Boundaries help children feel safe. Children often act out when they do not know what is expected of them. They spend a lot of time exploring and pushing the boundaries we set for them. This is a natural and normal process. As adults, it is our job to set limits and to clearly communicate them to our children.
Calm and Clear: The Captains of the Ship
It isn’t necessary to enforce these boundaries with punitive measures or “consequences”, either. Simply stating and consistently standing firm on the principals we set forth is all that is necessary. Repetition and consistency foster the security children crave. As adults, we must exercise patience in this process because it is a process. It isn’t a lesson that happens once, and then it’s over. We must often set limits and communicate them clearly many times before they are understood. Being matter-of-fact about these limits is important, too. This isn’t an emotional struggle, it is a safety issue.
“Hold my hand in the parking lot. I will keep you safe.” We are the adults, it is important to maintain a calm, firm hand on the rudder. We are in charge, and we know what is best. When we lose our cool and shout or punish, it shows a lack of control, and then who is steering the ship? “I see that you don’t want to hold my hand right now, so I will carry you. I love you and will keep you safe.”
The only time I find it necessary to enforce rules with punitive measures isn’t even actually punitive. It is an issue of safety. If a child is physically going to harm themselves or others, I may have to say, “You know you may not throw the blocks. I cannot let you hurt your friends. It is time to play elsewhere,” then I assist that child in finding another place to play. We should avoid getting frustrated or angry. Being firm shows confidence and lets children know that we are serious. We do not need to shout or threaten to be effective leaders. And, yes, it is okay to acknowledge a child is upset or distressed, but we mustn’t allow that to distress and upset us.
The Importance of Free-play
I am a big proponent of free-play. Children benefit from time to do what they want in a safe environment. Free-play does not mean anarchy, it means freedom to play and explore the world around them without interference from adults or danger. Our job is to keep them safe, not tell them how to play. Through this kind of play, children develop a healthy sense of independence.
Start Early. Hug often.
Boundaries are erected when the limits are clearly communicated. You don’t need a fence, you need to be clear and consistent with your expectations. It is harder to place limits once a child knows that there are none. I once heard this analogy: Our children need warm, tight hugs when they are younger, and, as boundaries are expanded, we can loosen those hugs. Once a child has unlimited freedom, it is nearly impossible to reign in those limits. We must have clear, consistent, and reasonable boundaries and expectations from children at an early age. As they mature and show competence in different areas, we may loosen restrictions and broaden boundaries appropriately. If we give children total freedom from the beginning, they don’t feel safe, and will not understand when we place new restrictions on them.
Mr. Jay is an outdoor educator with Little Schoolhouse in the Woods. He learned everything he knows about early childhood education from his wife and co-teacher, Ms. Lee (Follow her at https://www.facebook.com/littleschoolhouseinthewoods/). Mr. Jay holds a Bachelor’s degree in Early Education, PK-3, with a 4th and 5th grade endorsement.