How to set boundaries without micromanaging and controlling kids

Parenting is a lot like driving. Speed limits, traffic lights, parking restrictions and stop signs are all designed to keep everyone on the road safe. Sometimes, we might choose to see these boundaries more as suggestions, but we all know there are established consequences when we violate them.

The actual act of driving on the other hand, is in our full control. No one is making you use your turn signal, drive under the speed limit, or put your seat belt on. Those are all choices that you make and are in your control. Knowing the consequences impacts your behavior (or the beep that won’t stop until your seat belt it on). But no one is making you, or controlling you when you are behind the wheel. You choose where to park, how fast to drive, and which route to take. So where did the term ‘back seat driver’ come from? We know this phrase all too well. Someone else in the car who is trying to control your driving while clearly not in the driver’s seat.

“Back seat driving” our children is no different. While our intentions are pure and we are only trying to be helpful, we are often doing more unintended harm than good. We are being that nagging back seat driver that is vying for control.

So how do we find the balance? How do we provide the boundaries our kids need without trying to control their every move? It isn’t easy, especially for the self proclaimed control freaks among us.


One of my favorite books is “The Self Driven Child” whose tag line is ‘The science and sense of giving your kids more control over their lives.’ This book reminds us that “Stress most often results from feeling a low sense of control over events or the environment we live in, and the less control we experience, the more stressed we feel.”

During such uncertain and unpredictable times, it makes sense that everyone, children and adults alike, are looking for a sense of control. However, instead of trying to control our kids, we need to focus on other areas of our lives that we have control over:

  • exercise
  • what food you put in your body
  • your hygiene
  • what you watch on TV
  • what you read
  • how you spend the few free moments you may have
  • what music you listen to
  • your breath
  • what time you go to sleep
  • how you respond to your feelings
  • how many times a day you say ‘I love you’

When laid out like this, it’s clear to see we are in control of much more than we initially may have thought. Adding your kids to this list is not going to help you, or them. Just as you are searching for control, your kids are as well. Which means the more you try and control them, the higher their stress levels are going to be. And we all know what that looks like! And it is certainly not our objective. We want to reduce stress for everyone in our homes, now more than ever.

The power of choice

Just as it is valuable to identify areas that are under your control, it is also helpful to make this list for your children. Think about what they have control over in their lives. Are they picking out their own clothes, choosing which fork they want to use for dinner or which show to watch on TV? Can you come up with 3, 5, 10, or 20 times throughout the day where your child has control? If you are being met with lots of resistance right now from your kids, this may be a helpful place to start.

One of my go to strategies is to provide kids with two choices. This power to choose gives my kids a sense of control, which makes the chances of them buying in much greater. Of course, both choices I provide are reasonable and accomplish my mission:

  • Do you want to crawl up the stairs like a baby or have me carry you? (get you upstairs)
  • Do you want to take a shower or a bath? (get you clean)
  • Do you want me to serve broccoli or spinach muffins for dinner? (attempt to eat a vegetable for dinner)
  • Do you want to clean up by yourself or with my help? (clean up)

And if they don’t want to or are too tired to make the choice, I will help them. When met with, “I don’t want to do either!” I will calmly say, “I’m happy to help you make the choice. It can be hard to decide when you’re tired. I’ll serve spinach muffins for dinner tonight.”

Boundaries and control

I often think of boundaries as parameters or restrictions, my kids need me to put in place to maintain order, routine, and of course heath and safety. It is my job to guide my kids (who lack a well developed prefrontal cortex). However, it is NOT my job to be them or try and control them. My overarching goal is to provide these boundaries, as needed, so that when I am NOT around, my kids can make reasonable choices for themselves.

Whether they are in preschool, high school or college and I am not around to swoop in, how will they fare? Whether it’s deciding to lie to a friend on the playground, cheat on a test, or drink at a high school party, they need to know how to be in control. And how will they learn if I never give them a chance to be in control? I can’t possibly expect them to be good at making decisions, especially difficult decisions, if they have never had to or been given the opportunity.

“As grown ups, we sometimes tell our kids that they’re in charge of their own lives, but then we proceed to micromanage…” “Or perhaps we tell them that actually they’re not in charge – we are. Either way, we make them feel powerless and by doing so, we undermine our relationship with them.” For a self proclaimed control freak, I gained a lot of value from reading (and rereading) this book.

The book goes on to share sixty years of research that has found that a healthy sense of control goes hand in hand with nearly all of the positive outcomes we desire for our children. Perceived control – the confidence that we can direct the course of our life through our efforts — is associated with:

  • better physical health
  • less use of drugs and alcohol
  • greater longevity
  • lower stress
  • positive emotional well-being
  • greater internal motivation and ability to control one’s behavior
  • improved academic performance
  • enhanced career success

I’m not advocating to let the inmates run the asylum. Instead, evaluate whether you might be micromanaging your kids. The last thing we want is to be contributing to a rise in their stress and undermining their ability to make choices for themselves. Consider stepping back so your kids can step up.


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