Testing the waters: How setting boundaries builds trust

I was on a family vacation to Hawaii last week (Happy Mother’s Day to me!) and we had a wonderful time. About half way through our trip we were in the kiddie pool and J was feeling hesitant at first. She wasn’t so sure that the water was such a fun place to be until two young boys started splashing, playing and having a great time. And then she was convinced. The boys’ parents were in the adjacent pool with a young baby and they kept calling out to the boys to settle down, stop splashing, and be nice. But I didn’t see anything at all wrong with the way the boys were behaving. They were just having fun and playing!

At one point one of the boys got brave enough to approach me and proceeded to put some sand on my arm. I could tell that he wasn’t sure how I’d react, but I just wanted to play, so I said “Hey! You put sand on my arm! Oh no! But watch this.” And then I slipped my arm under the water and washed off the sand. After that, he knew that we were playing a really fun game so he put more sand on my arm and I washed it off again. All the time I was encouraging him because I knew that if things got out of hand I could easily set a clear boundary. But I kept checking in with his parents through eye contact and it seemed to me that most of their remunerations were attempts to make sure that I was safe and comfortable.

The boys were just ecstatic to have an adult who would play with them and we splashed and swam and I got very excited about the big splashes they made. All the time their parents kept calling out to them not to splash too much, but I ask you, exactly how much splashing is “too much” splashing when you’re in a swimming pool? I got the distinct feeling that the parents were trying to reign in their boys because they were worried that I might feel overwhelmed. I tried to reassure them that I was in my element.

After about ten minutes of rowdy play one of the boys ran over to me and scratched my arm. I stopped him immediately by lightly touching his elbow to get his attention. Then I looked into his eyes and told him that scratching people is NOT OK, it hurt my body when he scratched me and I didn’t want him to scratch anyone again. He understood me perfectly and we continued to play for another ten minutes with no more scratching. In fact, there wasn’t any more boundary testing of any kind, after the scratching incident. I think he just needed to know exactly how far he could go, and whether I was a really fun pushover or an adult he could trust and with whom he could relax.

Besides tuning into a child’s needs and being willing to help them get their needs met, I think that setting clear and consistent boundaries is the best way to build trust with a child. It makes sense, right? If a child feels he is in charge he can never fully relax and know that he will be taken care of. On the other hand, if a child knows that there is a clear line that must not be crossed, he can play and have tons of fun within the bounds of our rules and agreements, always knowing that I will hold the line when needed. As the adult in the situation, I see this as a special part of my role in facilitating fun and joy with children.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve had as I’ve learned to set clear and consistent boundaries with children is to do so without malice. I used to get all worked up and take it personally when a child tested me or broke a rule. Unfortunately for both of us, my emotional charge only further escalated things and let the child know that I wasn’t to be trusted because I wasn’t able to hold the boundary with love.

After about twenty years of practice, I’m now able to set and maintain a boundary with a child AND be loving and kind in the process. I wasn’t angry with the boy for scratching me. I simply let him know that that behavior was unacceptable and wouldn’t be tolerated. And I did so without a bunch of negative emotional charge. After that, we both understood one another, we knew where the boundaries were, and he was easily able to play with me within the bounds of my rules.

So the next time you notice your child testing your boundaries, remember that the best thing you can do is to maintain clarity about your rules and hold fast to them with love and compassion for your child. That doesn’t mean you can’t revise a rule that no longer applies or doesn’t seem to be working for anyone. But your children need to know that you will consider their input, but that ultimately you will make a decision about what the rules are and you’ll maintain the rules and boundaries for everyone’s well-being.

How does this work at your house? Do you notice a difference between the times when you’re able to maintain emotional composure while setting boundaries versus the times when you “lose it.” Do you agree with my assertion that children will trust you more when you’re able to set clear boundaries? I would love to know your thoughts. Please share them in the comments below!

And have a wonderful week, Shelly


Shelly you are so exactly on target!  I am the "fun"uncle to my nieces and nephews because I will get down and play with them.  My one niece has unfortunately been catered to by her mother.  Even as a little girl of 6 or 7 she was used to getting her way.  Over Christmas during my visit she learned that I was an adult who did not tolerate her demands.  When we played together if she began acting up I would tell her I don't like that behavior and I stop playing.  If it continued I removed myself from the area temporarily.  Upon return I would wait for her to initiate playing again and ask her is she going to play nice?  She would of course say yes and I would hold her to it.  Soon after that she was always wanting to spend time with me.  No surprise really, as you would say I made her feel safe. 


I could just FEEL you making eye contact and letting the boy know what was not okay and what was.  And that light touch, the eye contact, and then the words just feels so right!


When adults take the time to connect to kids who are not their own, and then state a boundary, that is one of the true meanings of "It takes a village."


Thanks, @shelly !

AwakeShelly moderator

 @yourfriendkira Thanks Kira! I just hope I feel that way when it's some other parent setting a boundary with MY child :) Hugs to you!


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