Where to Draw the Line? Exploring Boundaries, Limits, and Consequences

By Tamara Parnay

where do you draw the line?“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

~ Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr theologian

A mother was in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Her child came up from behind her and hit her. “Ow!” she called out angrily. “That hurt! I’ll teach you!” She immediately turned and hit her child back. The child cried out in pain and shock. “I’m not going to raise a wild, disrespectful child!”

That child grew up and became a mother. She is now in the kitchen, preparing dinner. Her child comes up from behind her and hits her. “Ow!” she calls out angrily. “That hurt! I’ll teach you!” She immediately turns to hit her child back — but somehow stops herself…

She remembers her pain and shock.

Trembling, she reaches out and takes her child in her arms, holds him, and feels her love for him — really feels it. She realizes at that very moment that she is also holding the child she once was, feeling love for her, too. She is healing. The pattern, passed down through generations, is broken.

Suddenly, something in the cosmos shifts. The Earth sighs, releasing an imperceptible ripple of loving goodwill through that little corner of the world.

“We are always amazed and awed whenever we see parents who have been able to transcend the limits of their own childhood and the era and mores of the time in which they were raised, and create — sometimes out of nothing — a different model of parenting. Somehow they have managed to create more balance in their own parenting, to provide softness where there was only hardness, or to provide healthy boundaries where there were none, or are able to give support and encouragement when they themselves were neglected and ignored.”

~ Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting


In the parenting world, “boundaries,” “limits,” and “consequences” are three words that elicit some debate in the parenting world. Parents tend to embrace these words, or shun them. The words are often used in relation with rules and punishments, but I don’t think they need to be. While I don’t believe in setting rules and using punishments in my parenting, and nor do I use these three words with my children, I do find that that certain ideas surrounding boundaries, limits, and consequences are of value in expressing what loving parenting means to me.

In the little story above, both mothers were unconsciously replaying old, automatic patterns passed down to them from their parents. Both reacted by becoming angry. Their anger was a useful sign pointing to something they needed to work through. Perhaps each of the mothers was confused about where her identity ended and where her child’s identity began. It was possible that neither knew how to lovingly look after both her own needs and her child’s needs at the same time. In stopping herself short of hitting her child, the second mother took a huge step towards greater love for herself. She “woke up” and became mindful of what she was doing at that moment, and was able to detach herself emotionally from her child’s behavior. She is now in a place to set aside any blame and guilt, become curious, and ask herself some questions:

  • Why did my child do what he did?
  • Why did I react the way I did?
  • How do I respond respectfully, in a way that both meets his needs and honors my own?
  • Are there appropriate boundaries or limits?
  • And what about consequences?

Understanding My Child’s Behaviors

It’s important to note some general reasons for challenging behaviors, and to think about my own and society’s attitudes towards those behaviors.

Why might my child behave in ways that I or others find challenging?

  1. He is completely engrossed in his learning, discovery, and experimentation.
  2. He is not feeling well.
  3. He is having difficulty dealing with strong emotions, such as frustration or anger.
  4. My expectations of him don’t match his current abilities.
  5. He wants reassurance of my love and support.
  6. He wants more autonomy.
  7. He is uncomfortable in a new and unfamiliar situation or environment.
  8. He has forgotten and needs a gentle reminder.
  9. He simply doesn’t yet know how else to act; he doesn’t have knowledge of other options.
  10. He isn’t yet able to clearly verbalize his feelings and needs.
  11. Since he lives very much in the present moment, he experiences a sense of urgency about his needs.
  12. He is imitating behaviors he has learned from people around him.
  13. Etc.

The connection between behaviors and needs

We all have needs. Our needs are universal, meaning all humans share them. Here are a few: connection, autonomy, physical well-being, authenticity, play, peace, meaning, etc. For a more developed list, go to the Center for Nonviolent Communication at www.cnvc.org/en/learn-online/needs-list/needs-inventory.

In Nonviolent Communication (NVC) circles, people talk about the importance of “hearing the needs behind all behavior.”

“…[A]ll behavior — even behavior we dislike — is a strategy to meet one of the many needs we all have in common… [We can] diminish anger, violence and conflict by connecting to the needs behind whatever anyone does or says.”

~ www.nonviolentcommunication.com/aboutnvc/keyfacts.htm

When I am able to see the needs behind my child’s behaviors, I am better able to understand what my child is communicating to me; in addition, I can see reasonability of his behaviors.

How do I translate behaviors into needs?

Behaviors are expressions, or a form of communication, of met or unmet needs. In order to illustrate, I will turn the above list of reasons for challenging behaviors into a list of possible unmet needs by referring to the NVC list of universal needs:

REASON FOR BEHAVIOR: He is completely engrossed in his learning, discovery, and experimentation. THE NEED: Further learning, discovery, stimulation, challenge.

REASON FOR BEHAVIOR: He is not feeling well. THE NEED: Food, sleep, rest, touch, nurturing.

REASON FOR BEHAVIOR: He is having difficulty dealing with strong emotions, such as frustration or anger. THE NEED: Empathy, connection, affection, love, understanding.

REASON FOR BEHAVIOR: My expectations of him don’t match his current abilities. THE NEED: Understanding, empathy, support.

REASON FOR BEHAVIOR: He wants reassurance of my love and support. THE NEED: Security, support, companionship, dependency.

REASON FOR BEHAVIOR: He wants more autonomy. THE NEED: Autonomy, competence, self-expression, freedom, independence.

REASON FOR BEHAVIOR: He is uncomfortable in a new and unfamiliar situation or environment. THE NEED: Safety, support, ease.

REASON FOR BEHAVIOR: He has forgotten and needs a gentle reminder. THE NEED: Respect, support, trust, learning.

REASON FOR BEHAVIOR: He simply doesn’t yet know how else to act; he doesn’t have knowledge of other options. THE NEED: Support, understanding, safety, nurturing.

REASON FOR BEHAVIOR: He isn’t yet able to clearly verbalize his feelings and needs. THE NEED: Empathy, support, nurturing, communication.

REASON FOR BEHAVIOR: Since he lives very much in the present moment, he experiences a sense of urgency about his needs. THE NEED: Spontaneity, peace, presence, space.

The above are just a few of the universal needs that you and I share with our children, and all humans. These needs are all quite reasonable (read: understandable), as any human needs are.

Understanding My Reactions to My Child’s Behaviors

Society tends to view children’s behaviors as either “good” or “bad.” In learning immediately to translate my children’s behaviors into needs, I no longer find myself thinking in terms of “good behaviors” or “bad behaviors.” In releasing thoughts of “bad” or “wrong,” and “good” or “right,” I am able to respond more and more with patience and understanding rather than taking behaviors personally and reacting strongly with anger and blame.

With his challenging behaviors, isn’t my child sometimes just being unreasonable?

Children are dependent on adults to survive and thrive. Therefore, they behave in ways that encourage others to support them in getting their needs met. Since their needs are reasonable, it’s logical to me to conclude that their behaviors are reasonable, too. Of course, any of my child’s feelings are just as reasonable, and his feelings play a vital role in influencing his behaviors. Family, friends, and strangers may not always agree with me on this, but I can say with all confidence that my child’s behaviors, whatever they are, are reasonable.

So, if my child’s behaviors are always reasonable, and neither good nor bad, then are they also always acceptable? Do I just let my child do anything at all? What about boundaries and limits?

I know in my heart that my child is doing his very best at all times, whatever his behavior. However, while always reasonable and understandable, his behaviors — in other words, his strategies for meeting his needs — are not always acceptable to me or to others. Put another way, I have unconditional acceptance for my child, though not for all of his behaviors. Some of my child’s behaviors cross my or others’ boundaries. I am human, and, admittedly, I do sometimes get annoyed because certain behaviors “push my buttons,” especially when I’m tired or stressed. My annoyance is not the fault of my child; it is my issue and something I need to work through. What is of immediate importance is how I respond to my child.

Responding Respectfully and Lovingly to My Child, Irrespective of His Behaviors

We all have boundaries.

“[Boundaries are] that intangible distinction between our inner and outer worlds, between ourselves and others. … The purpose of boundaries is to enable you to know and understand yourself…as separate and unique from others, while connecting with them; you can be a part of the world, allowing the world to touch you as you remain distinct from the world. The purpose of walls it to protect you from the world, from being overwhelmed by the emotions of others, by situations that are dangerous…”

~ Anne Linden, author of Boundaries in Human Relationships: How to be Separate and Connected

Simply put, our boundaries help us take care of and protect ourselves emotionally and physically. Said differently, they guide us in meeting our needs, both physical and emotional. Our physical boundaries are clearly marked by our skin. I believe our emotional boundaries are marked, at least in part, by the extent to which we respect and take care of our own needs. (That may sound selfish on the surface, but I have a very strong need for a loving connection with others, so it is in my interest to consider others’ needs. I am content knowing my loved ones are content.)

As parents, we are responsible for the care, upbringing, and protection of our young children.

“Making clear what we feel is unacceptable behavior and what our expectations are is another way of nurturing our children. Small children, particularly, feel safe and secure, and experience a sense of relief when a parent steps in and sets a clear boundary. As children get older, they start to assume more responsibility — both for the things they need to do, and for the ways in which they behave.”

~ Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Everyday Blessings

Boundary awareness and boundary setting

In their article, “‘Good’ Children – at What Price? The Secret Cost of Shame,” authors Grille and Macgregor state, “…to be healthy, we must have clear physical and emotional boundaries. We must be able to defend ourselves physically by setting limits on how close we let people get, on who touches us, and on how we are touched. To do this, we need a definite sense of our emotional boundaries. When we enhance our sense of who we are and what we need, like, want, and feel, we strengthen our emotional boundaries.”

What Grille and Macgregor describe above is mainly for me an internal process, rather than an external one, and thus I prefer to emphasize “boundary awareness” rather than “boundary setting.” Yes, I do need a “definite sense of [my] emotional boundaries.”

My boundaries are my responsibility and mine alone. I don’t want to set boundaries and then expect my child and other people to agree to and respect them. Instead, when I’m mindful and aware, I will check in often with myself, listen to my inner guidance, and remember that I and I alone am responsible for respecting and honoring my own needs. If necessary, I can make requests to my child and others, but I must remember:

“The difference between setting a boundary in a healthy way and manipulating is: when we set a boundary, we let go of the outcome.”

~ Robert Burney, author of Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls

If, for example, we are at home where I request that my child plays more quietly and he doesn’t, then I might offer another patient request, or accept the noise, or move to another room, or suggest that my child plays outside, etc. If we are out in public, say, at a restaurant, then I can take my child outside for a bit, we can leave. If I get mad at my child, it’s because I held an expectation that he would be quiet. My request was, in fact, a demand, and demands inevitably involve manipulation or coercion.

Quoting Grille and Macgregor again, (with my emphasis on the word “respectful”): “Respectful boundary-setting implies a strong statement about you, as opposed to a negative statement about the child. In this way, children gradually develop a good capacity to hear and comprehend the feelings of others.” The word “respectful” is so very important. I can get mad at my child for hitting me, and in a way, I would be protecting my own boundaries. However, in becoming angry at my child, I’m not respecting my child’s boundaries; I’m bombarding and crossing them with my strong emotions. Respectful boundary setting at the same time protects my boundaries and the other person’s. Ultimately, if I’m not being respectful of others’ boundaries, then I’m not being respectful of my own, either.

It seems to me that we gain a better sense of not only ourselves, but also our relationships — that relational “space” between us that we share with others — through greater understanding of our own boundaries. The clearer I am about what my boundaries are, not only will I be able to more clearly recognize and honor my own needs; I will also be in a better “place” to support my child and others in meeting their needs, and to focus on the relationship “space” we share where our needs overlap.

Some ideas and suggestions for greater boundary awareness and responsibility:

1) Understand the purposes of my own physical and emotional boundaries.

2) Define, redefine, and clarify my own boundaries. To respect my child’s boundaries, I must be able to understand, respect, and protect my own. I’ve found it helpful to:

  • Be very clear about what my boundaries are. Really, having clarity about my boundaries seems no different from respecting and caring for my own feelings and needs. As I become better able to distinguish and name the different feelings the various needs I experience, it is easier for me to find and define, or redefine, my boundaries.
  • List or think of any behaviors that bother me. (For me, there have been lots!)
  • Decide which ones really matter. (For me, there are few!) It might be helpful to complete these unfinished sentences: I know behaviors don’t matter when they… I know behaviors matter when they…
  • Think about when certain behaviors bother me and when they don’t. It has been enlightening for me to notice times when the same behavior bothers me, and times when it doesn’t.

This defining, redefining and clarification of my boundaries is an ongoing process since my child is growing and changing, I too am growing and changing, and our circumstances change, day by day, moment by moment.

3) Create a visual and/or textural image of my boundaries. I visualize my own boundaries not as rigid and unforgiving like a brick wall but, rather, as springy and spongy like rubber: strong and resilient, yet flexible and tolerant.

4) Feel confident — not adamant, nor sheepish — about my right to honor my own boundaries. There is a balance to be found in honoring and protecting my own boundaries.

My child is learning all the time through interactions with me and others about where and how our needs overlap, and how the boundaries between us function. It is crucial for him to have his boundaries respected and honored, and to have others clearly and sensitively communicate their own boundaries to him. In this context of two-way respect, his awareness of others’ needs and boundaries will blossom over time.

If I am not clear about and don’t feel confident about honoring and respecting my own boundaries, then I will do both myself and my child a great service to get professional help.

5) Stay in touch with my love for my child through difficult moments.

“To effectively discipline rather than punish a child, a parent needs to feel love for her even when emphasizing that her behavior needs to change. (It is important that in this principle we strive for progress, not perfection.) One way to do this is by cultivating a felt sense of ‘she’s a great kid’ in one bodymind center (e.g., the heart) while holding another felt sense of ‘she needs to change her behavior’ in another bodymind center (e.g., the gut).”

~ Stephen Gilligan, author of The Courage to Love

6) Know that I can choose how I respond. I want to take a closer look at those behaviors that bother me and what buttons of mine get pushed. At the same time, I can also take a closer look at my boundaries. I ask myself, “What really matters?” Does it really matter if my child ignores me when I ask him a question? Or if he doesn’t want to say, “Thank you?” Or if he plays his music loudly? Or when he yanks on my clothes? Most of the time, my answer has been “No,” and sometimes it is “It depends.”

“Suppose we are out on a lake and it’s a bit foggy — not too foggy, but a bit foggy — and we’re rowing along in our little boat having a good time. And then, all of a sudden, coming out of the fog, there’s this other rowboat and it’s heading right at us. And…crash! Well, for a second we’re really angry — what is that fool doing? I just painted my boat! And here he comes — crash! — right into it. And then suddenly we notice that the rowboat is empty. What happens to our anger? Well, the anger collapses…I’ll just have to paint my boat again, that’s all. But if that rowboat that hit ours had another person in it, how would we react? You know what would happen! Now our encounters with life, with other people, with events, are like being bumped by an empty rowboat. But we don’t experience it that way. We experience it as though there are people in that other rowboat and we’re really getting clobbered by them. …”

~ Charlotte Joko, author of Everyday Zen

Aha! I have a choice: I can choose how I respond to the bumps, dents, and scratches that occur to my boundaries, whether or not someone else is involved; I can choose to forego blame, guilt, anger, resentment, self-righteousness, etc. So, as it may well be wise to put a rubber strip around my rowboat so that there is some spring and “give” for those inevitable bumps, so might it also be wise to construct my own boundaries of tolerant, yet resilient, rubber, rather than rigid, unforgiving brick.

Don’t children need compulsory limits (rules) to stop them from crossing boundaries?

I prefer generally not to set limits or rules in stone for my child because each situation presents a unique set of factors, while set limits are inflexible. Like rules, they aren’t supposed to be broken. They aren’t designed for each unique situation. Furthermore, they are external motivators.

I prefer to have general limits for myself, based on my own boundaries: I don’t want to react strongly to behaviors that annoy me. I want to respond in the moment. By responding, I’m able to be more patient and gentle, and more flexible and creative in my thinking. If I do become angry, I can express my feelings in a way that does not traumatize my child. I find it helps immediately to:

  1. Lovingly re-connect with my child
  2. Remind myself that he is trying to communicate unmet needs via his behavior
  3. Help him meet his needs
  4. Make it clear to both of us what my needs are
  5. Patiently offer him reminders
  6. Think creatively together about other options available to us.

Don’t children need consequences for the times they do cross boundaries?

Yes! However, I need to make a distinction: Punitive consequences? No. Supportive consequences? Yes. I define “consequences” as: The ways in which I respond to behaviors that cross boundaries. Supportive consequences do not involve punishments; no rewards; no threats; no shaming; no love withdrawal. Generally, positive consequences in my home include:

  • Redirection or intervention (neither is used often; intervention is rarely necessary)
  • Reminder
  • Reconnection.

Natural or logical consequences? I prefer to respond creatively to each moment without wondering what type of consequence to use, and without having a particular consequence designed for a particular behavior. I find it useful to ask myself, “How would I respond if the situation involved my best friend instead of my child?”

Supportive consequences are, for example:

–I gently hold the arm of my hitting child (intervention), while explaining that it hurts me when he hits (reminder), and offering him empathy, “Are you frustrated? Would you like me to help you do X?” (reconnection) I mentally check in with myself: “Ow! That really hurt! Man, it’s hard to be a parent sometimes!” (reconnection with myself) Oh, but I love my child soooo much!” (reconnection with my love for my child). “I love you,” I say to my child (reconnection).

–I squat down to make eye contact with my child (reconnection) when she is running around in a public place gleefully screaming, and I say, “It’s time either to slow down and quiet down because other people are bothered by the noise (reminder), or we can go somewhere else where you can continue to run and shout (redirection).”

–When my child leaves the living area covered with his belongings, and I say, “We all share this space (reminder). We need to clean up your things (redirection). Would you like some help cleaning up (reconnection)?” Note: I try to hold no expectation that he will help, and no resentment if he doesn’t; on my good days, I simply go cheerfully about cleaning up.

Boundaries in Balance

When we were children, if some of our behaviors were considered unreasonable, then likely the validity of our feelings, needs, and perhaps even our identity, were put into question. Consequently, we probably learned not to trust ourselves, and we may have been unable to explore and develop a clear set of our own boundaries through our interactions with others. Unclear of own boundaries, how could we possibly be clear about those of others? Then, as parents, we probably find some of our children’s behaviors quite difficult to negotiate. We might parent:

  • in one extreme by “laying down the law” because our boundaries are so rigid and inflexible and we don’t see that our needs overlap with others’ needs; or
  • in the opposite extreme, by becoming a “doormat” because we aren’t sure where our boundaries or needs end and our children’s begin; or
  • vacillate between the two.

But, then, in any of these situations do our children feel loved? And are we feeling our love for our children? And ourselves?

Where is the balance between offering protection and respecting autonomy? It’s essential for me to follow my child’s lead and to know when to step in, and when to let go. Children learn from us how to protect and respect their own physical and emotional “space,” and, eventually, that of others. From the time he was born, I observed that my child was clear about his own boundaries. He continues to be clear about them as long as I and others continue to respect them and support him in valuing his feelings and meeting his needs. So it is vital that, as his protector and facilitator, I listen well to him in order to learn from him about his unique likes and dislikes, and how he wishes his personal “space” to be honored.

I don’t want to over-protect my child, nor under-protect him.

“The questions of how much freedom, and what is harmful and what is harmless, are ones we continually find ourselves asking as we try to strike the right balance between freedom and limits.”

~ Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, authors of Everyday Blessings

Knowing that I myself tend to err on the side of over-protection, I have made a conscious effort to be aware of and reflect on how I am parenting in order to find a healthier balance. Sure, it is normal for my child not to fully understand the consequences of certain actions, such as running into a busy street, so I am there to keep him physically safe, but I want to keep interventions to a minimum.

Putting It All Together

“…[O]ne is faced with ‘the dual challenges to (1) love your child unconditionally and (2) help her become a social citizen. (The God that created these contradictory demands surely has a perverse sense of humor.)”

~ Stephen Gilligan, author of The Courage to Love

In my view, boundaries play an important role in successfully addressing these dual challenges.

Loving parenting asks that we respond mindfully at every moment. It asks that we continually find, shift, and readjust our emotional balance, in order to center ourselves emotionally, so that we are open to and ready for each unique moment as it arrives.

“The quality and warmth of our connections with our children will be proportional to how much we continue to do our own inner work and keep a sense of appropriate boundaries, our willingness to have our older children find their own ways, and keep their own council…. Presence and openness, love and interest, and a willingness to respond are all that is necessary. This kind of spaciousness is the basis for respect and trust between parent and child.”

~ Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, authors of Everyday Blessings

No parents are perfect. It is not possible to be perfect. However, it is possible to heal, and to do it in time to make a difference to one’s children. They say that “what is done is done,” but physicists have been discovering that what we do now can influence the past, as well as the future. Every moment counts.

For More Information



  • Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg
  • Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) by Thomas Gordon
  • How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Elaine Mazlich and Adele Faber
  • Everyday Blessings by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • The Courage to Love by Stephen Gilligan

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