The Art – and Science – of Setting Boundaries

Remember “The Dog Whisperer” on National Geographic Channel? It featured the celebrated dog behavior specialist, Cesar Millan. His common-sense approach to controlling the conduct of dogs worked perfectly, time after time. Interestingly, in every episode it became obvious that the focus was not entirely on the dog. Indeed, the difficulty invariably ended up being the attitude of the dog’s owner. Mr. Millan himself said it best during the opening credits: “I rehabilitate dogs; I train people.”

I can’t help but draw a parallel between the predictable behavior of our canine friends and the behavior of small children. Both seek to please and to be noticed. Both come into this world as virtual blank slates, armed only with instinct and ready to be influenced by their elders and their surroundings. Both react eagerly to tone-of-voice, reward and punishment; modeling their actions (good and bad) on those who care for them. Of course, children mature past this point, whereas man’s best friend remains at that stage of development for its entire life.

Besides being a dog expert, Cesar Millan truly understood people. He recognized that many of us have dogs because we want something to love. That’s fine, of course, but if that love interferes with what the dog naturally requires, then it’s another story. As he states on his website (, “Dogs are animals, and they respond to calm, assertive leadership — not emotional arguments or negotiations.” Wow! How many parents of young kids would do well to remember that advice?

We expect children to develop beyond the programming of childhood and advance to the conceptual sophistication of adulthood. But in the early years, kids require guidance. This doesn’t rule out being nice, but it often means saying “no,” and expecting him or her to deal with it.

Young children can’t yet figure out why it’s necessary to be quiet in public places, or why they shouldn’t blurt out whatever pops into their heads. They need someone to take the lead and hold them responsible for their mistakes. If you fail to provide consistent and sensible leadership, you get confusion and tears. In the case of Mr. Millan, you get a good television show with lots of barking and snarling.

Young kids want someone to take the lead. The famous physician and educator Maria Montessori said that children have an “absorbent mind” to around age 6, possessing limitless motivation to learn skills and understanding. To that end, childhood should be neither a democracy nor a dictatorship. The child is too young to have an equal vote on everything, but, at the same time, he or she has a mind that must be lovingly inspired and trained.

If you overlook love in favor of setting limits, you’ll crush the potential for confidence and self-esteem. Conversely, if you overlook boundaries in favor of making the child perpetually comfortable, you’ll crush the child’s ability to mature mentally. This is the mistake that Cesar Millan encountered on show after show. Dog owners shower “unconditional love” – but the dogs interpreted that as weakness and submission. The dogs then assume the dominant role and become difficult.  Mr. Millan fixes the problem quickly, because dogs are less complex than human beings. But it doesn’t work that way with kids. By the time you see the consequences of “over-loving” a child, he or she has grown biologically, but not emotionally, into a young adult who must now fix him- or herself.

Mr. Millan emphasizes that establishing boundaries does not “hurt the dog’s feelings.” Canines are wired to please and to follow their leader, so making right and wrong easy to understand makes the dog content. The same applies to kids: How can a child be happy if he or she is being scolded all the time? If your child isn’t well behaved, don’t default to verbal or physical punishment; consider your own clarity, consistency – or lack thereof.

Parenting is hard, but setting boundaries and establishing consequences not only make for a happy, secure child, but also a responsible and productive adult.


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