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Lesson 3
Establishing Priorities and Limits

Limits are specific expectations parents set for their children. They are guidelines or rules, such as: staying in the backyard when playing outside, staying out of a sister's bedroom, keeping the car tools in the garage, and not borrowing clothes without permission.

Parents show their concern and love for their children when they set reasonable limits. Setting limits tells a child, I care about you; I want you to be safe. I want you to be considerate. By acting responsibly you will learn to get along with others. Children need limits. Imagine approaching a bridge over a wide river or canyon. As you near the bridge, you realize there are no guard rails, just a flat surface suspended over the abyss. How would you feel? Would you drive over this bridge? Probably not. Limits are like the guard rails on a bridge; they provide security. Children feel protected by limits. Limits help children discriminate between what is safe and what is dangerous. By having boundaries, children are free to explore the world around them without fear of harming themselves or others.

Children without limits are insecure and afraid. For these children, the world is a bridge without guard rails. Frightened children may withdraw. Others will deliberately misbehave to force authority figures to step in and provide limits. Setting too many limits, though, can be oppressive. Few would choose to drive across a bridge with guard rails so close as to scrape the sides of the car.

1. Limit your limits to important matters
2. Set reasonable limits
3. Teach self-discipline with clear, positive limits
4. Be consistent with limits you set
5. Change limits to adapt to changes in the child's age
6. Involve children in setting some of their limits
7. Help children understand the reasons for limits
8. Set enforceable limits

[up] [bullet]1. Limit your limits to important matters

What kinds of limits should children have? First, there are limits that protect children from physical harm. For example, keeping a preschooler away from a hot stove or showing a young adolescent how to drive a car are limits that ensure personal safety.

Parents can also set limits that protect property. Insisting that their adolescent return tools to their proper location or showing a preschooler how to use the television set are examples of limits that protect property.

Some limits protect children and others from psychological harm. Helping their children express anger without swearing or ridicule may be important to some parents. Showing children how to resolve conflicts without hurting or teasing is another limit that nurtures respect for others.

Limits that emphasize respect for others can be important. For example, parents may ask their children to play downstairs after dinner, so they can have a few moments alone to talk. A young adolescent may expect his parents to knock before entering his room. Respecting these limits shows consideration for others.

Because they have to be enforced every time they are broken, limits should reflect parents' deeply held convictions or values. Parents should be willing to stand by what they say. They should be willing to assert their authority when a child deliberately disobeys a limit. For example, is it really worth the struggle to insist that a child eat all of his beans? Should a child always have to keep his hair combed or clean up his room every night? On the other hand, should swearing at a parent, destroying a friend's toy, or stealing money out of mom's purse be confronted?

Parents who set numerous rules about trivial matters will burden their children with too many demands. Children are more likely to respond to limits that are real priorities for parents.

[up] [bullet]2. Set reasonable limits

In evaluating their limits, parents should ask themselves if their children can do what is expected of them. Is the child old enough to do what the limit dictates? Insisting that toddlers keep their rooms clean or remain seated in a church pew for an hour are unreasonable demands for children at that age.

Some expectations are unreasonable because they are not humanly possible to meet at any age. For example, forbidding someone to wet the bed during the night is unreasonable because it is impossible to have conscious bladder control during sleep. Telling a child not to feel sad, frightened, or angry is also unreasonable. Although children's actions may have to be controlled, their feelings are a natural result of the way they react to what happens to them. A full range of emotions makes us human.

Temperament also should be considered when setting limits. (See I'm Positive: Growing Up With Self-esteem for an overview of temperament.) Children who are spirited, high intensity reactors will become more emotional at times than those who are calmer, low intensity reactors. When times are great, spirited children bubble with joy. When times are terrible, they explode with fury or anguish. They sometimes act as though the world will end. A child with a high intensity temperament should be guided toward responsible ways of expressing strong feelings. Demanding that this child remain calm under difficult circumstances would be unfair. Children are born with a distinctive temperament. Every child is a unique person. Parents have to adjust their discipline style to accommodate each child's personality.

Even when they are given unreasonable limits, young children may try desperately to please their parents by doing what is expected of them. If they love their parents, children believe their parents know what's best (though sometimes they might not act that way). Instead of objecting to an unfair limit, children may blame themselves for not being able to comply. They may conclude that something is wrong with themselves instead of the unreasonable expectation. Children burdened by many unfair limits are likely to have poor self-esteem. Later, as they grow older and become more aware of this unfairness, they are likely to lose respect for their parents and may become cynical towards all adult authority.

One way to judge whether a limit is reasonable is to check with experts or read books about children. Even more important, though, is getting to know the child as an individual. Children burdened by unreasonable limits will show signs of stress. They may become angry with themselves for failing, or they may give up trying at all. They may become moody and depressed or even angry and defiant. Parents are in the best position to see these symptoms of unreasonable limits. No one can know a child as completely as a parent. Limits should be set so a child can succeed. If children cannot be good at succeeding then they are tempted to be good at failing.

[up] [bullet]3. Teach self-discipline with clear, positive limits

Clear limits tell children what we expect of them. Children who understand limits are more likely to assume responsibility for their own actions. A parent might say, There are many breakable things in this store so please walk carefully and keep your hands to yourself. A child who hears her mother say, Amy, play in the front yard, not in the street! has a better understanding of where to play than if her mother said, Don't go in the street!

Limits should be instructive. Every night, a father tells his grade-schooler, right after supper, I would like you to take the garbage and put it in the trash can outside. His child knows exactly what to do. If he had said, Clean up everything after supper, his son would not know what his father really expected. Children should not be blamed or punished for failing to do what their parents never made clear in the first place. The best limits tell children what to do, when to do it, and how well it should be done.

Positive limits can help children manage strong emotions. When children become angry and act destructively, parents are likely to think first of negative limits. Don't talk to me like that! Don't hit your brother! Don't throw things! What do parents expect children to do when they are angry? How can parents help children express their anger? A parent might say, When you get angry tell me how you feel--say you're angry! This limit clearly communicates to children one reasonable way they might express their anger.

[reflection]Your Childhood Limits

[up] [bullet]4. Be consistent with limits you set

Children are more likely to respect limits that are consistent. If parents have made it clear that they expect their children to wash their hands before supper or do their homework before watching television, these limits should not change from day to day. Inconsistent limits are confusing.

Children need to know when a limit applies. A parent might say, Never play in the street, or Do not go to Amy's house around supper time; they are busy then. Children should understand how often the limit applies: one time, some of the time, or always. Parents should discuss and agree on limits before announcing them to their children.

[up] [bullet]5. Change limits to adapt to changes in the child's age

Some limits are constant from year to year. Expecting children to play peacefully with others is a reasonable limit at any age, whether the child is 8 or 16. Other limits, though, should be changed as children grow older. Stay in the yard when you play and You may only drive with a parent in the car may be quite reasonable at one age and become outdated in a few years. At some point, a child can leave the yard, ride a bike in front of the house, and eventually explore the neighborhood. A teenager can eventually drive alone and then later with friends. A 14-year-old may not be allowed to go on a car date, but her 16-year-old sister has no such restriction. Knowing when to make these changes and explaining them to children can be a difficult challenge for parents.

[up] [bullet]6. Involve children in setting some of their limits

Inviting children to give their opinions about limits provides a boost to self-confidence and self-control. For example, a mother and her 7-year-old son first discussed and then agreed on his bedtime routine. He will go to bed at 8 p.m. and will be allowed to read 30 minutes before turning off the lights. This decision meets both the child's needs for a transition at bedtime and the parents' concern for a reasonable time limit. By involving their children in decision-making, parents are more likely to gain their cooperation in meeting the limit.

Discussion does not always mean agreement. For some limits there may be no appeal. The response is a firm, NO. A parent may not allow his 13-year-old daughter to attend a college fraternity party regardless of her protests. Another may insist that her 7-year-old son talk about his feelings and not swear at her when he is angry. Once this limit is clearly established, discussion could take place regarding alternatives.

Discussion is not always possible. For example, during a severe storm that damages their home, parents are not likely to stop and debate the merits of the demands they make of their two teenagers. In some cases, children may be too young to suggest limits for their own behavior.

[up] [bullet]7. Help children understand the reasons for limits

Children are more likely to cooperate with parents if they understand the reason underlying limits. Instead of saying, Because I said so! parents could take a few moments to explain why a limit is necessary. A father might point to an electrical outlet and tell his toddler, Do not touch the wall socket! You might get hurt. Ouch! Or a mother might try to help her 13-year-old daughter understand why attending at a party where alcohol is served could put her at risk. Explanations make sense only if the limits are reasonable, clear and positive, enforceable, and important.

Parents could also ask their children why they think a limit is necessary. They might ask, Why do you have to wear a coat outside when it's cold? or What would happen if I let leave your toys on the stairs? These kinds of questions encourage children to consider the results of their actions. If they understand why limits are necessary, they are more likely to accept them.

Sometimes, a parent may have to postpone discussion about the reasons for a limit. Children will not listen well if they are upset with a decision. A better time for discussion might be later, when emotions cool off. Though they may disagree or act as though they don't care, children do listen to their parents' reasons for their decisions. Children may never admit their parents know best, but they feel insecure if they have to depend on their own limited judgment. They need their parents' kind and loving guidance.

[up] [bullet]8. Set enforceable limits

Parents must enforce limits their children deliberately defy. A mother who tells her teenager to be careful when using the home stereo is likely to know when her limit is disregarded. In contrast, a father who demands that his teenage daughter drive under the speed limit is making a rule he cannot enforce. He may never know if his daughter is speeding unless she is in an accident or is stopped by the police. To make this limit more enforceable, he could tell her that if she is in an accident that is her fault or is given a speeding ticket, she will lose her driving privileges. She will also have to pay costs herself.

[reflection]Evaluating Your Limits

Parents should expect their children to occasionally try to test their parents' commitment by breaking the rule. Children test parental limits to assert their own independence and to see if their parents are willing to stand behind what they say is important.

Too few or too many limits create fear, panic and anger. Limits that are clear, positive and consistent create a positive environment for children at all ages. Limits are values translated into guidelines for children's behavior. Children want to know what their parents value. They want their parents to love them enough to stand up for their values regardless of the conflict that might follow.

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Contact us/Help Revised: February 12 , 2003

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