One of the most important things parents give children is a sense of responsibility; knowing what they are and what they aren’t responsible for; knowing how to say "no" and how to accept "no."   If parents teach responsibility, limit setting, and delayed gratification early in a child’s life, the later years will go much smoother.  

Boundary development 

Learning boundaries is learning responsibility. When parents teach boundaries they are implementing discipline. Discipline lets children suffer the consequences of their actions and decisions. Kids will test limits and it is important to be consistent as they practice to learn responsibility. “Discipline is an external boundary, designed to develop internal boundaries in children.” [1]  It provides safety for the kids until they no longer need it.  

Discipline is not punishment. Punishment doesn’t really teach children; does not allow for kids to practice and does not leave room for mistakes. Punishment looks back, discipline looks forward.[1] Discipline allows children to make mistakes without fear of judgment and without fear of the loss of a relationship.

Age Appropriate Boundaries: photo courtesy of the United States Army,  photographer: Andrea Sutherland (Fort Carson), Source: army.milCredit: photo courtesy of the United States Army, photographer: Andrea Sutherland (Fort Carson), Source:

Boundary Needs of Children 

Boundaries are a way of self-protection; to keep the good in and the bad out.[1] Saying "no," telling the truth and maintaining physical distance are skills that children need to develop to take on the responsibility of self-protection. Kids need to learn to take ownership of their own needs. To help kids develop this, allow them to express their feelings without judgment; encourage them to ask questions; help them put words to their feelings. kids need to learn to identify their needs so they can take ownership of them.  

Learning how to delay gratification helps children have a goal orientation.[1] They learn to save time and money for things that are important to them.    They learn self-control versus impulse. It teaches planning and preparing. 

Learning to accept limits teaches children to take responsibility for themselves. It helps them become inwardly directed instead of externally driven.[1] It helps kids to love. Respecting others’ boundaries is the basis for empathy.Kids need to have their own boundaries respected and learn to give others the same respect. 

Development of Age-Appropriate Responsibility 

Each phase in a child’s life has to be considered in teaching responsibility. When infants begin life until they are five months old setting limits is not as important as providing security for them.   Teaching delayed gratification should not happen until after the first year. 

When infants begin crawling they need to be encouraged to practice separateness while still being anchored by the caregiver. They don’t understand the word "no" at this age. When they reach ten to eighteen months old, they are in the exploring stage and boundaries become increasingly important. “No” is children’s way of finding out whether taking responsibility has good results or causes negative consequences.  


How to Teach Children Boundaries & Responsibility

Parenting help

From eighteen to thirty-six months old the following abilities are goals:[1]

  • the ability to be emotionally attached to others without giving up a sense of self and freedom to be apart
  • the ability to say appropriate no’s to others without the fear of loss of love
  • the ability to take appropriate no’s from others without withdrawing emotionally.

 During this period one process of discipline is:

  • first infraction—try to help the child meet her needs in another way
  • second infraction—tell the child "no" and state the consequence
  • third infraction—administer the consequence
  • comfort and reconnection—hold and comfort the child, helping her reattach with you.

This helps kids differentiate between consequences and a loss of love. Painful consequences should never include a loss of connection.

Once kids reach the age of three and until they are five years old boundary work is very important.[1] Kids are learning to identify gender roles. It is important to allow them to identify with same gender caretaker; and to keep the lines between parent and child clear.

When children reach six years until they are eleven; they are learning task orientation through school work and play and learning to connect with same gender peers. They need to establish the fundamentals of tasks; doing homework, chores and projects. They need to learn planning and staying at a job until it is completed. They need to learn delayed gratification, goal orientation and budgeting time. As they head toward adolescence, children will need preparation for the ability to handle more freedom and responsibility.

The goal of boundaries is an internal sense of motivation with self-induced consequences.[1] Parents want their children to go to bed and to school, be responsible, be empathic, and be caring because those things are important to them, not the parents. It’s only when love and limits are a genuine part of the child’s character true maturity can occur.


The copyright of the article Teaching Children to Develop Age-Appropriate Boundaries is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.