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Setting Limits

By Jody McVittie on March 19, 2009 2:37 PM | No Comments


How do you go about setting limits and boundaries for a child who believes they can do whatever they want to in the house with no consequences? I am tired of the yelling and screaming and spanking.


You are absolutely correct that children need limits. Limits give children a sense of order and safety. Limits give children a sense of freedom to operate within that safety. Though you have already figured this out, there is plenty of research that demonstrates that screaming, yelling and spanking are neither effective nor helpful in the long run. (These tools are not working for you or for your children). Jane Nelsen (www.positivediscipline.com) reminds us that discipline is about teaching, not about punishing. She gives the following five criteria for effective discipline.

Effective Discipline:
1. Helps children feel a sense of connection. (Belonging and significance.)
2. Is mutually respectful and encouraging. (Kind and firm at the same time.)
3. Is effective long - term. (Considers what the child is thinking, feeling, learning, and deciding about himself and his world - and what to do in the future to survive or to thrive.)
4. Teaches important social and life skills. (Respect, concern for others, problem solving, and cooperation as well as the skills to contribute to the home, school or larger community.)
5. Invites children to discover how capable they are. (Encourages the constructive use of personal power and autonomy.)

The most effective way to set limits is to be kind and firm at the same time. Children, like all human beings are most able to change their behavior when they get the sense that they are cared for and respected. Shaming, humiliating and hurting children may stop a behavior in the short term, but it does not teach new behavior and it hurts your relationship with them. I am not saying that children need to be "happy" with the limits that are set, but rather that the limits need to be set in a respectful manner. Following through (making sure that the limits are honored) also needs to be done consistently and with respect.

Here are some hints:
- Whenever possible engage kids in setting appropriate limits. Sometimes this involves explaining the reasoning behind the limit. (We don't throw balls in the house because things get broken.) Sometimes, especially with older children this means asking for help in solving a problem. (Three people need the car this weekend, how are we going to solve that problem?)

- Remember that it is your children's job to "explore" limits. It is your "job" to put up the fence. It is your child's "job" to try to move the fence. Your job is to calmly and firmly just put it back where it belongs. DON'T take this exploration or "testing" personally. (As your children grow of course, the limits will need to be adjusted to allow more freedoms.)

- Know what "appropriate" limits and expectations are for your children. Children's abilities change as they grow. It is not appropriate to expect a 2 year old to be able to share, or a 5 year old to be able to walk calmly beside you at the mall or sit quietly in a car for 3 hours.

- Decide what you will do, not what you will make your child do. "This ball knows that it isn't allowed to 'fly' in the house. It is going to a time out until it is ready to stay on the ground." If you are challenged by kids fighting in the car, you can let them know ahead of time that when it happens, you will simply pull over until they are ready be calm again. When they fight in the car simply pull over and wait. Don't threaten or warn first. Just turn on the signal and pull over and read the book you have brought for the occasion. The first couple of times, you will be a little late to your destination. It is well worth the long term benefit.

- Focus on what you want your children "to do" and their strengths more than on what you don't want and their weaknesses. Instead of saying "Lisa, stop playing with the blinds," you can ask, "Lisa, will you come help me cut the cucumber for dinner?" Instead of asking "Why are you always getting into mischief?" you can say, "Robert, I know you are curious, but if you want to take apart the toaster we'll have to get you one from the second hand store. Our family needs this toaster. It is not OK to take it apart."

- Be consistent with your follow through. When you say that your child "believes he can do whatever he wants" I'm guessing that consistent follow through has been missing. The hard work of parenting involves following through with the limits you set. Every time. If you set a limit that your children can only watch TV for one hour a day, make sure that you are consistent in making sure that the TV is off after one hour of watching. None of us are perfect about follow through 100% of the time, but the more consistent we are, the easier it is for our kids and ourselves in the long run. So, before you set a limit, make sure that you are willing to follow through with it consistently.

- Find time regularly to spend with your child that you can both enjoy. The biggest gift you can give your child is your ability to listen and have faith in him or her. The message of love can get drowned out by the screaming yelling and spanking.

- Ask for more help if you need it. If you find yourself overwhelmed with the problem of setting limits get some help by attending a parenting class or seeing a counselor skilled in working with families. It will be a gift to you and your children.

- Take care of yourself. Parenting is hard work. Make sure that you take care of yourself so that you have the energy and patience that the job calls for.

Best wishes,
Jody McVittie.


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