The Parable of the Swing: Why Kids Need Both Choices and Boundaries


I’m sharing a little sneak peak into my newest ebook, Positive Parenting: The Basics.  

Parable of the Swing


I often write about the importance of giving children choices.  They are struggling with a need to feel powerful in a world that often makes them feel powerless.  Being able to take control and make their own choices gives them that powerful feeling, meaning they feel less compelled to seek out power in negative ways like tantrums or fighting.

Children also need to be offered choices to give them practice making decisions and experience handling consequences as life skills.  Giving children choices is important.  But it is also important to recognize that as adults, we need to be clear in setting the boundaries for those choices.

 To illustrate, picture a child swinging on a swing set.  Most children I know love to swing.  (Quite honestly, so do I.)  It’s exhilarating and freeing to feel as though you’re flying through the air.

If you think about how a swing works, however, it’s the seat and the chains that keep the child tethered, securing her against simply being flung through the air.  They create a boundary and keep things in control.  When the limit is pressed, they work to bring her back.

 While the best thing about the swing is the feeling of freedom, it’s actually the boundaries that make the activity enjoyable.

Likewise, making choices is an exhilarating, freeing experience for a child.  But without providing boundaries, we are setting a child up for failure, and inviting a lot of frustration for ourselves in the process.

 Life is Full of Choices

Any time we offer a choice to a child, we have to be willing to accept it.  Nothing ignites the wrath of a child like having a choice taken away.  When we offer a child a choice, we need to offer that choice within the boundary of what we feel is acceptable.

Years ago, I asked my son to get a hat and some shoes as we headed out to the park.  As we made our way to the car, I noticed he had followed instructions exactly.  He had on a pirate hat and his farm boots.  It wasn’t what I had in mind, but it was what I had asked for.


In this instance, his unique choice didn’t really matter (other than earning him style points), but too often, when we unintentionally give our children choices without setting boundaries, we end up in a battle of wills.

It’s fairly easy to see how to frame choices within boundaries, when we think about the dichotomous choices throughout a child’s day: “Do you want to wear the red pants or the blue pants?” “Do you want to eat oatmeal or yogurt?”  Do you want to read first or brush teeth first?  Offering these simple choices throughout the day is doing a great service to our children, giving them experience making choices.

But in reality, life is full of choices – Hit or share? Run or Walk? Color on the paper, the wall, the piano, or the table? – and children need to know their boundaries for those choices as well.

Little Scientists

One common complaint that I hear about young children is that “they’re always testing my limits“.  This is a frustrating thing, to be sure, but it’s really a good thing.

Children are natural scientists.  They are hard-wired to learn.  They form questions and test hypotheses.  They want to know what the boundaries are, and so they make a guess and test it out.  You’ve seen that scientist face they make, that side glance they use to try to monitor your reaction without giving away their secret scientific study.

As every good scientist knows, results have to be replicated.  You can’t just get a result once, and accept it!  Young children have mastered this scientific truth.  No playing in the toilet?  OK.  Well, this is a different toilet.  Can I play in this one?  How about this one?  What about on Tuesdays?  What if Im wearing purple?   Will Dad let me do it?  How about Grandma?

When do scientists stop running tests?  When they get enough consistent results to lead them to believe that every future test will end the same way.   I wish I could give you a magic number, say that if you are consistent 3 times, your child won’t push it again.  But I can’t.

Some children are more rigorous scientists than others.  Some can draw a broad conclusion from one “study”.  Others want to explore every possible angle before arriving at a conclusion.  I can tell you this though.  The number of times they need to get a different response before starting the experimental process all over again is: 1.

They really do push your boundaries, because they want to know where those boundaries are.  Believe it or not, for as much as children want to make choices, they also want to know that ultimately you will take charge.  They want to know that they are safe to explore and experiment and test because they know they can trust you to intervene and keep them within safe boundaries.

Sometimes, when we say that a child’s behavior is “out of control” it’s because the child feels out of control due to a lack of boundaries.  The child may be testing again and again just waiting for someone to finally step in and say, “This is the limit.”

This of course doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily thank you for your gallant act.  They’ll still likely throw that tantrum or get that pouty look going.  But they’ll know they can trust you.  Just think of their disappointed reaction as one last test of the strength of the boundary.  With time and consistency, the strength of the boundary increases and the strength of your child’s negative reaction decreases.

Parents who offer their children a lot of choices are sometimes accused of being passive parents, not taking charge, or not “being the parent”.  In reality, these accusations have nothing to do with offering choices, and everything to do with setting boundaries.  When you teach a child how to make choices within boundaries, you give them one of the most important social lessons they can learn in life.


Find more about how to frame choices within boundaries here.




Filed under Child Development & DAP, Positive Guidance and Social Skills, Uncategorized

15 Responses to The Parable of the Swing: Why Kids Need Both Choices and Boundaries

  1. Trine

    Mandy, this was a great and very timely read for me. :)

  2. Katherine

    Loved this read. The toilet scenario made me laugh and it’s just what I needed. I have been struggling with my 3 year old daughter running off on me when the answer is no and just yesterday I lost it. I was very angry when she took off from the park towards the road, my anger showed though in my tone and she and all the others at the park were staring at me when I yelled STOP ! I don’t know however if this will be the last time she runs off, but at least I can hope. She knows the rules because as soon as she saw my husband she recounted the whole thing adding “I should not have run off daddy.”

    Sticking to it is hard though, but thanks to your post I now have the strength to stick with it another day… or days !

  3. Susan Box

    Great analogies! The comparison to scientists makes it so much easier to accept children’s behaviour as experiments and not provocation. What I have learned through my own inadvertent experimentation is that, yes, ONE inconsistent response is all it takes for the experiments to start over!
    Thanks for the excellent post.

  4. Carly W

    thank you!

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  8. The truth is if parents offer 2 choices which for the most part is all most kids needs, they are usually the choices the parent is happy with so I don’t get how anyone can think that makes a passive parent. The parent who doesnt give choices is much more passive.

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