Short Phrases Parents Can Use
To Set a Boundary
We want to have a fun, loving relationship with our children, but as parents, we also need to discipline. How can we do both well? A helpful place to start is reframing our understanding of discipline. Discipline is not about punishment. Discipline is an act of love.
“The LORD corrects everyone he loves, just as parents correct a child they dearly love.”
Proverbs 3:12 (Contemporary English Version)
Good discipline is about teaching our children how to live well. It’s about setting healthy and clear boundaries; defining what is okay and not okay at home and out in the world. When we adopt a teaching mindset about discipline, it’s easier to see how the hard and often unpleasant work of discipline is an expression of our love.
“We love our kids through discipline, not to make them happy in the moment, but to ensure years of happiness later in life.” Meg Meeker, M.D.
When it comes to discipline, there are two tendencies parents gravitate toward:
Authoritarian parenting - My way or the highway
Permissive parenting- Anything goes
These tendencies are the parenting presets we inherit based on how our parents raised us. A wise parent acknowledges these “factory settings” and actively works to move toward the sweet spot between the extremes:
3. Authoritative parenting.
An authoritative parent is in charge, but not controlling; gentle, but firm; kind, but clear. Using short phrases to discipline helps a permissive-leaning parent practice firmness and a authoritarian-leaning parent practice gentleness. Here is one example:
“I won’t let you….”
It is normal for young children to hit, grab, bite, kick or shout to get something they want or avoid something they don’t want. It developmentally normal but it is not acceptable behavior. It’s an opportunity to discipline or teach your child the acceptable ways to express their wants and desires.
When preschoolers display aggressive behavior, it’s easy for a “my way or the highway” parents to power-up, react swiftly and sometimes harshly. Permissive parents may react with surprise and shock and then proceed to give their mini-lecture about acceptable and unacceptable behavior and how hitting hurts.
The sweet spot of authoritarian discipline begins with the adult staying calm in the face of chaotic behavior. When aggressive behavior like hitting happens in your home, do everything in your power to not react emotionally. This can be hard, but it is essential. Remind yourself that preschoolers have a developmental need to assert their individuality (which means testing and disagreeing with us often), while also feeling safely reined in by our clear boundaries.
Respond confidently and calmly say “I won’t let you hit.” Hold your child’s wrist or hand if you need to. You may also want to put away any toys and objects your child is using unsafely (i.e. throwing). You may add “It hurts me” or “It hurts your brother.” Then zip it! Those are all the words that need to be said.
When your child tests the boundary by attempting to hit again, you should block the hitting and say, “Whoa, I’m going to stop you. Yeah, I saw you wanted to hit.” Parenting coach Janet Lansbury called this an “on it” response. Find more helpful advice about this scenario here: My Child Won't Stop Hitting
Let’s say your child refuses to hold your hand in the parking lot or races down a sidewalk toward the road. Sweep up your child and say, “I won’t let you run into the road. Roads (parking lots) are dangerous. I’m here to keep you safe.” Then zip it. Resist the urge to use reasoning and logic to make your point. Preschoolers can’t yet access logic like adults can. It’s a brain development issue. Keep their age in mind and speak in a manner that helps them understand rules and they must be followed.
“I won’t let you throw rocks onto the slide. It’s not safe. There’s a boy on the slide. You can climb up the ladder and then slide down after him or play somewhere else.” Be prepared to physically remove your child from the slide area if needed.
When children are little, parents have a great deal of physical control. Calmly picking up a child, moving a child, putting a child where they need to be is teaching a child that the words you say mean something. And that your gentle leadership who will keep them safe no matter how out-of-control they may be feeling.
Final word, punishing may get a quick result, but it has a hidden danger. It can be very shaming and frightful for a child. Young children can’t compartmentalize bad behavior, so punishment tends to convince them that they are bad (rather than the behavior) and must therefore hide away parts of themselves, which will not foster open communication, now or in the future.