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The Vital Necessity of Setting Limits for Children
January 29, 2015
By Dr. Corinne Harpster, ND, Naturopathic Physician at SageMED in the Factoria area of Bellevue, WA
Setting rules, or setting limits (my preferred phrase) is one of the vital necessities for helping children feel safe and secure, as well as for teaching them best practices for daily life. Living a happy, healthy life requires limits.
Limits can sometimes be daunting for adults to set:
It may be that as a child you grew up feeling hemmed in by rules and regulations that seemingly had no meaning.
Perhaps breaking these rules led to some very negative consequences.
Maybe you never actually knew what the rules were and lived in fear of breaking them.
Perhaps you are concerned by giving your child limits you are limiting them as people. I actually think it is the opposite: Children thrive when they are given helpful limits from loving caregivers who explain why the limits are there.
Often caregivers of children tell me they don’t want to give their children rules or limits because they don’t want to be the person who always says no, they want to be friends with the child. But remember, children don’t need their caregivers to be their friends; they need them to be their advocates and their example of how to live a happy, healthy life. There is nothing wrong with also being friends with your child, just make sure being their parent comes first.
Giving children limits helps them to make good decisions when they are not with their caregivers, they will be able to succeed in the world because of your helpful, caring rules.
As children grow and develop so do their caregivers and so do the limits. Perhaps bedtime gets a little later or perhaps the children get to go further from home on their own.
Important limits should be established with co-parents or other caregivers who are helping to raise these little people.One of the most confusing things for children is being told one thing by one caregiver and another by another caregiver. Do your very best to have consistent rules for the children under your care. If this means you need to create a co-parenting plan with your ex-partner you share children with then do so if at all possible.
How to set limits in a way children will understand:
Make them simple and use the same phrasing every time when reminding your children of them.
Use positive rather than negative wording: ‘Walking feet’ as opposed to ‘No running’ or ‘Inside voices’ as opposed to ‘No yelling’.
Use your own inside voice when conveying these limits to your child as best you can. Yelling, screaming, shouting rules at children is upsetting for everyone. Example: It may be necessary to shout, “Do NOT go into the street!” when such a thing is happening, but there is much less urgency around putting away silverware properly.
If you identify areas that require limits be set on them brainstorm with children on what these limits should be. Use or adapt their suggestions so they have a say in the limits placed on them and they can start to see the benefit of self-regulation.
Have consequences for limits that are broken. Example: child is leaving toys out when it is a rule that all toys get put away before bed each night; consequence: toys are placed in a ‘time out’ basket and child will need to do extra chores to earn them back.
Have the consequence of broken limits be closely related to the severity of the limit broken.
Be consistent in enforcing the limits. If your child is pushing the boundaries let them know right away. Allowing them to push, push, push and then blowing up at them can be very confusing and upsetting to the child, as it seems very out of proportion.
Help children with visual reminders of family rules. Example: if the child is too young to read you can make a visual chart of the bedtime steps or the daily schedule.
Give children choices about how to carry out their required tasks. Example: At bedtime our daughter gets to choose the order we do bedtime steps in, the pajamas she wears and the stories we read. She does not get to choose what time she goes to bed, however. That is a set limit with little wiggle room.
If your children are going to be spending time with other people (such as going to Grandma’s house, going for a play date at a friend’s home or going to daycare) let the child know there may be other rules at these places and do your best to help familiarize the children with the rules.
Be your child’s advocate with these other people as well and let them know your family’s hard and fast rules. Example: Corporal punishment such as spanking is never used in our home and I will not allow it to be used on my child outside of our home, either.
Examples of areas that require limits:
Proper ways to speak to others
Respecting property: ours and those of others
How others can speak to us
How others can touch us: teach children that they are in charge of their own bodies and if someone touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable in any way they should always, always tell their caregivers
One of my favorite quotes about discipline comes from the Fred Rogers website: “As its root word “disciple” suggests, discipline is a teaching-learning kind of relationship, which depends more on intimacy and trust than on authority. Disciplining includes comfort, care, and nurture.It includes praise for achievement, and it most certainly includes examples, from which young children learn so much. When they see us hang up our clothes, clean up before relaxing, or express our own anger through words, and in non-destructive ways -- our children learn through our living example.”