Toronto Zoo

The Principles of the Thing

Setting clear but reasonable boundaries for children is an essential part of parenting. We’ve all seen situations where kids have been given either too little or too much structure and end up unable to regulate themselves. Kids need boundaries.

It’s easy for parents to get stuck on these boundaries, however, and end up enforcing them too rigidly, forgetting that the point isn’t the rules themselves but the principles that the rules are trying to encourage.

For example, the point of having my kids be responsible for bringing their lunchboxes to the counter after school, to do their own laundry, or to take care of a chore around the house doesn’t have much to do with those tasks themselves. The world wouldn’t come to end if they forgot to do them, and I’d probably get them done more efficiently myself anyway. The point of these rules is that kids need to learn the importance of contributing to a family and a home. If I didn’t give them these kinds of tasks, they’d grow up thinking that they’re role in the family was just to be taken care of rather than to be a part of a team.

On the other hand, if I become too rigid about their chores, I’m still teaching them the wrong message about participation in a family. For example, if my one son comes and asks me to take the garbage out for him this week because he’s at a basketball game that night, it would work against the principles I’m trying to teach if I were to refuse and get all legalistic about him doing that particular chore. I’d be modelling that the chore is more important than helping each other out as a family.

And honestly, I’d be setting him up for failure in every other part of life, where that kind of flexibility is necessary. I usually cook dinner for the family, but if I have a conflicting commitment, I ask my wife or mother-in-law to take care of it that day. And they know that the same will be true in exchange if they can’t get to their own regular tasks. That’s how families work, not be rigidly insisting on our roles, but by giving and taking as the situation requires.

So, rather than telling my son, no, and insisting that he take the garbage out that night, it reinforces the principle of contributing to the family far better if I agree to take on his chore and ask what he’d like to do instead to help this week. This way I model how we can both participate in the family and help each other in ways that make room for everyone’s needs.

The same kind of approach should apply to all the boundaries that we set for our children. The rule might be that we have no screen time on weekdays, but the principle is that we need a healthy balance of activities in our lives. So a family movie after shovelling the driveway and playing some board games on a snow day actually emphasizes that principle even as we’re breaking the rule.

The rule might be no movies or television shows over a certain rating, but the principle is that we need to be careful about the ways that gratuitous violence and sexuality influence how we treat other people. So watching a movie with a higher rating that deals thoughtfully with a difficult issue once again actually emphasizes that principle even as we’re breaking the rule.

The benefit of approaching boundaries with this flexibility is that we hopefully teach kids to set their own boundaries based on their own principles rather than just blindly following or rejecting the rules that they’re given. They see that our parental rules aren’t arbitrary or unbreakable, but just tools to accomplish the things we think are important. That way, hopefully, even once they’re long past having us set boundaries for them, they’re more than capable of setting those healthy boundaries themselves.