“Parenting is one of the most challenging jobs in the world,” says Megan Lindsey, a mother of two in San Francisco. “You never know when something you do will affect your children forever.”
This concern expressed by Lindsay is one shared by many parents all over the world. What’s best for your children? How can you be sure you’re giving them the necessary tools they need to grow into strong, healthy, and independent young adults?
Although Lindsay has years of experience with children as a babysitter, daycare instructor and older sister, until she had her first child three years ago, she had never experienced the fear of being too hard or lenient on a child. After having her second child five months ago, she expressed her uncertainty in her consequence tactics for her 3-year-old.
“I want my son to feel like he can explore, have his own opinions, and has the right to understand,” she says. “But I also want him to be safe and to listen to me the first time.” Lindsay also expresses a need to have her children be active and involved.
“I wish my parents would have pushed me to do more as a child. I want to do that for my sons,” she says, acknowledging she wants them to feel they can grow up to be the people they choose to be. Like many parents, Lindsay is in search of the most effective parenting style.
One of the great challenges of parenting comes in successfully walking the thin line that exists between too many boundaries and too little support. In terms of parenting styles, this thin line is called authoritative parenting and is the ideal mix of both authoritarian (too many boundaries) and permissive (too little support) approaches.
While these three parenting styles are different in many ways, they also have one common element: boundaries. Boundaries are essential to the development of a child. Children learn from experiences and exploration, but in order to feel safe and comfortable in their exploration of themselves, children need to know what is expected of them.
Although it’s easy to think that setting boundaries will distance you from your child, it’s actually through these boundaries that you can teach your child to be independent, secure, self-disciplined and self-confident.
Boundaries that are too rigid may suppress a child to the point of rebellion. As with anything, too much of anything is never good—there is a happy medium to everything and that includes parenting. Professional studies and research findings support the idea that balance in boundary setting produces the most optimal results.
To the extremes
Various studies by research psychologists state that children of permissive parents have freedom of expression and independence, but due to the absence of a framework of rules they are emotionally less intelligent, and have less social and intellectual competence compared to others.
Teens and adolescents raised with little or no boundaries also face an increased risk for engaging in dangerous, unhealthy and potentially illegal activities.
On the other hand, the rigid rules and expectations developed due to the authoritarian parenting style do not promote independence and healthy exploration. For this reason, children growing up in authoritarian households often develop low self-esteem and tend to be more rebellious when they gain freedom in adolescence.
The middle ground
While permissive parenting and authoritarian parenting show the two extremes, there is a middle ground. The centralized parenting style and the one most recommended by numerous psychologists is authoritative parenting.
According to experts in research psychology, in this style, parents express their open mindedness to their children’s opinions while also providing direction and support. This parenting style tends to be both supportive and flexible, allowing the child room to explore in a safe and healthy environment.
Establishing appropriate boundaries is key, not only in developing life skills in young children, but also in raising teenagers and adolescents. The boundaries may change, but there must be balance. Studies show that setting healthy boundaries inspires intrinsic motivation within a child, which helps them develop healthy boundaries for themselves in every aspect of their lives.
Enforce and model
Stacey Bruen—a Scottsdale-based licensed professional counselor specializing in children, adolescents and families—says boundaries need to be realistic, measurable and enforceable. In addition, the parent should be involved, available and approachable.
“If you do not have enforceable boundaries and limits, your child will find the crack,” she says. “When parents set boundaries, it allows children to tap into their critical thinking before they put themselves into any situation.”
This critical thinking will prepare children to analyze risks and consequences of their decisions and actions—a crucial life skill as they gain more independence.
Developing a healthy relationship between you and your child also acts as a model for them in their development of their own relationships. Bruen explains that just as parents’ enforcement of boundaries is critical, so is being a role model of appropriate behavior.
Children observe and often follow their parents’ example, so modeling limits and discipline will positively influence their understanding and obeying of boundaries.
Impact on relationships
Clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Strohman explains that without positive role models, kids and teens will likely develop interpersonal issues that can impact their future relationships.
“We see kids crossing the line more and more in relationships with peers and, as they get older, they will be more likely to disrespect their partner’s needs,” she says.
Once a child reaches early adulthood and gains more independence, the boundaries between the parent and child tend to blur. This line becomes even more clouded when a child graduates from high school and moves on to college or a career. There is only so long you can keep your child completely under your wing and when your children grow up and leaves the house, your modeling will be their example of boundaries.
“A parent’s job is to hold credibility and be a role model no matter the age of the child,” says Bruen.
Never too old
A recent poll of college students at Arizona State University show that even college-age children need and want some boundaries, structure and discipline—although they may not always voice this desire. Bruen says boundaries and limits should still be present, just more flexible as the child enters adulthood—adding that a lack of boundaries between parents and adult children is harmful to the relationship and personal growth.
“When boundaries are not established, parents of young adults often become intertwined in each other’s lives, and don’t have the tools to stop enabling this continued interdependence,” she says.
Strohman recommends parents encourage their children to find solutions to their problems and continue to clearly define their expectations. For example, if your child is home from college for a break, perhaps they no longer have a curfew, but they do have to call and let you know what time they will be home so that you are not worried.
Or if you financially support your college-age child, giving them a monthly budget may be a beneficial boundary. You won’t be able to control exactly how they spend the money, but they’ll learn the responsibility of spending wisely and appropriately. These boundaries allow your child to be independent, but also accountable for their actions and choices.
Lead by example
Whether you’re setting boundaries in behaviors, relationships or finances, they are an essential part of life. These rules and expectations allow children to develop self-control from a young age so they can become independent and self-confident adults. No matter the age your children, it’s important to lead by example in setting appropriate boundaries in all aspects of life.
By // Hayley Anderson and Lauren Griffin