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Boundaries #2 – Clarity

Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (February 15, 2014)

In the first edition of this series, I had talked about the importance of boundaries with children and how boundaries help children, parents and their relationship. Boundaries help children feel safe and know what to do, boundaries help parents teach their children effectively and boundaries help their relationship stay healthy without the need for nagging and constant verbal instructions.

In having boundaries, I have introduced the 5Cs of effective boundaries:

  1. Clarity – boundaries have to be clear

  2. Consistency – boundaries have to be consistently implemented

  3. Consequences – consequences have to be given if boundaries are broken

  4. Cooperation – different parties within the household have to cooperate to implement boundaries

  5. Change – there is a need to change boundaries with time according to what is developmentally appropriate

In this edition, I’d like to focus on CLARITY and its importance in boundaries with children. Imagine playing a tennis game and the lines of the court are no longer clear and white but blurred. It would be difficult to determine whether the ball would be within the bounds of the court and it could cause a lot of arguments between players regarding the score. To play any game of tennis effectively, one would need to clearly know the boundaries of the court. In the same way, to have effective boundaries with children, there has to be clarity in the boundaries given.

Imagine if 3-year-old Max is saying hello to someone and his parents’ aren’t pleased with the way he said it. If his parents say to him “No, that’s not right. Say hello again”, Max doesn’t know whether it was that his volume was too low, his posture wasn’t correct, his handshake was with the wrong hand or that he didn’t give eye contact. If Max doesn’t know that those things were required of him, it’s very difficult to meet the demands of what was asked of him.

Or imagine Sarah the 8-year-old girl. If she wants to play computer games after doing homework and is told she can play “for a little while”, it wouldn’t be fair to tell her off for playing too long if she plays for 30 minutes. To Sarah, 30 minutes may be ‘a little while’ but to her parents, 5 minutes is considered ‘a little while’. If the boundary had been to ‘play computer games for 10 minutes’ and it was agreed upon, then it’s very clear as to when Sarah needed to stop.

I once had a parent share with me how her daughter took an hour to eat dinner, would never want to take a shower, couldn’t make up her mind when choosing clothes and kicked up a fuss about going to bed. Every day was a battle at home getting her to do those things. I advised this parent to think about what she ideally wanted her daughter to do and how she would do it. Eventually, they worked together on coming up with a list of boundaries which included ‘eat dinner in 30 minutes’, ‘take a shower in 10 minutes before bed time by myself’, ‘be in bed by 9pm for 9:30pm lights out’. It helped the daughter know what she had to do and spared the parent from nagging her child. If boundaries are clearly drawn out and explained to the child, there is less to debate about, thus causing less tension between children and parents.

It may sound very redundant to be so detailed but the communication and dialogue about the boundary helps both parties understand each other’s expectation. And with different families holding different views of important boundaries, it’s important to lay out the boundaries for your own family.

For example, some families allow children to play iPads and iPhones at the dinner table; some allow reading books and some don’t allow anything so as to encourage conversation. Some families expect children to stay quiet at the dinner table with elders unless spoken to and others prefer their children to speak up and engage in conversation. Some families allow their daughters to put on nail polish when in kindergarten and others won’t let them do so until high school. Some families give allowances to their children and others have their children use lai see money they have saved. Of course, these are huge generalizations of boundaries but it’s important to recognize that every family chooses their own boundaries for their family according to their values and priorities.

So if you’re a parent, I encourage you to evaluate your values and priorities and create a list of boundaries for your child. Then, clearly explain these boundaries to your child and make sure they acknowledge their understanding of these boundaries. If necessary, write it out and put it in a place where everyone in the house can see. With clear boundaries, children can know what’s expected of them and thrive.


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