Ask Sarah: Setting Boundaries and Treating Kids as Equals

Struggling with tantrums, bedtime boundaries, or simply wondering how to raise happy, confident kids? Sarah Rosensweet offers peaceful parenting advice to help families find balance.

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Q: I’m having a hard time drawing the line between when I treat the kids as ‘equals’ in a problem-solving issue and when I have to take control and tell them what to do as the parent, regardless of their input (usually because it’s so much more advanced than where they are at developmentally). I want to give them a sense of independence, but I’ve also heard everywhere that kids need parents to put boundaries in place

– Mom of 2, ages 4 and 2.5

I love this question because I have been thinking about limits a lot lately. One of our three pillars of peaceful parenting is “kind, firm limits with lots of empathy.” Recently, however, I have been worried that parents are using this tenet as an excuse to get their way.

Sometimes, we set limits because it’s easier, faster, more convenient, neater or maybe we like our ideas better. Adults can get away with this because we have more power than our children.

When parents ask me, “How do I get them to do XYZ or stop doing ABC?” I always encourage parents to back up and ask themselves, “Is this really a limit I need to set?” So much of the time, the answer is “Probably not.” This can be a new way of thinking about things because we live in a culture that is arranged around adults’ needs and preferences.

I’m not suggesting that we flip the paradigm and put the needs and preferences of children above our needs. Of course, sometimes it’s necessary. Babies need to be fed in the middle of the night when we’d rather be sleeping.

Teamwork is the key. You ask about when to take control and when to treat kids as equals. Kids are never our equals in the sense that they get equal say. They do need loving guidance. They are our equals in that they are people who matter. But as you have noted, their brains are not yet fully developed and they have limited life experience. As they grow, we are guiding them. They are learning the right things to do and say and how to live with others in the community.

My guiding principle with limits is health and safety. Does it hurt our child, people or property? If no, we try to say yes and find a way for our child to do what they are asking. Of course, there are days we need to get out the door and their preferences can’t be accommodated. But whenever possible- how can we work together to meet everyone’s needs?

There are non-negotiables. Seatbelts and bike helmets need to be worn. Even here though, there may be ways to work as a team. What about the seatbelt or bike helmet feels bad? Is there anything we can do to make it more tolerable? Teamwork, talking and getting creative are ways we guide our children.

Try this: Ask yourself how you would deal with another adult. Can you give your child’s request the same respect and consideration? If you have reservations, how would you communicate them? What would you do to see if you could meet both of your needs?

We are probably not going to “wreck” our kids by setting unnecessary limits. But we really need to be aware that when we are not thoughtful and intentional about limits, we might just be doing “power over” kids (authoritarian parenting) and dressing it up as peaceful parenting because we are being kind and empathetic. Using “power over” kids hurts our relationship with them and robs them of learning and experience.

Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and her 15 and 18-year-old kids. Her 22-year-old son has launched.

Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to “we’ve got this!”

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