Children need boundaries, discipline and to understand the word NO

There’s something Annie Ridout is finding increasingly frustrating. Why are parents no longer telling their kids the difference between right and wrong, and that it’s not OK to hurt other children?

Before I had my first baby, I had lots of ideas about the type of mum I’d be.

There would be very limited sugar, only organic home-cooked meals, no screens, strict bedtimes and wooden Montessori-style toys.

Of course, the reality was vastly different once my daughter arrived.

And I ended up doing lots of things I’d been adamant I’d avoid.

But there’s one thing I’ve never relaxed on, and that’s how she – or her two younger brothers – treat other children.

I am utterly intolerant of unkind behaviour going unchallenged.

Most children will snatch. Or say something out loud that as adults we might just say in our heads. And at some point, they will upset another child.

This is normal human behaviour: we try things out, make mistakes, and then learn how to do better next time.

Except that’s not what I’m seeing play out around me.

Because in this age of ‘child-led parenting’ – where children are left to make their own decisions and parents don’t step in to discipline them – they aren’t learning the difference between right and wrong.

‘Wrong’ being behaviour that upsets or hurts someone else.

And the word they need to hear being NO.

I know that it can be difficult to challenge a child’s behaviour; especially in public. It can lead to tantrums, and they’re difficult to manage. I’ve been there.

But I also know that if a child isn’t told that it’s not acceptable to push or hit or kick – they continue to do it.

It garners a reaction, and sometimes that’s exactly what the child is looking for. However, if they need attention, it should come from their parent; not the child they’ve hurt.

I have a friend who was head of early years at an east London primary school a few years back, and I remember her telling me she was fed up with parents asking her not to use the word ‘no’ with their children.

These parents preferred that their children were gently told what they’d done wrong, and how to rectify it.

She told them that she would continue using the word ‘no’, because when you’re trying to look after 30 children, and one of them does something potentially dangerous, ‘no’ is a useful word.

It means STOP. It means the adult who is supervising you is teaching you that you’re putting yourself – or someone else – in danger. It means don’t do it again.

While a gentle ‘you could try this instead’ will most likely be ignored.

And on the subject of ‘gentle parenting’ – I get it. I think it’s great if we can talk to our children about what they’ve done well, as well as how their behaviour could be improved. I’m all for that.

But in some situations – like when another child is being hurt – a firm NO works much better.

It just does.

It was interesting watching author and creative Emma Scottchild let her two school-aged children take charge for a whole weekend.

It’s documented in her Instagram Stories under ‘kids in charge’. Have a watch.

This experiment reminds us that kids aren’t able to make all the decisions, all the time. Because once the novelty of all that freedom wears off, they become tired.

They can’t choose their own food without guidance. Or their own bedtime. Or even how the day should pan out. Because they come to find it confusing.

They want and need boundaries.

Kids need adults guiding them. And explaining why some things just won’t work (like never cleaning your teeth, or only eating sweets).

The same goes for interactions with other children. Kids who are more tactile or energetic don’t always understand that others like their personal space, or to be quieter/slower. And the same in reverse.

So as adults, and parents, it’s our duty to explain differences, and to respect other children’s needs, as well as those of our own kids.

What do you think: are parents getting too soft, and would more boundaries and discipline serve the next generation better?