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Communicate Effective and Reasonable Limits to Your Kids

Create reasonable limits and communicate them effectively in your household.

Communicate Effective and Reasonable Limits to Your Kids

Words to Parent By

Limits are behavior boundaries. Some are set by nature (humans can't fly, I can't keep track of my sunglasses), some by the state (you can't drive the wrong way down a one-way street), and some are set by you. It's up to you to define and make explicit each child's limits.

The limits you set for your child should be effective, reasonable, and well communicated. Kids do best when they have structure in their lives, both daily routine and behavioral structure. Children do best when they understand what is acceptable, what isn't, and what will happen if they push the boundaries too far.

Defining Limits for Your Child

Any limit you set for your child has gotta pass the Limit Test—it's gotta fit inside your family's values, and it can't contradict your family rules. Here are all the qualifying considerations of an effective limit:

  • Does the limit fit within your value system? Look at your family values statement. Say you have a statement that reads, “We solve our problems with words, not violence.” If so, this limit wouldn't pass: “When John is fighting with Eliza, he's only allowed to punch her on the arms, legs, and torso. He's not allowed to punch her in the nose.”
  • Does the limit contradict a rule? Review the family rules. Here's a sample contradiction: Say you have a rule that you turn off the lights when you're the last person leaving the room, and Joey has a limit that says, “Joey can only have 12 lights on in the house at a time.” (Silly example? Who am I to say what kinds of limits certain families create? Every family and every child's rules and limits will be different.)
  • Is a particular limit really needed? Is it a limit just for the sake of having some limits? Sometimes overeager parents start going wild with arbitrary limit-setting, just for the sake of having something on the books. Chill, baby. Let it breathe. Don't panic, your child will be well behaved. You don't need to discipline for the sake of discipline.
  • Are you dogmatic about limits? Limits are not laws. There are times when you need to be flexible about limits.
  • Are you setting new limits after the fact? Ideally, set limits ahead of time. You'll save everybody agony.
  • Does your child understand the limit? Once you've decided on a limit, make it explicit—the child should be informed exactly what the limit is.
It's a Good Idea!

Limits are extensions of your family values, and writing your family value statement will massively help you understand and define limits for your child.

It's a Good Idea!

Limits are set by parents and other concerned adults, and all involved adults should know the limits.

Planning Ahead

How do you set limits ahead of time? Okay, I'll confess, planning isn't one of my strong suits. I'm a one-day-at-a-time woman, rather spontaneous, who wouldn't know a five-year plan if it hit me in the face. Look, in our family we rarely plan dinner until half an hour before our starving stomach rumbles disturb the neighbors. Yet, even I recognize the value of choosing limits for children ahead of time. It's a matter of paying attention, thinking ahead, and talking about it.

Of course, you can't plan ahead for all situations, and children make unforeseen leaps in development that require sudden, new limits. When something new comes up, by all means create a new limit for the future (if it's needed). But a child shouldn't suffer the consequences of exceeding a limit she didn't know was there.

Limits and Modeling

Tales from the Parent Zone

Tamara grew up in a family where she was expected to set most of her own limits. Her parents believed that this was the best way to teach her responsibility. As an adult, Tamara doesn't wholly disagree with her parents' method, but she tells tales of flailing and pain that could have been avoided had her parents stepped in and said, “Enough, here's a limit for you.” Because her “wimpy-style” parents weren't assertive about their limits, at times, Tamara even questioned their love.

When you start defining personal limits for your child, one of the things to keep in mind is you—your modeling, your example. “Do as I say, not as I do” is not a very respectful approach to parenting. (Of course there are times when it's appropriate, like when you're enjoying a glass of wine with dinner. Enjoying wine with dinner is an adult thing, and when your child is grown up, he'll be able to have a glass as well.)

If you limit your 12-year-old to two cookies, it's cruel to sit in front of him finishing the box and licking your fingers with joy. Doing that sets up a pecking order, with you on top. Be aware, and be sensitive. You want those limits to feel like strong, loving arms, not barbed wire fences topped by guard towers armed with machine guns and searchlights.

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