How to be assertive, set boundaries and parent your kids depends on understanding two primary factors: Maturity and Control. If you fail to take these into account, you will expect too much or encourage frustration and anger unnecessarily. The control, or freedom, you allow needs to reflect the capabilities and maturity of your kids.

When you are very young, when you are an infant or toddler, you have very little control, and your parents or other caregivers have to help you and make up the difference. The choices you are given are simple and few. As a parent, you have to provide a lot of structure, supervision and even hands on help for your littlest ones.

As kids get older, they are capable of doing more on their own and cooperating with things that need to get done. These may be things they can do to take care of themselves or helping get chores and other useful things done for you or the family. You should expect that teenagers have the capacity for working unsupervised on most things and are in a number of ways practicing to be out on their own as adults soon. Helping make this happen is essentially our job as loving parents. Let's take a look at how we can do this better.

In the chart above, you can see that Maturity runs left to run from "infant" to "adult." While adults can act like children and children can behave well beyond their years, we expect more mature behavior from people when they're older and look or act more capably in general. Unfortunately, age and maturity aren't reliably related and all of us can act more like difficult or grumpy kids at times. Far too many adults even have temper tantrums. So, while we tend to think about maturity as an age-related thing, it's better to see it in stages. These are labeled 1, 2 and 3 in the body of the chart. We'll talk about these in detail below.

Going from bottom to top on the chart, you see Control runs from none to total. When we're very young our control is limited to crying, fussing, smiling, giggling, making faces and otherwise trying to get what we want or need without words. As adults we're expected to be able to do whatever it takes. There's a diagonal line running through the middle of the chart dividing the amount of self-control from the other-control provided to make up the difference in any situation. You should note that even as adults we rarely have anything like total control, but we almost always have more choices, options and capabilities to give us quite a bit of control.

When dealing with kids and teenagers, it's important to help them exercise the control or freedom that they can actually safely use. It's even helpful to give them extra leeway in relatively safe situations to grow their capacity and earn trust. It's important for you as a parent to fill in the gaps. If you abandon responsibility, you may find local authorities will come in to pick up the slack with potentially serious consequences for the kids and perhaps even you if something dangerous or unfortunate happens. Kids whose parents fail to provide reasonable control in the form of limits, saying no, helping or encouraging often develop safety, trust and codependent people pleasing issues that impact their adult relationships negatively.

Finally, the chart is divided into three broad stages. These represent the ways we tend to handle things with each other. We'll look at them in detail below, but in broad strokes, Stage 1 behavior or development is self-centered and short-sighted. Arguing, resisting and temper tantrums are frequent here. Stage 2 behavior and development is cooperative. There's an interest in getting along and reducing friction. Stage 3 behavior and development is responsible and caring. We're interested enough in others that we look out for the things they want more reliably. Let's dive in.

Stage 1

Stage 1 development is appropriate to infants, toddlers and kids less than about four. Kids who are old enough to walk and talk a little bit are capable of some Stage 2 behavior, but only when things are going well and probably only when a well-established routine is happening.

We can all be behaving at this stage under some circumstances. If you are engaging in the behaviors or points of view described below, you are at Stage 1. Everyone is at Stage 1 sometimes.

  • Fighting, arguing, demanding, manipulating, tantrums or drama is happening.
  • Behaving selfishly with no real concern for (or concept of) others' needs or feelings.
  • There's no insight or recognition of consequences, and there's little capacity to "see down the road."
  • There's a focus on being right, in control, winning or not losing. There's a win-lose orientation (that often degenerates into lose-lose). This seems to be driven by fear of loss, being used or being insecure.
  • Avoiding work and minimizing compliance whenever possible. There's a lot of attitude and perhaps hostility.
  • Consequences and "external control" are required. This often requires explicit boundaries and assertiveness.

Stage 2

Stage 2 should be the default for kids 4 and up. As they get older and especially as teens, they a capable of some Stage 3 behavior, but you should be able to expect that most of the time the behaviors or points of view described below are characteristic of them. You should be behaving at this level too in most social or business-like situations. This stage is appropriate to relationships with most strangers, coworkers and acquaintances.

It's important to note that there are degrees of cooperation. Sometimes cooperation is more freely expressed, more heartfelt and comes with fewer "strings" or demands for payback or reciprocation than at others.

Your adult relationships should spend nearly all of their time at least at this level. If cooperation and the respect for each other it implies is chronically in short supply, your "relationship" isn't what it needs to be to last or to succeed.

  • Cooperating, negotiating and respecting (although often imperfectly)
  • They're willing to cooperate (whether or not it's "willingly" or with some "grumpiness"). Prefers peace, respects others and authority.
  • Expects reciprocity (trades "favors," so can be legalistic). Understands others' wants but has limited empathy. Has some insight into and recognition of the likely consequences.
  • Focused on "getting along." Has a win-win orientation, but rarely or never takes any initiative. Is not a "self-starter." Is less insecure to somewhat secure about themself.
  • Will do real work. Will do more than the minimum (but seldom much more).
  • Fewer consequences are required. Is willing to communicate. Has the capacity to be rational and reasonable.

Stage 3

Stage 3 might seem like a fantasy or a dream, but it's real. More of us should spend more time here. Unfortunately, too many of us live in immature codependent relationships where we have trouble even staying cooperative with each other. Stage 3 behaviors and points of view believe in other people and the relationships we have with them. We're willing to give more and trust more because of that. We "know" that the things we do will come back to us in some form. We expect the relationship to grow and be happy. We want to help make that happen just for the sake of it.

Older kids, teens and adults are all capable of being at this stage, at least some of the time, if we help create the environment for it.

  • They are proactive, principled, responsible, altruistic and caring.
  • They do things without being asked. They recognize opportunities to help. They "do things for the right reasons."
  • They frequently do things without expecting anything back. Long term reciprocity is assumed). They hold values and principles to be important. They tend to have good insight.
  • They focus on bettering relationships, mutual happiness and satisfaction. They consistently demonstrate empathy and take the initiative. They're self-confident and secure.
  • They give meaningful service. They "go above and beyond."
  • Consequences not required. They may ask for advice and feedback ("consultation").

Parenting with Maturity in Mind

Relationships at any age or stage depend on respect to stay or get healthy. Showing respect in spite of any other person's behavior is possible. You don't have to take someone else's Stage 1 behavior as an excuse to engage in it, too. Stage 1 behavior isn't personal. It's happening to you, but it doesn't say anything about you. Seeing past drama and behaving in ways that help defuse it can be your goal. So, use the tools you know, or are learning, to stay calm and focused on your longer-term goals as well as you can.

When dealing with kids, be prepared. You should know them well enough to know what to expect in most situations. Provide routine, structure and predictability whenever you can. Have alternatives ready. One should be the thing you want and the alternative a backup plan that gets the job done without requiring the other person's cooperation. If more consequences are required, you don't have to decide on them or announce them in the moment. It's better to do this after you've had time to settle down, get out of Stage 1, and reinforce your original boundary or request appropriately. The goal of consequences is to change behavior not simply punish. Even consequences need to demonstrate respect.

Additional points to keep in mind:

  • How consistently a person behaves like a particular stage (especially in "conflict" or under stress) defines their current stage.
  • Remember the two most important rules in relationships and parenting:
    1. Some things you control, some things you don't.
    2. Pay attention to what you do control.
  • You don't control attitude or desire.
  • Yelling at your kids is Stage 1 behavior. It's not necessary. It's disrespectful and counterproductive.
  • When you need to impose consequences make sure they're in your control and do not require any cooperation from a Stage 1 person, since you won't have it or get it.
  • Don't make meaningless threats or offer alternatives that you're not going to be comfortable with.
  • You may need to help younger children with emotional regulation. Children of all ages (as well as adults) will need this kind of help in times of crisis. You will need to help soothe and calm. (This often means simply listening and being calmly present yourself.)
  • You may need to help kids think things through and realize the potential consequences of their choices and behavior.
  • 100% "control" is present in any situation. First it should come from the individual, and secondarily it should come from a parent (or a partner for adults in crisis). If further control is ultimately required, the state (police, CPS, courts, etc.) will step in. Friends, peers and coworkers often have quite a bit of influence, but they don't have control.
  • Kids want to be in control of their lives. They want to be free to choose. That has to be based on the maturity they show on a regular basis. Allow them to make more choices as they demonstrate the capacity to handle them. Help them understand that greater maturity, which develops your confidence and trust in them, comes before greater choice.
  • Remember maturity tend to decrease with things like stress, tiredness, conflict, unusual or unfamiliar people, places and situations or with deadlines and demanding activities. Expect and make some allowance for this, especially when you are in a similar state or situation yourself.
  • The basic rule for relationships is: We care about each other, so we show respect to each other, help each other, protect each other and work things out when there's been miscommunication, mistakes, misbehavior and bad choices. If this is not what tends to happen, you need to seriously look at the relationship in terms of how you are behaving, what boundaries you are actually setting, how assertively you are communicating and what capacity the other person has for acting more maturely. If you or the other person is unwilling to or sees no reason to change, change will not happen.
  • You aren't going to "debate" anybody out of anything ever, so stop wasting your time and energy, and save yourself the aggravation. Both of you are acting at Stage 1 when you do.

Questions for Journaling

  1. When do you have the most trouble getting you kids to cooperate?
  2. How many times to you typically have to ask (yell at or “threaten”) your kids to get them to do what’s needed?
  3. How mature do you think your kids are for their age?
  4. What do you think you could do this week to start getting more cooperative behavior from your kids more regularly?


Live on Purpose TV, Teaching Kids Responsibility – Positive Parenting

Live On Purpose TV, How To Get Kids To Listen Without Yelling

Live on Purpose TV, How To Stop Arguing With Your Child

Verses for the Week

1 Corinthians 14:20
My friends, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.

1 Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I grew up, I gave up childish ways.

Proverbs 26:20-21
20Without wood, a fire goes out; without gossip, quarreling stops.
21Charcoal keeps the embers glowing, wood keeps the fire burning, and troublemakers keep arguments alive.

Prayer for the Week

Help me pay attention to the level of maturity I'm living and to pay attention to the level of those I'm interacting with so that I can be responsive not reactive. Help me to be consistently demonstrate maturity to those I influence. Amen.