Why giving children rules and boundaries is a mistake

From the archives: The original post was posted on 25th March, 1996

Someone had written:

“Here is where I see a difference. There is a difference between giving suggestions, giving information, having intelligent conversations with children…. and … ‘boundaries and rules’. When something is made a ‘rule’, then it becomes something that generally is no longer questioned, is often treated in an inflexible way. And a ‘boundary’ can only be a boundary if a person is going to somehow enforce the boundary.”

Quite. When you have boundaries and rules, you are saying (whether implicitly or explicitly) to your child: “If there is any dispute or problem in this area, there will be no new knowledge created, no real solution found; the rule holds – so if you were thinking of engaging your creativity to find a real solution, forget it.”

Poster 2 asked:

“So, is the goal of non-coercive parenting then to have no boundaries, what-so-ever?”

Yes it is. The whole idea of boundaries and rules is to provide a mechanical criterion for decision-making and action, and that is inimical to the growth of knowledge, because coercion is inevitable.

“Even for very small children?”


“Maybe it’s my use of the word ‘boundaries’.”

No. I mean exactly what you mean.

“It is my understanding that children need boundaries.”

That is the theory I am criticising. It is false. 

“Some children need clear definitions or guidelines of acceptable behavior.”

I am not saying that children are born with true theories – not true theories about much anyway. So yes, I think we should tell children our best theories, talk to them, explain why we advocate certain forms of behaviour and not others, and try to persuade them through reason of the truth of our own ideas, but not coerce, manipulate or in any way pressurise them into enacting our theories. For our theories may be false: even becoming a parent does not confer infallibility upon us!

“It’s not O.K. to hit,”

What about if the child is being attacked by a strange man?

“it’s not O.K. to throw toys at other children,”

What if they are playing a game involving that? What if this is consensual?

“it’s not O.K. to put down other children,”

What if those words are part of a role-playing game?

The reason I am questioning these rules is not just to be difficult; I am trying to show that the actual theories we want children to adopt are not entirely consistent with these unqualified blacket rules you consider self-evident.

“These, to me, are boundaries.”

I agree. They are boundaries. I think boundaries are a mistake for the reasons I have given before.

“We have talked about this with our children, they understand the reason we feel this way, and they can relate – in other words, they would not want these things done to them.”

Right. So given that they hold these theories, there is no need for rules to enforce them is there?

“But, one conversation with a child does not always carry very far into the future with them. Therefore, we have boundaries, or rules, or what ever.”

OK, they hold some theories which conflict with these theories. The question is – will having these rules help? Or will it actually have a bad effect instead? I suggest the latter. Coercion almost invariably introduces further irrationality and disables thinking. I suggest that rules are not the way to go. Reason is the way to go.

“It is not O.K. for you to do that, you know that, you have crossed the boundary. Yes, these boundaries are fixed, there is no flexibility and no, we don’t question that […]”

Well I think there is good reason to worry about this. The rule not to hit conflicts with the advice to children to kick and scream and hit and so on when any stranger tries to drag them into his car or something.

“- it’s widely understood. Yes, the boundary is enforced. Not through punishment, but through conversations.”

This statement contradicts itself. Either the rules are enforced (which means punishment) or they are not. If it is genuinely only through conversation – i.e., reason – then “enforce” is an inappropriate word to use. But given that the rules are in fact not flexible, according to you, there is in fact coercion going on, whether you wish to admit it or not. Coercion is punishment.

“Sometimes a quiet time is needed, depending on how angry and threatening the child is.”

This is rather sinister… I take it that you don’t mean that the child fancies a little time alone. It sounds as though by “quiet time” you mean “enforced (quietness? and) solitary confinement”. Sounds like very severe punishment to me.

“By non-coercive parenting definitions, are these boundaries wrong?”

Yes they are coercive.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1996, ‘Why giving children rules and boundaries is a mistake’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/why-giving-children-rules-and-boundaries-is-a-mistake/

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