by Dr Ray Swann

Setting boundaries: where do you draw the line?


As a parent, it can be difficult to know how to provide corrections and re-directions to our boys. We often wonder, am I being too tough, or not tough enough?

Our boys need to know where the boundaries are, how to follow rules and be a good sport.

Occasionally, I let things build to the point where my emotions get the better of me. It is at these times I know that I run the risk of poor role modelling or worse – shaming my son somehow through criticism. 

There is a way to provide feedback and boundaries that can work. It just takes a little practice.

Here is a six step process that you can use to make positive corrections with your son.

Separate the boy from the behaviour

Key to the whole process is that your son understands that you will talk to him about his behaviour from time to time. When this happens, it can be difficult for him to hear feedback but it is about what he is doing, not about who he is.

This may seem like a word trick, but in reality we all make mistakes. So when approaching a conversation with him on his behaviour, it is best to frame it like this:

When you shout it makes people feel really uncomfortable. Can we talk about that?

Name the behaviour and consequence

Naming the behaviour, and the result of it, is important for your son’s social and emotional learning. It changes the dynamic of the behaviour and makes it more conscious for him.

An example of a correction is: When people shout, it can make others defensive. What can happen is that the people around you who see this behaviour think you may not be in control of yourself and then may feel afraid.

When we think of punishment, we don’t always realise that we are trying to enable the boy to connect his behaviour to the world around him. If one is shouting, then the consequence is that the boy is less connected to those around him.

Give them some reasons

This step is about providing some reasons for your son’s behaviour.

This does two things: you are providing time and space for your son to think about what he is doing, to breathe and to slow down. It also shows that you are a witness to the good in him.

In other words, there is probably a logical and reasonable explanation for the behaviour. Even when this is not the case, it is about building trust and suggesting that there must be some kind of reason.

For instance: I know you’re really tired at the moment and sometimes when I’m tired I find that I don’t have as much energy and this can lead me to shouting too.  I also know that you’re really angry about a few things and that’s fair enough, but we cannot have you shouting.

Ask for a response and a reflection

In this step, it is about listening to your son. Just ask him to talk it through, be patient and don’t expect that he will make all of the corrections at once.

It is more effective to ignore the annoying behaviour that is not critical. The best result might be that he reflects and slows down. Ideally, this forms the basis for an apology.

Explain any next steps

It is important to close out the conversation and discuss what will happen next. If you use a technology contract, it might be a consequence from that. For breaking a family rule, you may want to apply the weighted consequence that works for your family.

You may not always have the immediate consequence at your fingertips. A summary and confirmation of the conversation can be helpful, for example:

I can hear that you are really angry and you understand about the impact shouting has on others. From here, I think we both need a little time to think through next steps including any consequences for your actions. I think considering how your sister felt, it’s worth considering how to make it right with her at the very least? Let’s talk tonight after training and we can put it all to rest then.

Follow up and normalise

In families, and when we are growing up, there are times when we need to learn rules and how to apply them in our lives. This means that we have to change what we do and this can take a while to learn.

This is, of course, completely normal. So it is important that we don’t evidence-collect to build a profile or a case of behaviour in our boys. Once it is done, it is important to let it go.

If the behaviour continues, it is appropriate to raise that, but in the sense of providing more learning for your son.


Dr Ray Swann is Deputy Headmaster and Head of Crowther at Brighton Grammar School. He is a father of two teenage children. He also hosts the Understanding Boys podcast series. Listen to his interview with Professor Dianne Vella-Broderick on positive education.

Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School

Dr Ray Swann is Deputy Headmaster/Head of Crowther Centre at Brighton Grammar School, an all-boys school in Melbourne. His professional background includes consulting, research, lecturing and coaching. This article is about


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