4 Keys to Setting Boundaries That Get Respected WITHOUT Using Bribes, Threats, or Punishment

My daughter is about to turn three and her willfulness is definitely growing, as is her ability to reason and negotiate for what she wants. I wish I could say that this means that conflicts and tantrums are even further reduced, but on the contrary, it seems that her new negotiating skills simply fuel the fire of emotional upset when she doesn’t get her way.

I’ve noticed that gentle discipline is often misunderstood and mistaken for permissive parenting, however, the two are definitely not the same. Permissive parenting involves avoiding setting any rules or boundaries and definitely avoiding maintaining any. But setting clear rules and boundaries are a hallmark of gentle discipline. That’s because children desperately need rules and boundaries in order to feel safe and secure. In fact, they need rules and boundaries in order to BE safe.

Since children aren’t born with a clear understanding of all of the potential dangers we face in our modern lives, it’s crucial that we teach them rules about how to be safe in parking lots and crossing the road, as well as how to form solid bonds with other people and what to do if they get into a situation where they’re feeling worried or afraid.

I guess I was naïve to think that we’d escape completely unscathed by tantrums. I had forgotten that the threes and fours can be even more challenging than the twos when it comes to willfulness and pushing back against rules and boundaries.

But in my experience, the strongest push-backs come when we’re unclear about exactly where the boundary is. In fact, almost as soon as I’m completely clear, testing behavior is greatly reduced.

So, the first key to setting boundaries that get respected is, you guessed it:

1) Be completely clear about exactly what the boundary is and why.

When we set a rule like, “We always hold hands in the parking lot,” it’s clear to us why it’s so important as we have visions of a toddler running into oncoming traffic. There is no wiggle room here, it’s a dangerous situation and we’re determined to keep our kids safe.

We have a rule at home that we always sit while we’re eating. This is to prevent choking and to keep Julia at the table, focused on eating, rather than grabbing a bite to eat while she’s playing. This is an essential rule for us because we have dogs and cats who would like nothing better than to eat her food if she were to walk away. It also helps us keep the food in the kitchen so that I’m not cleaning up spills on the carpet.

Since I have a very clear understanding of why we have this rule, it’s easy to enforce and rarely causes any conflict. If Julia walks away from her food, I assume she’s finished and clear it away. And she knows that’s our policy, so there’s no need for any further testing.

But what about rules and boundaries that aren’t quite so clear?

On the other hand, we have a guideline that we take our shoes off when we come into the house. This one doesn’t have any huge consequences for me, so I’m more lax in enforcing it. And as a result, it gets tested.

Just the other day, my daughter tried to wear her shoes to bed. I said, “Absolutely no shoes on the bed,” (I’m clear on that!) and she pushed a little farther, saying, but it’s OK to wear shoes in the house.

A few days later, she looked over at me as she climbed onto the couch with her shoes on. She was looking for clarity about the boundary, and I provided it. “I don’t mind if you wear your shoes on the couch as long as they’re not too dirty. But no shoes on the bed, remember? And I REALLY like it best when we take our shoes off when we’re inside so that we can keep the dirt near the door.”

As I said, this is more of a guideline than a true rule, and she’s now clear about where the true boundary is, no shoes on the bed, ever.

The next key to setting boundaries that get respected is to:

2) Lovingly enforce the boundary, making it almost impossible for your child to break the rule.

Young children have very little impulse control, so if you make a rule like, “No touching the sharp knives,” and then put the knives within reach, guess what? They won’t be able to help themselves. And truly, it’s not developmentally appropriate to expect that they should.

Instead, set the boundary and then HELP your child to follow the rules by putting the knives out of reach.

If you want children to follow the rules without bribes or threats of punishment, then you need to give them an incentive.

3) Tell them why the rule exists and how you feel when it’s broken

When kids understand that rules exists to help keep them safe, healthy and happy and to maintain peace at home, they’re more likely to cooperate and work within the boundaries. That’s because children have an innate desire to be in connection with their parents and to live in a loving and peaceful environment.

So, if a rule isn’t getting respected, feel free to tell your kids how upset and frustrated you feel. “This rule exists to make our lives easier, and when you forget to put your dishes away and the dogs knock them down and break them, I feel upset because I have to clean up broken glass, someone could get cut, and we have less dishes to use next time.”

If you have any trouble with this, try using an NVC format when talking about your feelings with kids.

My final tip to setting boundaries that get respected is:

4) Reduce the number of rules as your child matures

In fact, reduce the number of rules, no matter what age your child is. Unless you’ve been practicing permissive parenting and failing to set any boundaries at all, you’re likely erring on the side of “more rules are better.” However, this makes it hard for kids to remember and follow all of the rules.

I find it’s much more effective to set just a few hard and fast rules and then to follow my own internal reference system about when things are OK and when things are not OK with me. It’s all right to let a child know that usually that’s fine, but right now you’re just not able to deal with the noise or the mess or having them help you cook.

When children know that there are just a few rules that are always in place, they’re able to remember them and work within those boundaries. But when the number of rules gets, ehem, “unruly,” kids have a really hard time keeping it all straight. Plus, they begin to feel micro-managed and then they lash out in frustration at not having enough freedom and autonomy.

So, your homework this week if you choose to accept it, is to sit down and write down your top 3-5 rules and boundaries. The ones you absolutely MUST have in order to maintain peace and safety. And remember, the most important rule of parenting is to maintain a healthy connection with your child, so if any of these rules seem to undermine connect, re-think them pronto.

I would love to know whether you found this article helpful and I always enjoy your contributions through comments. Please share your thoughts and stories!

And have a wonderful week, Shelly


Dear Shelly, I just found your blog through a Google search. I'm studying child development at my university and working at on orphanage in Thailand and this was sssooooo helpful. Thank you so much!