Let’s Talk Family, Column Entry, “Out-of-Bounds: Setting Limits Essential for Family Flourishing”

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Column: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing

Column entry: “Out-of-Bounds: Setting Limits Essential for Family Flourishing”

By Jonathan Pettigrew, PhD, Arizona State University; Diane Badzinski, PhD, Colorado Christian University

Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.

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Out-of-Bounds: Setting Limits Essential for Family Flourishing

Your three year-old throws a tantrum every time you say “no” to a sweet treat. Your ten year-old is prone to slamming doors when asked to do something. Your teenager stays out past curfew.

These kinds of behaviors can frustrate parents. “Why do my kids always try to break the rules?” one might ask? Unfortunately, it’s part of human nature. Remember Adam and Eve? God said, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die” (Gen. 3:2b). But the history recorded in Genesis shows that our first parents also broke the rules and handed down that rebellious nature to all their offspring.

To begin, let’s think about two distinct aspects of parenting: control and influence. At birth, control is near 100 percent and influence is near 0 percent. Babies can’t be convinced that sleep is beneficial, nor can they be persuaded not to cry. Instead, parents control what babies get. When they give them attention, food, or a clean diaper, they are comforted. However, as a child grows and becomes more capable of self-care, control should decrease and influence increase. Many children and even adolescents look to their parents as a source of wisdom. Parents have the opportunity to influence decisions that range from the mundane to the monumental.

Decreasing control and increasing influence is a natural process, but it can be difficult for some parents to relinquish that control because it comes with the opportunity for kids to fail and experience pain. However, it is when children make their own decisions that they can fully experience the natural and logical consequences of those decisions.

During the transition from control to influence, family rules work like training wheels in the autonomy-granting process. Throughout Scripture, God establishes rules for His people for “their own good” (Deut. 10:13). As parents, we too must establish rules for our children for their (and our) own good. Boundaries keep children safe and feeling secure, loved, and cared for. Boundaries are also a part of helping children develop self-awareness and self-control.

Setting limits and establishing clear consequences for violating the rules can enhance parental influence. Parents help children learn from experience that our choices have consequences and they do it while the stakes are still relatively low. This is the essence of Parenting with Love and Logic, by Cline and Fay (for great resources, check out https://www.loveandlogic.com/). When children become adults and violate society’s laws, the consequences are steeper. Jail time is far more severe than being grounded.

So, how do we set boundaries? Here are steps we hope you find helpful in setting limits (see, Parenting Handbook, 2013).

Step 1: Decide on the area/s for limits. What are some areas in your household that you feel you need to set boundaries for your child? They may include chores, homework, screentime, respect, dating, curfew, alcohol use, or something else.

Step 2: Agree on guidelines for establishing expectations. It can be helpful to create a set of guidelines for developing expectations. The rule should be clear, simple, consistent, and enforceable. Depending on the age of the child and if possible, to have the child involved in setting expectations. There are likely areas (e.g., when to do homework) that are negotiable while some areas (e.g., alcohol use) are not. It may be necessary to write down the expectations.

Step 3: Focus on the link between virtues and behaviors. For example, you might say, “Being responsible is a virtue. We want you to grow in your responsibility, so for school it means you are taking responsibility to finish all your homework. We expect you to finish your homework before dinner.” It can be difficult to establish rules for all behaviors. You might say, “Showing respect to everyone is important and expected in our family. So, behaviors such as eye rolling, slamming the door, screaming, and cursing are not acceptable in this house.”

Step 4: Establish consequences for violating expectations. Keep in mind that discipline is supposed to train children and should be child specific, age appropriate, and should be part of your relationship with your child. Consequences for violating rules should be established within that framework. Some examples include extra chores, grounding, loss of privileges such as playing video games or using a cell phone.

Step 5: Share rewards for following expectations. In establishing consequences, don’t simply focus on the negative. For some, offer rewards for following the rules such as increasing privileges or earning tangible rewards.

Step 6: Stick to the rules. If you set rules and consequences, then stick to them. Set consequences when stakes and emotions are low, and then stick to them when the stakes and emotions are high. Consistency provides necessary stability and predictability, which demonstrates love.

In all steps of the process, being clear is crucial. Both the parent and child need clarity about what the rule is, why it’s in place, what consequences follow a violation, and what rewards come with compliance. Clarity is an ally in setting rules.

It is important to know that following this process will not eliminate conflict in your house. In fact, setting rules and sticking to the consequences can create more conflict. It’s normal to see an increase in the frequency of conflicts as children age into teenagers. And when controls loosen, it invites a bit of turbulence.

Despite knowing that the process nurtures responsibility and good decision making, the increase in household conflict can be stressful, especially for parents. Youth tend to be quick about everything—they get mad fast but get over it fast, too. They are quick to disagree and push away from their parents, but they usually are quick to reconcile after they cool off. Parents tend to hold onto the stress of a conflict, which is why it is often important to “erase and start again.”

Step 7: Erase and start again. As parents, we will make mistakes as we set limits and enforce rules. Sometimes this means we will need to revise the original rules after we’ve tried them out in our family. At other times, our mistakes will come when we respond poorly to rule-breaking. So, when mistakes happen, we need to forgive our children and ourselves. We sometimes may even have to ask our children to forgive us for not responding well. Forgiveness is not a one-time deal or just a tool for big issues. It is for everyday hiccups in relationships, too.

So, with grace for yourself and your children, develop a clear game plan. Figure out what areas need rules and then develop them.

Finally, remember that rules are just a tool for training. The goal is not to have perfect rules or even perfect rule followers. Instead, rules help children, and parents, mature into godly men and women who experience the blessings of living in peace, the humility of receiving and extending grace, and the joy of letting love overflow in your family.

Let us know how it goes.

–Diane M. Badzinski and Jonathan Pettigrew



Foster Cline and Jim Fay, Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility, 3rd ed. (NavPress, 2020).

Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski, Family Communication and the Christian Faith: An Introduction and Exploration (Pasco, WA: Integratio Press, 2023).

Parenting Workbook, Setting Boundaries and Applying Rewards and Consequences, Pennsylvania Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, 2013, https://www.jcjc.pa.gov/Publications/Documents/Family%20Guides/Parenting%20Workbook%20-%20Setting%20Boundaries.pdf

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