Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family with Jim Daly

Setting Healthy Boundaries with Your Kids (Part 1 of 2)

Setting Healthy Boundaries with Your Kids (Part 1 of 2)

Psychologists Henry Cloud and John Townsend discuss the importance of parents defining appropriate boundaries and sticking with consequences in order to help kids learn to lead balanced, productive, and fulfilling adult lives. (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date: October 7, 2013


John Fuller: Here’s a pretty common scenario: It’s your child’s job to clean up their room on a Saturday, but hours have gone by and the job still isn’t done. You have given several reminders, even some warnings. So as your frustration mounts, how should you respond? Do you go into lecture mode? That’s pretty easy. You ground ‘em for a week? You clean up the room yourself? Well, this is Focus on the Family, and today we’re gonna examine the struggles like that that so many parents face, especially with younger children. And your host is Focus President and author Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, did you actually use the word “imagine”?


Jim: That sounds like what’s normal when you have younger kids in the home and you’re trying to win those battles of getting things done. Uh, the struggle is real, and we know that even good kids can become difficult at times. It’s called free will, and they’re quick to take advantage of you if you’re too tired, or maybe too busy, or you seem willing to let the rules slide just a bit. What families need today, more than ever, are good, internal structures where everyone knows the rules and expectations. And then mom and dad provide the consistency to keep that going. We call those healthy boundaries between a parent and a child. And uh, I know our guest today will share their expertise about how to better incorporate good boundaries in our families today.

John F.: Yeah, there’s a real safety when you’ve got it all established and everybody knows so clearly what’s expected then. We’re gonna return to a great conversation from a few years ago with Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. They’re psychologists, and they practically invented the boundaries concept. And they’ve written a number of books about it. And Jim, here’s how you began the conversation with John and Henry on today’s episode of Focus on the Family.


Jim: Alright, let’s start with a real softball question: What are boundaries, ‘cause not everybody knows your definition of that, but what are boundaries when it comes to relationships? What do you mean by boundaries?

Dr. John Townsend: Well probably the simplest description, guys, would be it’s a property line. It’s the thing that determines what you’re responsible for inside your property – which is your life and your heart – and what you’re not responsible for. You know, in Proverbs 4:23, Solomon says to guard your heart for from it springs the well-springs of life, and your heart’s where everything important for you lies. So that’s what a boundary is. It determines, “I’m responsible for my actions and my attitudes and my values and my feelings.” And I’m responsible too, to help other people with theirs, but I’m not responsible for those things.

Jim: Now you’re both dads and, uh, you’ve had to do this and probably learn even though you’re both clinical psychologists. I mean, you’ve studied this as grad students and then you were applying it as dads. How did it work in your own family? It’s confessional time.

Dr. Henry Cloud: Well – well, the first thing you learn about being a psychologist is that it’s a lot easier to tell other people how do this…


Henry: …than your own kids, right?

Jim: I think a lot of people just said amen.

Henry: Right. Well you know, one of the things that we talk about a lot with doing this with kids is that the future is now, and one of the things that really helps me do it is when I’m lookin’ at, you know, one of the girls and I’m thinking, “Okay, this might be cute at 5 or 7 or whatever, but if you project 25 years into the future, it ain’t cute anymore.” Right?

Jim: That’s right.

Henry: And so if you can really always kind of keep in mind that parenting, even though we’re in the moment, you’re really training them for how to be people that other people will want to be around, and be in relationship with, and be married to, and be their boss.

Jim: Well, uh, you know, I like to connect by, I guess, confessing my failures. Was there a – a situation in your parenting where you were trying all the rules on boundaries, I mean, you guys were learning these things as psychologists, but come on, I need some open – where it didn’t work well.

John T.: Well it’s a short program.


Jim: Identify with the rest of us.

John T.: I was gonna say, I didn’t know this was going to be several programs in a row here. Yeah, I’ve got one where um, I had just had a really hard, a lot of – seeing a lot of clients, a lot of meetings and I was out of gas and I went home and – and I always try to be a work-ethic dad, you know like, everybody should have a job of taking out the trash and feeding the dog, and all that. And I got home and one of the kids hadn’t done that. And so, I let myself get into that argument that takes 45 minutes about a five-minute task, and lost a lot of family time, instead of sayin’, you know, up you go to bed or time out, or whatever.

Jim: Right.

John T.: So, you know, letting it go much longer than it should have.

Jim: Oh man, now you’re speakin’ right to my home and my heart, because we battle that all the time, Jean and I. But um, you know the biggest thing that we struggle with is – on this idea of boundaries – is that balance between love and limits that we need to set for the kids, and our hearts are always there. I think especially with Christians, you – you definitely want to love your kids, but man, you definitely want to make sure they know the rules and the boundaries. How do we maintain that balance?

Henry: Well I think it’s important to realize that – that it’s not a continuum. You know, it’s not like love is on one end and limits are on the other. It’s really parallel lines like a railroad track. You know, God has His grace that never ends and He has His truth that doesn’t get any interruptions in it. And so, if you can always remember that the love part is really about staying connected while you’re, you know, imposing the limits, and having a tone about you that’s respectful of them and their personhood and – and kind and all that; but really immoveable on whatever the boundary is.

Jim: Hm.

Henry: And you can, you know, there’s lots of little tricks, but one of the greatest ones I like to tell parents is just empathize and stick with the limit, because you say, “Now, you know, Johnny, you can’t do that.” “That’s not fair!” Oh, yeah, I know, it’s a bummer isn’t it? But guess what? You’re doing it.” You know, and you can keep smilin’ through the process.

Jim: Right. And that’s a hard process, I mean, we keep smiling through it. I mean, for Jean and I, again, at times you get upset and your emotions can come through in that moment and you don’t want that to be, kind of, the baseline for the debate or the discussion. But how do you, as a parent, find those – the appropriate triggers to swallow the anger or that response and say, okay, I’ve got to think this through?

John T.: Yeah, it’s a big problem. We – sometimes we call it um, the problem of “ignore and zap parenting…”

Jim: Right.

John T.: …where you put up with and put up with and – but then finally you kind of, uh, the green monster comes out in you.

Jim: Right.

John T.: But one of the best things you can do is to, in those quiet moments of parenting, just set down your covenant of what the family should be. What are our house rules? How do we speak to each other? What are tones and words that are not okay? Um, what are actions that are not okay? So you’ve got those kind of expectations down there. Then you talk to the child about them.

Jim: Hm.

John T.: And then, by the time they do whatever, you’re sort of already ready to say, that’s not what we’ve – what we’ve agreed to in this family, so you’re kinda hittin’ it on the front end.

Jim: Yeah.

Henry: It’s really important, Jim. I think that – that when a parent begins to understand that when – you know, if I’m feeling frustrated, by definition, I’m out of control and now the kid has control of me. And when you really get it, that this kid has control, I’m los – why am I not just sayin’, “Oh, bummer. That was a tough choice. You’re in time out.” Because if I’m, you know, givin’ them the consequence, why do I need to be upset? And – and when we get upset, it’s when we feel out of control and usually that’s two or three steps past when there should have been a firm limit and a consequence.

Jim: Hm.

John T.: Yeah, sometimes you can look at it like there’s a difference between a discussion and an announcement. The discussion’s when I’m tryin’ to prove that – my point to them and have reasons, so that our – our wish is that they would say, “I get it now. Thank you. I feel good.”

Jim: That’s the expected answer.

Henry: You’re waiting for that moment, aren’t you?

John T.: As opposed to…

Jim: It’s taken 12 years; I haven’t heard it yet.

John T.: …as opposed to, “Well, this is an announcement and I love you, but this is…

Henry: I think that…

John T.: …what we’re doing – discussion.

Henry: …that that comes at your funeral is when you get that.


John T.: Oh, right.

Jim: Let’s hope it comes somewhere.

John T.: Yeah, I appreciate you now.

Jim: But Henry, I want – I want to go back to something you just said that’s so important. You talk about the rails of…

Henry: Yeah.

Jim: …of really love and truth – love and discipline, love and boundaries, those kinds of things. We as parents, as Christian parents, particularly, we are trying to reflect God’s image in what we’re doing…

Henry: Right.

Jim: …so that they get the bigger picture of what life is about and the way our heavenly Father relates to us. And – and that analogy, we need to restate that again, because with all of our parenting efforts, if kids can grasp grace and truth…

Henry: Right.

Jim: …we’ve done an outstanding job.

Henry: You’ve kind of done the job. I mean, you know, we are all born with this big split between love and limits. And if we ever get a limit when we’re little, we have that immediate protest like, “What?! You know, you’re not fair. Life’s not fair,” and all of this. And to be able to get those together and to hear “no” and respect it and maintain that I still love mommy or still love dad – that’s…

Jim: Mmhmm.

Henry: …that’s one of the biggest parts of it, because other people are gonna tell ‘em no. One of the most uh, problematic things I see out there in parenting today is this big emphasis on, well, don’t say no to the toddler or the little one. Distract ‘em and give ‘em another choice. And that is one of the most problematic philosophies out there.

Jim: What does that develop in the child?

Henry: Well, how many jobs have you had when your boss says do somethin’ and you say, “No, I don’t want to do that,” were they, “Well, let me give you a better alternative that you might be happy with.”

John T.: “Let me distract you.”

Henry: One of the most – yeah, exactly. One of the most important, important functions of parenting is to have your children learn how to hear the word “no” and respect it.

Jim: Well, let’s ask that basic question, what do boundaries provide the child? What’s the benefit to the child?

John T.: Well, there are several, but the main ones are self-control, because what a child’s born with is no boundaries. They want everything. They’re impulsive. Everything should be now and an enormous needs for love and support. And well we’re supposed to give love and support to them, but they don’t have the ability to say, “I need to delay gratification now. I need to be patient. I need to curb my impulse. I need to focus my energy here.” So what boundaries do is they’re an external structure that mom and dad provide that give the child an internal structure of, “I can control my behavior; I can focus on task. I can get things done, and I can love other people and be nice to people.”

Henry: And a key phrase there that John just said is the word “I.” One of the things that drives me crazy is when you hear parents saying things like, “You need to clean up your room. You need to do your homework.” You need, you need, you need. If I were king of the parenting world, I would pass a law against a parent ever saying the word “You need.”

Jim: Hm. That’s…

Henry: Because…

Jim: …a good rule of thumb.

Henry: It is, because when you’re sayin’ to a kid, “You need to do your homework,” and he’s playin’ a video game, he – he looks up and goes, “Well, obviously I don’t. I mean, I’m fine.” I don’t…


Jim: Thank you very much.

John T.: Not a felt need.

Henry: “I don’t feel a need to do this.”

Jim: Do you know my sons?

Henry: But I know kids, right? So the – the – one of the big roles of parenting is to transfer the need for that behavior from your shoulders to the shoulders of the child, ‘cause they’re the only ones that have control of the behavior that will satisfy that need.

Jim: Okay, it’s a great example.

Henry: Yeah.

Jim: Let’s go right to it. It’s one that we all live with the kids’ ages…

Henry: Yeah.

Jim: …that are, you know, kind of the 9 to 12-year-olds and even earlier.

Henry: Even – it starts way earlier than that.

Jim: So they’re playin’ the video game. You’re the parent. You come down and say, “You need to get your homework done.” How…

Henry: I don’t say that.

Jim: …should – I know. I’m saying…

Henry: Yeah.

Jim: …how should you handle that?

Henry: “So, Johnny, have you finished your homework?” “No, I’ll get to it.” “Well, here’s the deal. Remember we said, no playing games until your homework is done, so you got five seconds to get moving.” “Well, I don’t want -” you know, and you get all the gripe and say, “Well, you know the deal. No games for a week if you break the rule.” And if they know you’re serious, then all of a sudden, it’s I don’t feel the need for Johnny to do his homework. All of a sudden, Johnny’s goin’, “Oh, my gosh, I need to go do my homework! See, I need to go do my homework if I want privileges,” and you transfer the need.

Jim: Hm.

Henry: It’s sort of like the IRS feels no need for you to send in your taxes, but on April 14th, you get scurryin’, right? I need to get this thing in, because if I don’t, bad things are gonna happen.

Jim: There’s that penalty.

John T.: But – but the problem is, those bad things sometimes don’t happen in parenting, because we get caught in the argument or “one more chance.” Children learn from our words, but more – more powerfully, they learn from our experience. So, when Johnny does lose the video for a week, as opposed to the threat, that’s when it starts making a difference to him. So, the consequence is teach the child, not the uh, teaching lesson.

Jim: Uh, you know, one of the big challenges and I’m thinking of you, that mom who’s exhausted. I mean, she is workin’ outside the home. She’s comin’ home. She’s tryin’ to get a meal on the table. She’s on ‘em about getting’ their homework done. The kids may be not listening to them or ignoring her and she’s frustrated and she’s worn out. Uh, speak to her heart about some simple steps, again, that she might take. How do you keep those priorities right, when you’re utterly tapped out?

Henry: I think the first step and it is the most important one is God’s design for everything, is that her first step is not with her kids. Her first step is to get plugged in to the support and the resources of some other moms that are gonna do a couple things for her. They’re gonna help normalize for her. You know, when she’s sayin’ no and this, that and the other and she’s getting hated and all that and to be able to stick with it, they’re gonna normalize that. They’re also gonna support her, but they’re gonna stand with her and give her the courage to do that. So parenting should never be done alone, even if you’re a single parent. You really do have – have to have that friend that you can call in those moments or that support group or whatever it is. Then after that, then you get to the steps with the kids.

Jim: And even in that regard, whether you’re a two-parent household or a single-parent household, oftentimes you know, dad in a lot of this is disconnected. That’s not right.

Henry: Right.

Jim: But oftentimes the fathers are. We get a lot of emails and…

Henry: Yeah.

Jim: …correspondence here at Focus where that’s the case. Dads need to engage, as well.

Henry: Right. And John said something really important earlier and you were talkin’ about the steps with the mom at the end of the day, this, that and the other. You know, in those moments is – that’s never when you win, because if you don’t have it set up before then…

Jim: Hm.

Henry: …if we don’t know what the rules are and you don’t have – depending on the age, you don’t have the little charts or you don’t have the consequences or you don’t have something to appeal to in that moment, then you’re really flyin’ by the seat of your pants and that’s when things get out of hand.

Jim: And kids know that, too.

Henry: Oh, they are the best at that.

John F.: We’re listening to a recorded conversation with Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, talking about their book, Boundaries with Kids. You can find details about that and an audio copy of this program at Here’s more from John and Henry as they responded to a question that I asked about enforcing limits and boundaries with really young children – say a toddler – so that the pre-teen years and beyond go more smoothly.

John T.: Well, a toddler, the first thing is safety first, you know, ‘cause they’re walkin’ around bangin’ their heads on coffee tables and that sort of thing and you – you sort of have to protect them from themselves. So, there’s the no, you know. You – when you go over here and you touch that, that’s a no. There’s certain sharp things that you shouldn’t be touching and that sort of thing.

So with a 15-month-old, the big thing is that after you hear the safety stuff, is that you begin to understand that when mom or dad say the word “no,” you stop what you’re doing. And once you’ve done that, you’ve won half the game, because then when they hear you as they – I don’t know, bop little sister on the head or whatever, you say no enough and they’ll begin to take that no inside. That’s how they get the rules, because 15-months-olders are sort of verbal, but not really super verbal yet. So it’s more of hearing you say it and looking around the house as to what’s safe and healthy or not.

Jim: And they begin – it’s interesting at that point. They’ll start over a short period of time, they’ll start telling you as the parent, “That’s a no.”

John T.: Yeah.

Henry: Right.

Jim: I mean, they do get it.

John T.: They’re – they’re learning about life.

Jim: Yeah. They’re exploring.

Henry: Right and you just can’t – I don’t think you can underestimate how powerful these little timeouts are. You know, if they learn very early that, if I do that, I gotta go sit in a place I don’t want to sit in, where there’s nothing fun, then they learn pretty quickly, you know, I better not do that.

Jim: Uh, one of the points, one of the many great points that you make in your book, Boundaries with Kids, is this idea of empathizing with your child. Sometimes that can wear thin. You want to get right to it, especially fathers I think can struggle with this, ‘cause it’s like, “I said to take out the trash. Take out the doggone trash.” And uh, we don’t really empathize with our kids. Moms probably do a better job at that, but we probably all fail.

John T.: You don’t want to continue to empathize forever. I mean, after you’ve acknowledged, “I know you don’t want to do it. It’s frustrating to you. It’s sad that you’re gonna miss out because you made a wrong choice, but you gotta do it.” And the protest comes. Then I think you really do have to begin to address the protest, because at some point, you’ve got two problems. You’ve got the behavior, but you’ve also got the, you know, continual pushing back, that there has to be a limit on that at some point, as well…

Jim: You talk about the…

John T.: …without stifling.

Jim: Right. You talk about these different principles, sowing and reaping in the book. Um, I think I get that, but explain to me a little better what sowing and reaping, what you’re tryin’ to get at.

John T.: Well, it all comes from Galatians 6, where Paul tells us, whatever a person sows, they shall reap and that’s what we call the law of consequences, the law of reality. And the idea is if I sow love and support and I’m a family person, I do what mom and dad say, then I’ll get, you know, privileges and fun and great trips and – or whatever.

And if I sow disobedience and disrespect and not doing what they say, I should have a reaping that’s not pleasant for me. When Henry and I wrote the book, we talked about how a boundary is either you take away something good like fun and freedom or you add something that you don’t like, like you’ve got to feed to dog more than the other kids do. And so, that’s the negative fruit that comes from a – the sowing of the bad things. And now they’re learning about life. That’s how they learn how to study and make…

Jim: Let me ask this question in that regard. I’m livin’ this a bit, too, but with that child, if they’re complaining, “Ah, you got so many rules, mom and dad,” and – and you know, everything, “I’ve gotta do everything,” is that a good sign that they’re complaining?

Henry: Well, it’s absolutely a good sign. I mean, there’s a lot of different phrases out there that, you know, everybody means somethin’ different. But the last thing you want to do is, you’ve heard the phrase, “break the will of a child.”

Jim: Mmhmm.

Henry: Absolutely, the last thing you want to do. They’re gonna need that will when they’re 15-years-old in the backseat of a car or when somebody’s tryin’ to give them drugs. You want a strong-willed child.

Jim: Hm.

Henry: You want to not break it; you want to discipline it to where it wills good things. The will is willing good choices and willing against bad choices. And you do that through discipline. The word “will” actually in the Greek in the Bible, it means “desire.” So, we want to discipline our kids so their desiring to do the right thing, because life will be better, as John was sayin’. The consequences will be better.

Jim: Uh, in fact, again, I mean an illustration for me with my own son, my oldest boy, he has a strong will. He’s a strong-willed kid and we were just complimenting him this morning, because I said, “You know, Trent, you’re really good with getting your emotions out.” You do know what he’s feeling, ‘cause he’ll tell us.

Henry: Right.

Jim: He’ll be right – forthright. His younger brother is not so forthright. Uh, it’s a little more hidden in his heart. I gotta dig as the dad to get his truer feelings. Um, but that I think is a good thing. He’s also, uh, you know, he’s the tougher of the two, my oldest. And he puts up a good fight…

Henry: Yeah.

Jim: …and wants a lot of logic for, “Why are you deciding this consequence for me? And I’m tired of your consequences and how come it’s all about the rules?” And um, but you need to just stick with it, hey?

Henry: Yeah, I remember a story. One – one time um, my wife was on a trip and she was comin’ back at about 6 o’clock on Sunday night. And so, I had the girls. They would’ve been 5 and 7 at that time and – and like a good dad, I mean, we just trashed the house, right, all weekend. We just had a blast.


Jim: Guys’ weekend.

Henry: Yeah and on Sunday around lunchtime, I said, “Okay, girls, you know, all this stuff in the den, all your junk has gotta be back in your rooms. I’m havin’ an inspection at 5 o’clock, so you got till then and you gotta have it all back up there.” Now they know what that means, because anything left in the common area after inspection, that gets impounded and they gotta buy it back, right?

So, about probably 4 o’clock, Lucy would’ve been 5-years-old, I hear this – maybe she was 7 – I hear this like, “Yaa!” You know, this – this yelling and screaming in my study. And I go out there. I thought she was like had killed herself. And – and what had happened was she tried to get all of her junk, take it in one of those little strollers up the stairs in one trip.

John F.: Oh, my word.

Jim: Yeah.

Henry: It comes falling down and – and she’s lyin’ in the floor, you know, screaming and I go, “What is the deal?” She goes, “It’s too hard!”


And all of this drama. I said, “Luce, you know, when a 2-year-old has a problem, they lie on the floor and scream. When a 7-year-old has a problem, they solve their problem.” I said, “I’m in my study and I’m reading and this is really disturbing me. So, if you’re gonna be 2, you go up in your room where I can’t hear it. If you’re gonna be 7 and solve the problem and want some help, come find me.” She goes, “Okay, Dad, I’ll be 7.” I said, “No, that’s too fast.”

Jim: Oh, yeah right.


Henry: I said, “You sit here and think about it for a few minutes. And after a few minutes if you want some help, you come get me. But if you’re gonna be 2, then you go to your room.” And I think kids have got to learn, there’s an appropriate expression for protest and there’s an age appropriate.

John F.: Oh, I had this just the other day. I had a son looking at me saying, “I am so tired of you telling me what to do!” And I just looked at him and I said, “Well, get used to it, ‘cause you got another 10 years or so before you leave the house. And when you do, I’ll quit tellin’ you what to do.”

Jim: Ooh, that’s a slap down.


John F.: I was gentle about it.

Henry: Why didn’t you say, “Well, if you start payin’ the mortgage, I’ll do what you tell me to do.”

John F.: I – I’ve said that, too.

Jim: “Do you want to go to college? Do you want to go to college?”


John F.: You know, thinking back though to how we…

Henry: I’ll tell you what my dad did to me. “You want to know what tough is?”

Jim: I appreciate the vulnerability.

John F.: You can pull – well, you can pull…

Jim: We’re gettin’ you.

John F.: …those stories out. I – I’m just thinkin’ about the parent who wants to swoop in and help the child, okay? So, “Oh, Lucy, I’m so sorry that you’re struggling here. Let’s put it all back in and I’ll help you up the stairs.”

Henry: Hm.

John F.: Why didn’t you do that?

Henry: I didn’t do that for a couple reasons. One, the drama was really truly age inappropriate. And I could tell she was not hurt and I wanted her to learn. You know, I told her I’d be glad to help her, but I’ll be glad to help you as a result of you realizing you got a problem, coming to my study and saying, “You know what, Dad? I can’t figure this out; come help me.” When you do that, I’ll help you.

John F.: Hm.

Henry: So, I was more than willing to help her where she needed help. I wasn’t going to help as a result of the drama.

John F.: Yeah.

Henry: And those are two different issues.

John F.: But I think a lot of moms want to swoop in, you know, back to…

Jim: Oh…

John F.: …how you opened the program, Jim.

Jim: …dads, too. I’m like that, too.

John F.: Yeah, we – we have a tendency, I think, the mom in particular has the tendency to want to help and just kinda cover that and not allow the child to learn to solve the problems.

John T.: It – it’s good to use the word “rescue” then. It gives you kinda…

Henry: Yeah.

John T.: …of a hook in your head. Is this healing or rescuing? ‘Cause help’s good. You know, James tell us, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” So, if a kid says, “I’ve done everything I can do; it’s beyond me. Can you help me?” Yeah we help. But rescue means, I’ve come in before you asked. I’ve come in bef – while you’re not even trying and then we create kids who never grow up.

Jim: Hm.

Henry: And the brain science in this is really important. I think when parents begin to understand this, that – that they take pictures of the brain and when we’re giving somebody advice, basically their brain is asleep.

Jim: It shuts down.

Henry: It does; it’s not doin’ anything. But if you’re engaging them, if I said to her, “Okay, Luce, so it didn’t work with taking it all up in one trip, what would be another way that you could try that?” And she’s goin’, “Well, I could put it into a pot.” That’s a good idea. And you’re getting them to think. They’re engagement in solving their own problem literally begins to grow new – new neurons in the brain that become the circuitry for new behavior.

Jim: Hm.


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Avoiding Shame-Based Parenting

Psychologist Dr. Kelly Flanagan discusses the origins of shame, the search for self-worth in all the wrong places, and the importance of extending grace to ourselves. He also explains how parents can help their kids find their own sense of self-worth, belonging and purpose.

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Becoming a Clutter-Free Family

Joshua Becker discusses the benefits a family can experience if they reduce the amount of “stuff” they have and simplify their lives. He addresses parents in particular, explaining how they can set healthy boundaries on how much stuff their kids have, and establish new habits regarding the possession of toys, clothes, artwork, gifts and more.