. As essential and necessary the cocoon is for the butterfly this is how necessary boundaries are for children.
First of all, boundaries make clear to children what is desirable and what is not, what is allowed and what is forbidden. They provide them with security and peace. They protect and shield them from potential damage. They even make them realize the consequences of their own actions. They make children trust themselves, they give them a firm grip, a feeling that will accompany them into adulthood.
Boundaries are much more than a prohibition or imposition of punishment when children do not obey their parents (a false perception that prevails when it comes to boundaries). So, what are boundaries? First and foremost, they are the constant attitude and behaviour of parents regarding specific issues of everyday life.
Looking at infancy, i.e. ages 3-6, boundaries are about issues such as hygiene, food, order, sleep. It is useful for a three-year-old to get specific mandates concering what happens before going to bed. “Feet (washed), teeth (brushed), sleep”: 3 little words are more than enough to let toddlers know what they have to do before bed.
Of course, we cannot have unreasonable expectations from a three-year-old. They will usually not go to bed upon hearing those 3 magic words! But they will certainly get the message as to what they are supposed to do before bed. Reading them a story or singing a lullaby goes a long way towards making the whole process easier.
It is best if boundaries are set and developed from the early stages of someoneʼs life. This is because it is not easy to set boundaries to the attitude of a child of 12, for example, or 15, if we have not worked hard on this already and if we have not started on simpler issues. But beware! Always keep in mind the age of your child and the cognitive skills they have – or do not have- depending on their age. It would be rather absurd, say, to ask a four-year-old to collect their toys from the floor without the instruction “we are picking up our toys now” simply because you’ve repeated this a couple of times in the past. Children at that age are likely and expected to forget what they have to do after they are done playing and simply focus on their next activity. It takes a steady tone of voice, calm and repetition of the instructions at that age!
At the ages referred to, (3-6), it makes no sense to go with a practice you may be familiar with, the “time-out”, meaning the imposition of ‘no activityʼ time. This entails the isolation of the child in their room, or in neutral ground like the living room, to consider what they did wrong while breaking the rules imposed by the parents. At these ages, but even when older (6-12), children desperately need guidance and help from their adult parents to understand what has happened and what their behaviour has caused.
For example, while playing ball in the house is prohibited, a 4-year-old boy breaks mumʼs favourite vase! It would be far more constructive for there to be a rational consequence – depriving him of the right to play ball for an hour. Know that at such young ages deprivation of material goods (in this instance, the ball) for a whole day is not as effective as deprivation for a shorter time period. Similarly, it would be far more sensible to take away the ball from a two-year-old for just five minutes, and not for longer. In the example discussed, the child could be asked to bring a broom and a dustpan for mum to collect the glass. This way, several messages get across:
– Actions have consequences (deprivation of the ball)
– They are capable of fixing things
– Other people are not at their service
The easiest thing to do here for a parent may be to yell to the child and send it to their room to cool down (time-out), but it is definitely the wrong thing!
During infancy, otherwise known as early identification age, you will get to hear plenty of “NOs” from your little ones. It is the age during which children want to -and must- become autonomous. It is precisely the age when they WANT to choose their own clothes for nursery school, bathe, use the toilet ON THEIR OWN. If you let them become independent now, they will gain self-confidence, they will learn to rely on themselves, and will be capable of forming healthy relationships with friends and romantic partners of the opposite sex at a later age. It is very important that you show confidence in your child and reinforce-reward them verbally (“Well done, I am so pleased you are bathing on your own!”) as well as non-verbally (e.g. a kiss or an affectionate gesture) when they accomplish something.
Finally, remember that at all ages your nurture should balance somewhere between strictness and freedom. Children do not need permissive parents – who let them try everything without consequences and do not react effectively when rules are broken. Nor do they need authoritarian parents who have set boundaries and rules about everything; it is obvious that a child who lives in fear that everything is prohibited and is penalised for the slightest “wrong move” is a child without “ego”.
-Filliozat Isabelle (2015). J’ai tout essayé! Athens: Enalios.