How Do I Set Healthy Boundaries for my Child?
Why can the twos be so terrible?
Parents often note that the toddler years can be particularly challenging. Many children become unruly, disobedient, and can resort to tears and temper tantrums when they do not get what they want. Their favorite word changes from “mama,” “dada,” or “ball” to “no!” What’s going on here?
I believe two things are happening. First, the child is becoming more aware of their individuality—separate from their parents—with correspondingly separate desires. Second, they have a greater ability to exercise their will because, at this point, they are walking, talking, etc. In other words: they want, and now they can have.
But parents, let me ask you this: when you tell your toddler “no more ice cream” and they proceed to cry or whine, if you give in and ultimately let them have what you told them you couldn’t, are they really happier? And the grown adults you know who push back against all rules and authority, are they more content?
I am convinced that the twos don’t have to be terrible, and aren’t for many parents. But in order to help your child through this time, parents have to genuinely believe that setting healthy, biblical boundaries for their children is a blessing.
Believing in Your Boundaries
Let’s focus on the two-year-old again. Why do they throw a temper tantrum? Because they want what they want, and they can’t get it. James 4:1-2 says: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.” Your child’s issue is with the boundaries that you have placed on them. They believe that if they were able to exercise their will to get what they want, they would be happier. And so, they resort to whatever tactic is necessary to get what they want.
But when we respond to the whining, the arguing, the delaying, and the temper-tantrum by caving, we communicate two things to them. First, we teach them that this is a successful strategy to get one’s way, and we should expect the same strategy in the near future. Second, we communicate that we don’t actually believe that the boundaries we have placed on their lives are a blessing to them.
But when we clearly and carefully state our expectations for their conduct, and then hold the line when there is pushback, we reinforce that our boundaries are firm. And over time, children will respect these boundaries (though not without sometimes pushing them to see if they are still intact). And over time, do you know what you will find? They will be happier. Why is that?
Why Are Boundaries a Blessing?
Boundaries do not seem pleasant to any human, let alone a two-year-old. In our flesh, we do not want anything to get in the way of what we want. And our world has taken this logic to the extreme. Every bit of our culture rages against boundaries. We despise authority. We want pleasure without consequences. We want freedom even from our biology, declaring the right to determine even what gender we will be.
The problem, however, with boundary-less personal autonomy is that we all were born sinful. We are totally corrupt, not because we act as badly as we could, but because every part of us is affected by sin (Jer. 17:9). And so, our tainted desires without boundaries will yield consequences.
But contrary to our every natural inclination, Jesus offers another, better way to blessing. In Matthew 11:28-30, he says:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We think freedom is found when we are rid of all restrictions placed on his. Jesus says that true freedom is found under his yoke.
Again, this seems contradictory. It only seems contradictory, however, if we have a high view of man and a low view of God. If we believe that truth is found inside of us, then indeed we will work to tear down any hinderance to expressing ourselves. But looking within ourselves for true freedom only leaves us disappointed and wanting more. The “more” that we need—the real source of truth—is external. The “more” that we need is God, and following his way is not burdensome (1 John 5:3b).
When we work to make the boundaries in our home reflective of God’s ways, we serve our children by enforcing and upholding them. Enforcing rules against fighting, lying, or stealing; or expecting simple obedience to dad and mom’s house rules like bedtime or shoes off; blesses our children by setting them up to one day, by God’s grace, willingly rest under Jesus’s yoke.
Begin with the End in Mind
A wise person once told my wife that when it comes to parenting, we ought to “begin with the end in mind.” The patterns you establish with your two-year-old should reflect the patterns you hope for them as adults.
Parents, you have an opportunity to bless your child by teaching him or her to understand and respect boundaries. At a minimum, this can set your child up to be a law-abiding citizen (Rom. 13:1-4). Additionally, it can help them avoid the painful consequences that result from not walking in God’s ways. Thirdly, setting godly boundaries for your child glorify God simply as society sees the blessing that comes from people walking in his ways.
Ultimately though, the hope of every Christian parent is that their child would trust in Christ. Salvation is God’s work, but by teaching your child the blessing of boundaries, you model a greater reality. When Jesus says, “come to me,” your child does not have to wonder whether Jesus’s yoke is easy and burden light. And if your child does submit, he or she can begin the Christian walk with a solid foundation of habitual respect for the boundaries God places.