How To Set Boundaries With Kids – The Ultimate Guide

parenting, Uncategorized



Children push our physical, mental, and emotional boundaries. It can be exhausting. And if we don’t have a habit of setting good boundaries with kids, then they push even more. It can be exhausting, and become really hard to know what to do, or where to start making a change. 

I would go so far as to say that after the big needs parents and children have – connection, empathy, and physical needs – setting healthy boundaries with kids is the runner up for the most important parenting skills. 

Yes, setting boundaries is a skill. Depending on how we were parented, we may have stellar skills, or we may be dearly lacking. Wherever you are, it’s okay. Start where you are. This is a great thing to practice. We are never going to be perfect, and mistakes are a part of the game. But when we lean into the process of learning to set healthy boundaries, two magical things happen simultaneously.

We get better at setting boundaries.

And, our kids begin to respond better to the boundaries we set. 

This means that setting boundaries and maintaining them gets easier and easier the more we practice. 

It is a huge win-win because kids need boundaries to feel safe, and we need them to feel sane. Healthy boundaries set the stage for more connection, and fewer struggles in the daily rhythms of life, so that parents and children can enjoy their time together more. 

Setting limits is a muscle and a practice. It takes time, patience, the right method, and a little extra effort upfront. But once the gears start turning, the results are a beautiful thing. 

I can’t help you with the time, patience, and practice you will need to succeed. But I can help you out with the Method.

So whether you have good boundaries, and just want to freshen up your approach – or you are beginning from scratch in the boundaryless lands where the Wild Things are – this guide will lay out the basic elements you need to get your boundary-setting skills polished.

The Boundary Challenge

Kids can be chaotic, and sometimes we have split-seconds to make parenting choices that serve us and our children. In these moments, we make flash decisions. And these flash decisions build on each other to create our parenting style.

As parents, boundary setting is among the most important and most challenging things that we do. From the most basic safety limits – it’s not okay to throw rocks at people, it’s not okay to run with scissors – to the complex – like the difference between rudeness and honesty – boundaries define the edges of our kids’ worlds, letting them know what is and isn’t okay.

Boundaries keep our kids safe, make them feel safe, and make it so they can get along with others. Boundaries also make it so we can live with our kids, without losing our minds. At least not completely. 

But mindless as we may sometimes be, we as parents have to set the boundaries, because kids don’t have any. And they need them

Understanding Kids and Boundaries


Kids need boundaries to feel safe. But they are essentially boundaryless beings. 

I think it’s important to dwell on this point. Kids don’t come in with boundaries pre-installed.

They don’t inherently know how to follow or set boundaries – their own or other people’s. They need to be taught. We are the ones who set, uphold, and teach the boundaries – for our kids, for ourselves, for the household, as well as those imposed by our specific cultures and society. 

It’s our job to not only teach our kids these boundaries – but also how to follow them. We do this every day, in many small – and not so small – ways. 

Our kid’s jobs are to seek and find the boundaries. They do this amazingly well, and with renowned creativity. They do this by pushing the limits to see what happens. 

A big shift for me around boundaries happened when I stopped seeing kids’ boundary-pushing as disrespect – and started seeing it for what it is – 

A Question. 

Is this a boundary? 

Is this a boundary? 

How about this?

Is this still a boundary?

Is this REALLY a boundary? 

When I shifted to seeing boundary-pushing as questions, instead of disobedience, I started seeing my responses as answers

And I noticed an amazing phenomenon.

As I got clearer on what kinds of answers I wanted to give – and how to communicate them – my boundaries became clearer. And as my boundaries became clearer and more consistent, the children in my care became easier to be with. 

They protested simple daily activities less and tested my personal and physical limits less. They listened to what I said and followed directions better. When I asked them to stop doing something, they were more likely to say “okay”, and stop without a fuss.

In short, they trusted me more.

They trusted that I meant what I said. They trusted that I was going to follow through on what I said. 

I still have bad days when I don’t handle things like I wish I would. But now I have a clear approach to come back to when things fall apart. I have a method. Having a method keeps me consistent and on track with my boundary setting. 

I’m not perfectly consistent every time I set boundaries – that’s not possible, and it’s not the point. I’m consistent over time, and that’s what matters most.

Having a Method 

A method is a structure we can use to guide us. It is something we can rely on when the going gets tough. And with boundary setting, the going is bound to get tough. 

Boundaries – setting and pushing – can bring up strong emotions on all sides. Especially when a change is being made to how boundaries have been handled in the past, which often brings up an extra protest at first. It’s hard to think rationally when emotions are rising, and that’s when things get messy. 

If we’ve taken the time to think through a boundary-setting strategy beforehand, then we can respond naturally in the moment – in a way that aligns with our principles and supports our parenting ideals.

I’m not suggesting we apply inflexible, mindless protocols to every situation. Just the opposite. We need lots of flexibility and mindfulness here. Setting boundaries is nuanced and will vary according to the situation, and the personalities of the humans involved.

There is a difference between having a formula and having a method.

Rather than a rigid formula, a method is a set of ideas that allows us to come up with creative applications – in this case for limit-setting. It supports us as we respond to new or challenging situations – like when emotions are flying and logic is in short supply. 

The clearer we are on our method, the clearer and more consistent we can be with our boundaries. Which makes for much easier parenting – and living. 

With kids, and boundaries in general, clear and consistent is the name of the game. 


The 6 C’s of Boundary Setting

1. Clarify

The first step of our method is to clarify our boundaries inside ourselves

No one can respect our boundaries if WE don’t even know what they are.

And kids need boundaries to be crystal clear. 

I’m guessing we have all experienced the results of trying to set boundaries before we know what they are. We flail. We argue. Our kids wear us down. 

We half-heartedly set boundaries and then go back on themI call this sloppy boundary setting. Setting sloppy boundaries undermines our credibility as boundary setters, teaches our children we don’t mean what we say, and sets us all up for a lot more arguments and power struggles in the future. 

The best way I know of to get stronger at clarifying our boundaries is to get used to asking ourselves a lot of questions – and to be honest with ourselves about our answers. 


Lean In To Questions 


When we set a boundary, we are asking our kids to make a change.

We are asking them to shape their behavior either around the needs of others – or to keep themselves and others safe. 

The more specific and detailed we can be with ourselves about what we are asking – and why – the more we can help our kids understand what exactly we are asking of them. 

Basically, the goal is to identify the exact behavior you want to change and then look through it to see if you can find the boundary that it is bringing up, which can actually be really unclear, especially at first. 


Here are 5 Question Areas to use to Clarify Your Boundaries 


1. What Boundary do I want to set?

    • What change do I want them to make? Get specific.
    • What exactly is bothering me about my kids’ behavior? 
    • What behaviors do I not want from them? 
    • What behaviors do I want from them?
  • In essence – What do you want to change?


2. Why do I want or need it?

  • Is this a matter of safety? 
  • Is this a matter of respecting others? 
  • Is this about me needing them to listen to me when I say no?
  • Is it that the behavior is not okay, ever? (it’s not okay to bite.)


3. Who is it for? 

  • Is this a personal boundary for the child themselves? (it’s not safe to play with matches)
  • Is this a personal boundary for me? For others? (I can’t let you hit me – or – It looks like your friend doesn’t want you to touch her shirt right now.)
  • Is it a household boundary? (I can’t let you color on the walls in our house.)
  • societal boundary? (It’s not okay to scream in the library.


4. When is this a boundary?

    • What is the urgency? Can you take some time to think about it, or do you need to step in right now? 
    • Is this a conditional boundary? (Just right now: I need you to be quiet right now because the baby’s sleeping)
    • Or a universal boundary? (All the time: We use our quiet voices inside – all the time. You can go outside if you want to shout)
  • Is it part of an ongoing issue that needs to change, even if this one incident isn’t a big deal? (That looks like fun to paint the easel, but remember, paint only goes on the paper)


5. How important is it?

  • How important is this to me
  • Do I really care
  • How important is it to my kid
  • What are their expectations? Is this something they’ve been looking forward to? (Big expectations can lead to big emotions)
  • What are my expectations? (Is this a new expectation that I’ve never expressed before, or something they are familiar with?)
  • Is there a safety risk? Is it dangerous to my kid, someone else, the pets? 
  • Is an important object at risk? The computer, the windows, your favorite shirt? 
  1. And the Ultimate Question:
  • Am I willing to follow through and impose consequences if this behavior doesn’t stop? 

This may seem like too many questions to think about at any given moment, especially if you need your kid to stop what they’re doing right now for everyone’s physical or mental health. 

That’s Okay. The point is to use these ideas as a way to be more clear more often. Ideally, we already know what our boundaries are before we open our mouths. However, life’s not perfect, we’re human, and kids are masters at throwing out the unexpected. So it’s not always going to work out this way. 

But what’s awesome is we can use these questions retroactively – no matter how our boundary attempts worked out – to figure out what happened and why. 

As long as we keep trying to clarify our own boundaries within ourselves, we are making progress


setting boundaries with kids

2. Commit

If you aren’t taking your boundaries seriously, no one else is going to either. 

Especially not kids. 

If we don’t commit, we don’t follow through when the going gets tough. And with boundaries, the going inevitably gets tough. Sometimes we need to set boundaries our kids don’t like, and they are going to be upset about it. So we need to decide ahead of time if we are serious. 

The one thing we really want to avoid is acting like we are going to set a real boundary, but then not, instead. 

Following through takes some effort, especially when we are changing how boundaries are set.

I find it helpful to remember that boundaries are tough to set and easy to maintain – Kids are creatures of habit, and once they get used to something, they generally go along with it (most of the time). 

Obstacles Vs. Boundaries


One thing that has really helped me is learning the difference between real boundaries and obstacles. 

If kids haven’t had clear boundaries in the past, then when they meet resistance, they push

Maybe this has been the drill: We say no to bubble gum at the checkout stand. But then our kid shows us how important it is to them (scream and cry, for example). Everyone is pretending not to watch the episode. We relent. We buy bubble gum. 

When repeated over many scenarios, this pattern teaches kids that no actually means try harder – which they are perfectly willing to do. That is not a boundary. That is an obstacle.

If our boundary behaviors are to set a boundary but not uphold it, then we are teaching this: I meet resistance – I push – the resistance goes away – I get what I want. Repeat indefinitely. 

Coming back to the Boundary-question idea, we want to give our kids an answer to their boundary questions that they know we mean. 

Now that’s not saying obstacles are always bad. There is a place for obstacles. Say your child wants a puppy. You want to make sure it’s not a phase. You put up a few boundaries to see if they are serious. That’s fine, you just want to be clear from the beginning, especially with yourself, whether you are setting an obstacle or a boundary. 

The place obstacles don’t make senseis everywhere

A note on changing our minds: None of this means we have to be perfect or that we can’t change our minds when setting boundaries with kids – or any other time. It’s okay to be wrong and to let kids be right sometimes. We want them to know we value their voices and hear them too.

Because kids see us as examples of how to behave, It’s important to let our kids see us being considerate, being willing to be wrong, and apologizing when we mess up. We just want that to be the exception rather than the rule. Easier said than done, like everything in parenting, but again, any attention we put into this pays off.

When kids who are used to obstacles encounter an actual boundary, they understandably treat it like an obstacle and try to get around it. 

Then, when they find out we mean business, they freak. This makes it even harder to uphold the boundary.

It’s a setup for a meltdown, burnout, and a bad time to be had by all. 

SO, be clear, commit. Is this an obstacle, or a boundary? If it’s a boundary, and you are serious about it, carry on to step 3. 

Note: If you can’t commit, take it back to the drawing board, and clarify further until you find something you are willing to commit to. 


3. Communicate


This is where the real finesse comes in. It’s also where being gentle with ourselves and our kids come in. We are going to make a lot of mistakes. And the easier we are on ourselves, the better. 

Gentle, kind, effective communication is a lifelong learning process. But luckily, some smart people before us have figured out many tips, which we can adapt here for our purposes. 

Teaching not Commanding

I think the most essential point about communicating boundaries is that we are teaching. Not commanding. 

 If we expect our kids to follow our directions like robots, we are going to be disappointed. We can’t control the choices other people make. That includes our kids. But we can teach our kids boundaries. And communication is the way that happens. 

The clearer we are with our boundaries, the better results we can expect. Since we’ve already clarified what our boundary is, we are in a great space to use clear communication. 

If kids understand what happens when a boundary is set, then they can use that information to make better choices in the future. 

Use Direct Language 

Kids don’t read between the lines. They need us to be explicit, and specific. When we set boundaries with kids, we need to use clear and direct language that tells them exactly what we mean

Kids take things literally. If there is sarcasm or cloaked meaning in our speech, they won’t get it – but they may sense a hidden meaning, which will stress them out. 

The more honest and direct we can be with ourselves and our kids about boundaries and the reasons behind them, the more they will learn what boundaries are really about. 

Communicate Your Expectations 

Kids love to know what to expect. If they know the rules and limits before there is a problem, they are so much more likely to follow them. 

If they don’t know what to expect, then they are set up for disappointment, or unpleasant surprises – and you are set up for struggles

When our kid’s expectations are realistic, they are prepared for what’s going to happen. They can go with the flow. 

Expectations set the stage for interactions. With boundaries, there are three main expectations to communicate. 

If we can be crystal clear about these three main points, then our kids will know what to expect.


Three Main Points to Make Clear

1. What do we want to Change? Be explicit and direct. Name the behavior. 

It’s not okay to throw rocks at people.

2. What Choices do they have? Tell them the choice you would like them to make instead of choosing to continue the behavior.

“You can throw rocks at the water away from people, or you can play in the sand with me.

3. What will the Consequences of their choices be? Tell them specifically what is going to happen in response to the choice they make.

 “If you can’t stop throwing rocks,           we will leave the beach” 

If there is time, add in WHY: 

 “Being hit by rocks hurts” 

Another example, for a toddler:

1. Change: You’re pouring water on the floor.” 2. Choice: How about drinking the water instead?” 3. Consequence: “Or I can put your water glass over here until you are ready to use it for drinking.” 

Why: “Lots of water on the floor might damage the floorboards.



Kids do what we do. They absorb our behavior ‘round the clock and learn what is normal and right. They observe our actions and our words

Part of our communication is what we say, and part of our communication is what our kids see us do. 

When setting boundaries with kids we are modeling two things. 

  • This is how we respect others
  • This is how we respect ourselves

Both halves are important. As we proceed, we can look at how to consider both as we communicate. 

So, what kinds of communication tools can we use to teach our kids awesome boundaries? 


Positive Language 

Positive language means saying what you do want, rather than what you don’t want. 

Kids think in positive terms. 

In other words, when kids hear “don’t run!”, the loudest part of the sentence for them is: “RUN!”, which only amplifies the behavior we don’t like. This is especially true for little kids. But all ages (adults included) can respect our wishes better when they hear what we do want. 

Walk please!” or “Go Slowly!” will be easier for kids to heed. 

It’s okay to say what you don’t like too, but if possible, get creative to think of positive behaviors you can ask for. 

Instead of just: “Don’t hit the dog”

I might say: “Hitting hurts Rosco. Let’s be gentle with our dog” or, “would you like to give Rosco a treat to help him feel better?” 



I think every one of us finds it easier to cooperate if we know the reasons behind what is being asked of us. Kids are no different. 

It’s a matter of respect to give them explanations when we set boundaries with kids, and it helps them understand and learn. 

Sometimes it’s hard, but whenever I can, I always try to give kids an explanation for what I’m asking. Even with babies, who are absorbing more than seems humanly possible in every moment. It doesn’t have to be complicated or long-winded, in fact, the simpler the better. 

For example: “I want you to leave the kibble in Rosco’s bowl. He needs that kibble to eat, so he isn’t hungry.”


Setting boundaries with kids can be loving and connective, even if someone is feeling upset. 

There are some cool studies showing that kids actually respond better and cooperate easier if we use empathy with them. But we probably didn’t really need the studies. It’s pretty obvious that it’s easier to cooperate with someone who is on your side, and makes you feel like your feelings matter.  Intentionally using empathy in communication can make kids feel seen, heard, and that their feelings matter, which helps them want to reciprocate. 

Here are some simple ways to use empathy during boundary setting:

Use Observation: “It seems like you really want a cookie right now!

Be on their side: I wish I could let you eat all the cookies you want! 

Explain: But it’s dinner time right now, and I need to make sure you eat healthy food. 

Name their Feeling: You seem really disappointed.” 

Kids don’t inherently know how to make sense of their feelings or name them. Just like we teach kids the names of colors like blue and red, it’s also our job to teach them the names of frustration, disappointment, excitement, and so on. 

The skill of understanding and communicating about feelings is called emotional literacy, and there are a lot of awesome studies out there showing the many ways it helps us – for example emotional regulation and having great interpersonal relationships

I’ve found that as I teach children about their feelings, I often learn more about my own as well, which is a big win-win for me. 


Be Honest

When we adults are honest with our feelings, we are showing our kids that all feelings are okay. 

 When we say “That makes me angry” or “That hurts, I don’t like that”, we are modeling how to express feelings in a healthy way

Come Up With Solutions Together

This puts you and your kid on the same team and sets the stage for collaboration. 

You want to eat a cookie right now, but I want you to eat dinner. Let’s think of some solutions together.” 

Share your ideas, and be open to whatever they come up with until you find something that you can both live with. They might surprise you! 

Focus on Behaviors 

There are no bad emotions. And more importantly, there are no bad children. Just bad behaviors. 

When we keep our focus on the behavior we don’t want, then we leave space for all feelings to be okay, and help our kids feel good about themselves. 


More Tips

Whisper Don’t Shout: Kids will often stop and listen when they hear a whisper. 

Count To Ten – In Your Head: It’s tempting to repeat ourselves when our kids don’t respond. But a lot of time, they heard us, but just need a little time to process what we said. So, say it once. And then count slowly to10 in your head. Often, by the time you reach 8, you will see your kid responding to what you said. I got this tip from The Montessori Toddler, which has been my favorite parenting book lately – it has so many great ideas!

Give a Five Minute Warning: It’s hard to give up something fun. Giving kids a 5-minute warning that we are about to change gears can really help them let go when its time to stop. Also, offering a last turn or two can help. 

Redirect: Sometimes we can help our kids respect our boundaries by guiding them towards another fun activity we feel good about too. 

I can’t let you throw rocks. But I think it’s fun to collect rocks! Want to bring that over here and put it in my pocket?” 

Give them a way to make it better: 

“It looks like that really hurt Alex. Can you think of a way to help him feel better?”

Would you help me clean up the water?” 

This teaches kids how to make amends and repair damages, and also helps them reconnect and feel better about themselves. 


4. Choice

This is actually your kid’s part.

You’ve set them up to understand the situation, their choice, and the consequences. Now it’s time for them to choose.

It’s an important step, because if we never let our kids make their own choices, then they never learn how to make good ones. 

We want kids to understand what happens when boundaries are set. 

We want them to use that information and experience to make better and better choices for themselves and others. 

That’s where your awesome communication from the previous step comes in, and shines. 

If your kid understands their choice, and the consequence, the next part is really easy. You let them choose.

Then you just do the thing that you said you would do. You deliver the consequence. You follow through.

5. Consequences 


Consequences are the fulcrum that the whole boundary paradigm turns on. When we don’t follow through, then we’re back at the beginning – only worse. 

If we do, then we are teaching our kids that we are as good as our word and that they can trust us. 

Following through is a matter of trust. If we say we are going to do something, and then we don’t, we’ve undermined our kid’s trust in us. If we say we are going to pick them up and leave the beach if they can’t stop throwing rocks, then, if they can’t stop throwing rocks, we pick them up and walk away from the beach.

If you’ve been spotty about following through in the past – as we all have at times – then your kid might make a choice based on the assumption that you aren’t going to follow through on your consequences. 

Now is the time when you show them, lovingly and kindly, with the following step, that you are going to be following through now

Use consequences that make sense

Ideally, the consequences should be natural, logical extensions of the boundary you are setting. 

For example: “if you can’t stop throwing sand, we are going to leave the beach.”

Rather than: “if you can’t stop throwing sand, we aren’t going to get ice cream later.”

The boundary you want to set is: “it’s not okay to throw sand at the beach”. 

The logical extension of that is: “you don’t get to throw sand at the beach” 

Or, “if you throw sand, you don’t get to be at the beach.” 

Ice cream doesn’t relate, and using it as a consequence when setting boundaries with kids is asking them to make a confusing rational leap. We want to help them understand the natural consequences of their behavior so they can make good choices without always needing to be told

Understanding Consequences

Let the consequence be the consequence – not your anger. 

It is important to let kids know how they make us feel. That way they can learn emotional literacy. The problem arises when we use our anger (or disappointment or other negative emotion) as a consequence. Or worse, as punishment. Using our negative emotions to enforce boundaries sets up unhealthy emotional dynamics 

Consequences aren’t the same as punishment. Consequences should be there to uphold boundaries – not to punish. Being punished makes people of all ages feel alienated and angry. It doesn’t put kids (or anyone) in the mood to cooperate. Punishments are there to make the punisher feel vindicated, not to teach.

The role of a consequence is to teach. 

A lot of behaviors seen as “bad” arise in the first place because kids feel disconnected. So making sure that we are loving and kind, even as we follow through on consequences, means we can help our kids learn boundaries in a way that makes them feel safe and able to reconnect to us.

Be Willing to Leave the Party

What does following through when setting boundaries with kids look like? It can look like a lot of things. 

Following through can look like leaving the beach party when your kid just won’t stop throwing rocks, or asking the teller to hold your order and walking out of the grocery store with your kiddo – or, just walking out period. 

It looks like deciding that your boundary is important enough to uphold and then deciding that even if it’s hard, even if there are tears and whining and back-arch scream-crying, you are going to figure out how to uphold it with your child.

It doesn’t mean don’t be reasonable. Consequences are the step after you’ve been reasonable, and now you mean business. 

Here are some tips to help with the most challenging part of setting boundaries as parents: Our kids’ strong emotions. 

Let Them Have Their Feelings: It doesn’t feel good when our kids are upset. But unfortunately, we can’t fix everything for them so they are only happy all the time. It’s important to let kids know that their feelings are important, and we hear them. But that boundaries are boundaries

Use Your Breath: Mindfulness can help us sit with our child’s strong emotions without feeling the need to fix it for them. Take a deep breath and use your curiosity – notice how your body responds to their crying or incessant pleading. It’s okay. Accept those feelings. Focus on your breath. 

Offer Support: Our kids need our support when they are upset, even its because we are limiting them or taking something away. Offer a hug – if they won’t take it, that’s okay. Use gentle touch to keep them safe if they are having a tantrum. And offer authentic kind words and loving empathy. Even if they are angry and don’t show appreciation, if we are being real in our empathy, they will feel that they are on their side, and know that we are there for them. 

You might try something like“I’m here if you want a hug” or “If you want to talk about it when you calm down, I’m here for you.

Pay Attention

Pay attention to the patterns you have around boundaries with your child. 

Notice moments when you use boundary-setting language (stop that, I don’t like that, That’s not okay) and pay attention to how it goes.

Are you setting consequences but not following through? In what kinds of situations does that happen? What behaviors is your child doing that makes you want to give in? Which emotions are they showing? How about the emotions you are feeling? Is there a way you can sit with the discomfort of your child’s emotions

Are you resisting setting clear boundaries because you aren’t sure what kind of consequences will work with your child? 

What kinds of beliefs do you have around boundaries? Do you see them as healthy? As connective? As mean? As controlling

Check-in With Yourself: If you aren’t willing to commit to following through and upholding your boundary, then you should be real about that with yourself – and your child. 

What To Do When A Child Won’t Listen

It’s really frustrating when a child won’t listen, even as you try to deliver your consequences. Here are some tools to help with a child who’s feeling un-cooperative.

Choose Natural Consequences:

Natural Consequences usually end up being easier to deliver on than made-up consequences. You want the consequences to make sense, and for them to be a natural extension of the behavior. If a child is misbehaving out, then going home is a natural consequence. For a small child, you can give them a choice to walk on their own, or be carried, willingly or not. 

If a child is misbehaving in the yard, coming inside might be the consequence. If they are ignoring you at chore time in favor of a computer game, taking away the computer or shutting off the internet is a natural consequence. 

Remove The Privilege:

Aside from basic needs, the things that a child enjoys are privileges. If they aren’t using them appropriately, then it doesn’t make sense for them to have that privilege. 

If a child isn’t’ cooperating, its easier to remove something than it is to make them do something. For example, “If you can’t stop fighting over toys in the back seat, then I am going to pull over and take them away.” 

Establish Ground Rules:

Rules are so much easier to enforce if kids know what they are before there’s a problem. Kids also tend to respond better to “that’s the rules” than, “Because I said so“.

For example, I have a rule that if kids are fighting over a toy, the toy goes away for 5 minutes. I set a timer, or show them the clock. Imagine that two little girls are fighting over a My Little Pony Doll. The younger one grabs the pony, and the older one hits her.

What should I do? I could launch into a speech about how hitting and grabbing aren’t okay, or I could try to do timeout. But the girls are both upset and aren’t in the mood to cooperate, and one of them has been refusing to sit in timeouts, which gets messy. 

If I haven’t already explained my rule, I would say something like, “Uh-oh. I saw hitting and grabbing. It’s not okay to fight over toys. If that happens again, that toy is going away for 5 minutes. Now let’s take turns.” Then I choose who’s turn it is, and explain why. 

Then, if fighting happens again, I will ask for the Pony. The first time I do this, the girls will probably argue with me. “That’s not fair. She….“.

I might have to say. “That’s the rule. If you can’t hand me the pony, I am going to take it from your hands.

Then, calmly, I would. No anger needed. Five minutes pass. The toy returns. If the kids whine the whole 5 minutes, that’s okay. They are learning. The next time will be easier. 

Get Them On Your Team:

Ask for their help to come up with a solution together. In the pony example, I might say “There are two girls and one pony. Let’s think of a way to make this work for everyone. Do you have any ideas?

I’m always amazed at how kids will often follow a consequence they don’t like if they came up with it or agreed to it beforehand.

Be Consistent: 

The most important part of boundary setting. 



Consistency is the heart of boundaries with kids. 

Once there is a good baseline of boundaries in place, new ones tend to fit into the mesh much easier. Boundaries with kids interconnect with each other, and kids tend to accept new limits better when clear and consistent boundaries are the norm. 

My baby went through a phase of biting me a lot when he was teething really bad. I didn’t know what to do. Another parent told me “Be clear and consistent with your message.” 

At the time, I was thinking. “Yeah. Uhuh. I need him to stop biting NOW.”

But looking back, I can see that my consistency changed the biting behavior more than anything I did each time. Consistency is how behaviors are changed. 

This is a bummer for me, because I am not consistent by nature. But it works. And like any skill, the more I try, the more consistent I become. 

The time you put into clarifying your boundaries is going to pay off now, and also in the long run. The effort you put into following through pays dividends. 

And the attention you put in over time will take energy now, but free up so much energy as time goes on, and struggles lessen.

I hope you found some useful information here. This is all stuff that I thought “Thank goodness” about when I learned it. 

I’d love to know how boundary setting it going for you. Send me an email, or drop a comment with thoughts, questions, ideas you’d like to share! 



Brain Games For Baby

Positive Discipline

The Montessori Toddler

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen

Non-Violent Communication

10 brilliantly simple outdoor activities for 1 year olds

Activities, toddlers, Uncategorized



We can all use a little help brainstorming activities for 1 year olds.

Not quite kids but no longer babies, this age is the tweens of toddlerhood. They have outgrown a lot of baby toys, but aren’t quite ready for more complex toddler games. 

They have their own way of doing things – usually a messy way.

Peanut Butter is a sport. Dog kibble is the entree of choice. They eat the crayons, have no patience for putting on pants, and paint the walls with gobs of slobbery hummus. 

What to do with these little people? They are usually more interested in everyday household objects than the special toys we bought for them, and they choose their own adventure a lot of the time. 

We set up an awesome activity: they throw it to the floor, then bear-crawl off to spend half-an-hour reorganizing the family’s shoes – into another dimension. From which some of them never return. 

There are lots of complicated activity ideas out there, and many of them take longer to set up than our little rascals will actually spend doing them. That’s not a win for me. 

Simple activities with little-to-no setup are the way to go. At this age everything is physical. Everything is an experiment.  Outside is the perfect place for these wild things – they can move, they can explore, they can make a mess – and we can use the hose to clean it up. 

The great thing about one-year-olds is it really doesn’t take much to entertain them.

The challenging thing about them is that they are always on the go, and it can be hard to predict what specific kinds of not-much they are going to connect with. 

So, how to translate all this into outside activities for little learners?

Below is a list of brilliantly simple activities that are sure to engage, challenge, and delight that baby-kid-person and get them outside where they belong. No setup required.

Outdoor Clothes 

Before we dive in, let’s get dressed for the occasion. Or undressed, as the case may be. 


Simone Davies (Author of The Montessori Toddler) drops the quote by Maria Montessori: 

“There is no bad weather, just bad clothing”

Get the most out of being outside by dressing that baby well.

Choose clothes that:

  • Protect from the elements: sun, rain, or cold. Hats, sun shirts, rain gear, etc.
  • Protect from abrasion: tender little feet and knees need a layer of clothing on rough ground. 
  • Arent too precious: ideally, outside clothes aren’t so precious that you have to limit explorations to protect them. Bring on the mud, berries, and grass stains!
  • Or, skip the clothes: On soft ground, who needs em? Babies are easier to clean than clothes, anyway. 


1. Creative Water Play

outdoor activities for 1 year olds

One-year-olds need very little water to be happy as a clam. A trickling hose or a bowl of water can keep those busy hands occupied and learning – and almost supernaturally joyful – for a looooonng time. Take advantage of the summer weather to let the little experiment with water to their heart’s content. They are learning a lot in the process. 

Here are a few ideas for water play that one-year-olds tend to love. 

*Safety Meeting: I’ve got to say this because it is so easy to get distracted when kids are playing happily on their own. It only takes a few inches of water and a few minutes for kids to drown. Stay aware.* 

Water Basin: Grab just about anything that holds water. Fill it a few inches. It’s important to pick something that your kid can explore without help – they should be able to comfortably reach the water from the ground on their own. Provide some objects and notice together what sinks and what floats. Try raiding the kitchen drawers. My kid is crazy about measuring cups, empty plastic bottles, the colander, our kitchen whisk, and tupperware with lids.

Drop Rocks in Water: So simple, so fun. My kid will do this indefinitely. Cause and Effect! 

Running Water: If water conservation isn’t an issue in your area, a hose left open to just a trickle, (or spray if you have an on/off valve at the end), can provide nearly endless possibilities.

And of course, sprinklers: Turn the water flow down a bit so it’s gentler for babes this age, and explore together. 

Pool: Again, nothing fancy needed here – a pool can be anything watertight that they can fit in. My 13-month-old loves splashing in a clear plastic storage tote with a few inches of water in the bottom (I always stay within arms reach.) His grandma got him an awesome foldable pool and he likes that too, but really, he doesn’t care as long as there is water involved. 

Filling Containers: Pouring water from one container to the other is fascinating for kids this age. It can hit that perfect balance of challenging and achievable that we are aiming for. Get a baking pan or low tupperware of water so they can learn to refill the jugs themselves by partially submerging. Demonstrate pouring water from one container to another for them. Let them watch you pour, fill, and dump.

Pick some vessels with handles, and some without. Try to give them containers that are small enough to be easy for little hands to manage, with wide enough mouths that water can be poured back into them. Measuring cups are fun. Plastic yogurt containers are perfect. Look in the recycling bin for ideas. They may surprise you with what they think is the perfect container, so let them take the lead. 


2. Chore-Time

outdoor activities for one year olds


More than anything, my 13-month-old son wants to do whatever I’m doing. Lately, I’ve been taking advantage of that tendency to provide teaching moments. 

After reading an awesome book about Montessori for Toddlers (More on the book and my ideas about thathere) I’m always reminding myself to slow down and let him be involved. It certainly takes more time, and the results aren’t perfect, but he’s so excited to be involved, and I love that he’s learning awesome helper skills. 

Yard Chores: Most yard chores can be adapted to walking babies. Crawling babies love to watch and follow along, and get their hands into the mix. Pick things that don’t need to be perfect, and let them! Rake the yard together, pile up the leaves, stack firewood, collect sticks for a firepit.

Working in the Garden: Small Gardening tools make this even more fun and educational, but just pulling weeds together and piling them in (and out of) a bucket or bowl can be a great way to get that kiddo involved. 

Watering Plants: To be honest, this activity keeps my 1-year-old occupied for about 10 secondsbut – he’s excited about it. And I like that he is learning to care for the plants in our garden. We have a little watering can, but any kind of container with a handle will work – I fill it from the hose for him and he tries to get the water onto the soil. 

He waters the same plant each day and is getting better and better at it. After some trial and error, we picked a small potted plant at his level that was easy for him to get water into. 

He loves the repetition and I love that he is learning to care for the plants over time. 


3. Play Ball

outdoor activities for 1 year olds

Balls – so fascinating, right? For a one-year-old, heck yes they are. 

Any old ball will do, so long as it can’t fit inside their mouth. Ideally, they can hold this ball with one hand. This gives them an opportunity to experiment with both hands. This gives them more mobility as they learn to toss – and being able to pass it from hand to hand is great for practice. One-year-olds are extremely creative, so, let them lead and observe. 

Try something between golf-ball and tennis-ball – or – a semi-deflated larger one that is soft enough that they can get a fistful.

Pass The Ball:  Even a baby who can’t throw can roll a ball back and receive one on the ground. Roll that ball back and forth to baby’s delight. 

Drop the Ball: Before they can toss a ball, young toddlers get a kick out of dropping one into a bucket, a parent’s lap, or dropping for a sibling or pet to pick up. 

Goal!: Once they are comfortable dropping and rolling the ball, it’s fun and challenging to have a target. Creating a goal – which can be as simple as a box on its side – gives them something to aim for. Be sure to cheer.

Toss: Once they’ve got more of a toss going, the game can evolve into tossing into a bucket, starting close up, and working farther away as they gain mastery. 


4. Play Naturalist


Kids this age are working hard at language and soaking it all up effortlessly. It’s a great time to play with words and help them build a rich vocabulary. Talk about the birds, bugs, slugs, snails, trees, and plants you see and tell them the names. I try to take the opportunity to expand my vocabulary as well, and to look up and learn more names of plants and animals I don’t know to share with my little naturalist. 

Explore the yard: Point out, and name the plants in your yard. Let those busy hands explore the plant while you say the name. Smell the flowers, and pick some flowers and leaves together. 

Talk about what plants and how much is okay to pick. My Son loves picking nasturtium leaves and handing me the little bits he ripped off. Nasturtiums are now taking over our yard, so he’s allowed to pick as much as he wants. But when they were little, we would practice being all done picking, because the plants needed their leaves to grow. 

Now is a great time to identify any poisonous plants in your vicinity. Point them out to your kiddo by name, letting them know not to touch, and why. 

Explore Nearby Parks: Get friendly with some trees, pet some moss, pick up pine cones and seed pods. Bring a basket to collect rocks and shells at the beach, build with sand, dig in the sand. 


Outdoor activities for 1 year olds


Use All The Senses: Kids this age are incredibly sensitive, and it’s a great time to engage with all of their senses. Feel the breeze together, smell the flowers, listen to the birds and mimic the sounds you hear, feel the soft grass, or the prickly thistle, taste any berries or edible plants, telling them the name of the plant, and that “this plant is okay to eat”. Help them get them used to asking you before they eat any plants. 

5. Make Outdoor Art

outdoor activities for 1 year old

Draw: Play with fat sidewalk chalk, or use a paintbrush and some water to paint the porch, concrete, bricks. Try using big gestures and making loose marks to give them ideas on how to use the materials that they will be able to succeed at. 

Make sculpture: Arrange found materials like rocks, leaves, flowers, and pinecones into stacks, piles, or patterns. This is a good chance to practice staying unattached to outcomes. Show them how to lay one stick over another to make an X shape, and sprinkle on a layer of flower petals. 

Let them explore and scramble and scrumble and take the project in unexpected directions. 


6. Get Moving

outdoor 1 year old

Just exploring a small yard is a lot of action for people this size. But the more movement the better. 

Follow the Leader (Aka Chase the Baby!): Make a game of letting that baby take the lead. Say, “Following the leader!” and then crawl or walk behind them wherever they go! Let them get ahead, and then race to catch up, saying “Here I come!”.

Dance: Sing songs, clap, or play some fun music and dance outside together. 

Do Yoga: My baby is drawn like a magnet whenever I get on my yoga mat and start doing down dogs. He gets right in the mix, sometimes trying to copy me, and sometimes just playing around my limbs. I like letting him see me take care of my body and demonstrating stretching and yoga. 


7. Put on a Show

Of all the activities for 1 year olds out there, this one is sure to be a hit – but requires a bit of imagination and silliness. Use stuffed animals or puppets, and goofy voices to put on a little show. Or just grab whatever is nearest, and let two pine cones be the star of the show. Kids this age love when puppets bump into each other, make excited exclamations, dance, jump up and down, tickle people, get put to bed, and get put inside things. If they want to participate in the show, that’s great! They undoubtedly will do something. unexpected.


8. Setup House


Sometimes it feels like, between naps, snacks, and meals, we are inside almost all the time. But being inside all the time makes me feel cooped up and angsty. 

So, I set to work finding some solutions to get us outside more and keep us there longer. 

Have a Picnic: Throw a blanket on the ground and lay out some fun foods to have snack time In the yard, in a park, or on the porch. It’s a lot harder for little ones to sit still on the ground than in a chair, but it’s really fun and exciting to be picnicking in the yard. 

Make a Fort: Use furniture and blankets to make a nice shady fort. Or, just pick a tree or shady bush, and set up some blankets, pillow, books, and have a cozy time.

Sand Box: This does take effort upfront, but pays off so much. It makes a great home base for outdoor play, a place where toys can be put back, which is a bonus, and provides so many hours of awesome outdoor play. 


9. Set Up a Ramp

Really, this is so simple but so entertaining. It turns out that all it takes to have a good time is a flat board and something to put one end on. You can also use stiff cardboard, an upside-down plastic tote – anything flat, really. Cars, balls, trains, wind-up-toys, drop ’em down and watch’ em go!


10. Free Play!

Kid-led free time is so important! It’s easy to forget to just sit back and watch our kids, and enjoy their natural curiosity and what they are drawn to sharing. The opportunity allows them to explore the challenges that are perfect for them.  And, as long as there is a safe zone so we don’t have to be constantly monitoring them, it means we can sit back and enjoy watching their antics. 

Set up a Safe Zone: By putting away anything dangerous or off-limits, or using baby gates or barriers to enclose an area for them to play freely in, we can give our children the gift of letting them follow their curiosity wherever it takes them. It’s so good for them and takes the pressure off of us to always be entertaining them. 

Bring Along Something For You: So, I like to bring along something enjoyable for me that doesn’t take all my attention – like an instrument to strum, a nice glass of iced tea, or a non-fiction book that’s not so engaging that I can’t put it down – that way I’m available and present, but not restless or impatient. 

What Outdoor activities does your little one gravitate towards? What keeps them busy? A

How To Choose Activities for One Year Olds the Montessori Way


baby learns from playing


My son is 13 months. His main job appears to be finding the most random possible use of household objects. 

I admit, sometimes I am fascinated by his tiny toddler antics, and at other times, I’m kinda bored. What is the big deal with the vacuum hose? And the freakin’ recycling bin? 

Over the past months, I’ve found myself following my busy little fella around the house and feeling distinctly restless. He’s busy doing his own thing, and I have to be there watching every second, but I don’t necessarily relate.

Coming up with activities for one year olds can feel like a challenge, because the things that catch their attention and challenge them, are often so different from the things that stimulate us, as adults. 

Recently, though, I had a mind-shift breakthrough that allowed me to see more of the fascination in what my kid is actually doing all the time when it looks like he’s just aimlessly messing around. 

I started reading the book The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davies (*link). She is a mother, and Montessori teacher specializing in Toddlers, and she has a super loving, mindful, and toddler-positive approach that I instantly resonated with. She talks a lot about the Montessori philosophy of observation, and how to support kids in their own learning, and within a few pages, I was thinking differently about my toddler. 

Because this age group is working on such simple stuff, a lot of the activities in the book are for older toddlers. But the approach makes it easy to find activities for my little baby-toddler by applying the principles that I learned. 


The Montessori Approach 

The Montessori approach is all about fostering independence and confidence by letting the child lead, observing them, including them in daily life. Specific physical skills are fostered through simple hands-on activities that provide the right amount of challenge.

Simone Davies goes into detail about the specific physical abilities that this age of super young toddlers are working on 

–  using two hands together, stacking, working across their body –

She then goes into how to set them up to learn, build confidence, and build curiosity and love of learning. 

She talks about the concept of scaffolding – how kids and toddlers build on simple skills to work up to more advanced and complex activities. I’m not a total convert to Montessori as of yet – I am way more into imagination than they seem to be. But, that said, I am really excited about their approach.

I’ve found myself putting it to use in my parenting as soon as I read it, and I’m loving how it feels.

Understanding What Engages The Age

activities for toddlers

One of the biggest ideas for me was that what might look random to me, is actually evidence of my kiddo working super hard to master some very specific basic physical coordination. He’s working to actively learn the things that I do unconsciously. Which is why it looks random to me. 

For example, he’s ultra-focused on getting that empty soap bottle to balance on top of the upside-down bowl because he’s mastering stacking and balancing right now. He’s obsessed with opening the lid of the box, taking the puppet out, putting the puppet in, closing the lid, opening the lid – on repeat – because it is the exact challenge he needs to master lids and the concept of object permanence, and he is driven to mastery. 


The Power of Observation 

babies learn by touching

This approach also changed how I structure our time together. Montessori is all about setting kids up to learn optimally – and then letting them go at it – stepping in to offer support only when they get frustrated or are obviously stuck. 

I realized that I was stepping in way more than I needed to. Because was impatient. Since reading I’ve started actively taking a back seat, and watching in amazement as my little wizard tries and tries, and eventually succeeds without my help. It’s super cool to see, and he is so proud of himself. His joy is contagious, and I know he’s building real confidence. And I’m happy knowing Orson is experiencing that he can learn anything he wants to learn. 

I’ve started to consciously slow down, and noticing my impulse to butt-in the moment he comes up against a real challenge. Instead of acting on the impulse, I’ve been trying to use that energy to figure out what specific thing he’s working on. I ask myself “What is he learning right now?” – and suddenly what he’s doing becomes totally fascinating. 

He’s exploring the world with his whole body, with cause and effect shaping much of his interest, and it’s cool to watch. 

The Key to using this child-led strategy is to set up simple activities and materials for your child that are just right for what they are working on, and then let them decide what’s interesting, and how to use it. 


Setting One-Year-Olds Up For Sucess  

activities for one year olds

One main takeaway for me was how important it is for kids to have the right level of challenge. Too little, and they disengage. Too much, and they get frustrated and lose confidence. Neither is ideal if we want to help build confident, curious learners. 

The method of figuring out that perfect challenge level is simple: just watch. Watch your child as they tinker and play. What is engaging them? What are they working on? What are they drawn towards? Then find ways to offer those challenges in their play – in a way that works for you. 

Are they repeatedly putting their water cup into their cereal bowl at the breakfast table? Perhaps there are some break-proof dishes you could put at their play station. 

Are they crazy about the recycling Bin? Maybe they are working on opening containers. Or putting things in and taking them out. Can you find some old containers – tins, sturdy jars, old wallets, or purses – to put in a basket for them to find and play with? (Hide some fun little things inside them to make it even more fun). 

Are they super into stacking? Set some blocks out for them, and show them how you stack three high. Then let them try. 

Are things too easy?

Are they getting bored with the toys available and wandering off? How can you add a layer of challenge to the activities? Perhaps showing them how to stack one more block on top of the pile. 

Are things too hard?

Are they getting frustrated?

Part of the process is paring down more complex activities so that they can master just the part they are working on, then adding in more parts as they develop. This way they can build more complex skills out of lots of simple ones put together, a concept called scaffolding.  Make a note of what is frustrating, so you can come back to it and think about if there is a way to simplify the activity so they can manage it by themselves.

How can you pare that activity down? Can you remove some parts? Then you can add them back in to ramp up the challenge as they gain mastery.  

Finding the right level of challenge is fun and engaging for me too, and I find I’m more excited about our time exploring together.


Pare Down the Toys

montessori toddler

The minimalist in me loves this concept. When we pare down the toys available, kids actually engage more, and for longer. 

Montessori is all about creating beauty and making things the most appealing to little people. Toys are set out in an appealing display on a shelf at the child’s level.

By rotating what toys are out, it keeps things fresh and exciting. Then if an activity is less interesting, it can just be put away for a bit, and replaced by something else that has regained its novelty value in storage. 

The trap is, it seems like adding new toys will entertain our babies more. But too many toys it actually engages babies less. There are lots of cool studies that document this with kids of all ages. Decision fatigue plays a role, as does simple overwhelm. I’ve noticed that when we reach our personal threshold of too many toys, my kid stops actually playing with them, and things devolve into a messy throwing episode. 

I cleaned out a storage big bin and put most of our toys in there, and left out just a few things. It’s fun to bring out “new” old toys, and my baby definitely engages more when there are fewer options. 

Plus, I’m happier with a simple, beautiful space too. And it’s so much easier to clean up when there are fewer toys! (And even better when each one has a place.)


Include Them In Household Tasks


One of the foundational ideas of Montessori is including kids in everyday life, and this is probably the place where I’ve experienced the biggest change. I’ve started including my toddler more in everything that I do. In one sense it slows me down, but actually, I think I get more done. Because rather than making a huge mess while I try to do the dishes, or clinging to my leg whining, he’s right in the mix of it where he wants to be. 

He is so into it. I dragged a step stool into the kitchen, and now whenever I’m cooking he’s standing there next to me happily messing about with vegetables. I keep the knives and hot stuff out of reach, and we talk about them. Knife safety beginning early. A total win-win. 

They want to be included, to be helpful, and to be relevant, and to have some control over their own lives – even if it’s just what shoes to wear. Teaching them life skills fosters independence, so they can be contributing members of the family.

Now no matter what chores I’m doing, I’m thinking of a way to include my little guy.

It feels like free activities for him, great learning opportunities, and it boosts his confidence and makes him feel awesome. He’s been helping wipe the table, put on his shoes, brush his teeth, putting dishes in the sink, and even rinsing spoons and putting them on the rack to dry. Sometimes it is even actually helpful! Like when he helped me wash a bunch of tomatoes in the yard yesterday. And when it’s not, I love knowing I’m raising an awesome little helper.



Another key takeaway I got from The Montessori Toddler, is how to teach activities to toddlers.

When introducing a new activity, can demonstrate how it’s done. Also, when they get stuck or frustrated, it’s a good time to step in and offer to show them how we would do it. (Offer is key – they may not want help! That’s okay too).

I love the Montessori method for this. The book offers the acronym SHOW: Slow. Hands. Omit. Words. 

Instead of using tons of words to describe what your hands are doing, you just say “watch”. Then you slowly, deliberately demonstrate. Keep in mind how the child would succeed – for example, using two hands. 

Kids learn so much by watching. If we stay silent, they don’t have to choose between our faces as we speak and watching our hands. It helps them focus and take in what we are showing. 

If they are still stuck, we can offer a simple explanation. “Push”, or “Pull”. 

I’ve started doing this and honestly, it’s amazing. After just a few days, if my timing is right (my babe wants my help) when I say “watch”, he totally stops what he’s doing and focuses in to watch my hands. 


All in all, I love my new approach to setting up activities for my one-year-old. 

Instead of waiting for my toddler to bump into something interesting, and then getting in the middle of what he’s trying to do, I’m more proactive about setting him up with awesome challenges that will help him practice his skills and grow. He’s more engaged, and our connection has even gotten stronger throughout the day, as I tune in more to what he’s interested in. 

Have you tried any of these ideas? How do you include your little one in household tasks? Comment below, I’d love to hear from you!