Is it really true that when kids do “bad” things, it’s to test their so-called boundaries?

When I was a child, there were forbidden things I wanted to do.

This didn’t mean I was a bad child, but just about every kid has rules to obey, set by the parents.

I did things that I knew I wasn’t supposed to do, but the reasons had nothing to do with testing boundaries.

I stole that funky-looking, gold-plated dialer of old-fashioned phones because I thought it was a cool thing to have.

The last thing on my mind was to use my mother as a guinea pig for an experiment on testing my boundaries!

I hid the gadget in my sleeve while I was with my parents at the mall. Only years later did I mention I had stolen the thing.

My older sister and I stole some turquoise jewelry at a department store — when I was around 11 — because we simply wanted the jewelry and didn’t have the money. No other reason.

I stole a little ceramic apple from a store when I was with my parents and sister.

My sister knew I was eyeing it, and I had asked my mother to buy it for me (I was way younger than 11), and she said no.

So when nobody was looking, I snatched it because I wanted that pretty ornament.

My sister noticed it was gone from the display and said, “I bet you stole that apple!”

I denied it.

For years it was a fixture in our living room; my mother never noticed that it had one day appeared there. And no, I didn’t grow up to be a felon.

Do kids misbehave to test boundaries?

“That is a myth,” begins Dr. John Mayer, a practicing clinical psychologist specializing in teens/families/children/young adults, and author of “Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life.”

He believes that testing boundaries is not a primary reason for why kids do the things they do.

Dr. Mayer continues, “Even though kids don’t purposefully try and test boundaries, the result of their behavior does, in fact, test boundaries. This is where parents get confused; they look at the surface and think they see the underlying causes in their kids’ behavior.”

Myth: Children Test Parents’ Boundaries

Have you ever stolen office supplies or took a lunch break longer than your workplace’s rules? If so, it wasn’t to test anybody’s boundaries.

Have you ever grown impatient at a red light and then went through it after making sure the coast was clear?

You did this because you lost your patience, not because you wanted to test your boundaries with law enforcement. kids test boundaries myth

When I was around 12, I opened a bag of chocolate chip cookies after my mother told me not to.

This action had nothing to do with testing out any boundaries.  I simply wanted to eat those tantalizing cookies.

If a teenager misses curfew by 30 minutes, is it because he wanted to test his boundaries?

Or do you suppose he was having such a good time at the party that he found it difficult to leave?

What people have never disobeyed their parents?

As a 16-year-old, you probably didn’t think, “Okay, Dad just told me not to drive the new car until I have more experience driving. But by golly, I’m gonna test my boundaries and take that car for a spin.”

The reason you took the car for a spin while your parents were entrenched in a house party down the street was because you couldn’t resist driving that cool new car — not any more than your dieting mother was able to resist the homemade potato salad at the party.

My older sister would sneak out late at night to go to parties after my parents had gone to bed.

She didn’t do this to test boundaries. She did it because she didn’t want to miss out on the fun.

If she had wanted to test any boundaries, she would have deliberately made a noise upon entering the home at 3 am to awaken our parents.

Dr. Mayer is a practicing clinical psychologist who treats adolescents, children, families, violent and acting-out patients, substance abusers and disorders of young adults.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  


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