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Make the Limits Totally Clear to Your Kids

Here is advice on how to communicate limits clearly and effectively to your child.

Make the Limits Totally Clear to Your Kids

Here's the deal, it's not a limit if your child doesn't know it's there. If you don't communicate limits to your child, she won't understand where the wall is until she smashes head on into it. Invisible force fields are not a great idea in a family home. Spending a little time to first think about and decide on appropriate limits, and then talk with your child about them, will save her from crashing and burning. Making your child's limits clear will help you too: You'll avoid that horrible trip from calm to hitting the roof in five seconds flat.

Once you've got a limit defined, it's time—as much as humanly possible—to let your child know what it is. You've made up your mind; sound like it! State the limit with a clear voice, as though you are presenting an algebraic theorem: “One more chapter, and lights out.” It takes practice to sound strong and reasonable. (Here's a tip: Drop the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence.)

Processing the “Can I?”

What happens when your child asks for permission to do something when no limit has been overtly established, or your child wants existing limits stretched or bent? Here are some tips:

  • Don't leap to No! When your child begins a question with “Can I,” or “May I,” he's asking you to define, reiterate, or change a limit. Especially if he's asking about an area that hasn't been defined before, try not to leap to No! It's easy to say no, and most parents do it almost absentmindedly. Kid asks question, and halfway through, parent mumbles, “No.” Is this you? Stop. Listen. Do you really mean it? Sometimes no slips out, even when there's no reason for it, and once you've said no, it's kinda hard to say yes. Try not to say no unless you really mean it—you'll save yourself the agony of either being unjust or backing down.
  • Don't leap to Yes! without thinking about it, either. Many parents feel as though unless it's explicitly not okay, well, why not. I guess I'm just saying, think about it!
  • Don't react, respond! Take a breath, step back, and think about the request. No matter how absurd, ridiculous, or morally offensive, there's probably something positive about the request. Say it's, “Mom, can I skip my homework tonight and go to the movies with the kids up the block?” Instead of jumping to “Absolutely not!” start with a “yes” statement. “I'm delighted you're making friends, honey, and maybe you should ask them if they can do it Saturday. But tonight is out.”
  • Stall, stall, stall! Don't be afraid to take your time making a decision. Rarely do you need to make a decision so fast that you can't take time to think it through. Getting pressure? Try saying, “I'm not sure how I feel about that. I need some time to think about it. I'll let you know after dinner.” Or, you can ask your child to tell you why she wants to do something.
  • Confer with your parenting partner.
It's a Good Idea!

Patience. It may take a while for limits to sink in, especially if you're new at imposing them. Give all people involved a break—that means the limiter and the limitees here. You might be too harsh or inconsistent. Your limitee might forget or rebel. Whatever you do, don't hate yourself, don't hate your kid. Change takes time.

Tales from the Parent Zone

Back in my early 20s, I was an au pair for a family in France. The three kids weren't well behaved, and their specialty was the internationally popular childhood sport of whining. The culprits here?: Madame et Monsieur. In that household, non didn't mean no, it meant, “Keep bugging moi about it until I say `Okay, just zis one time, Cherie.'” Don't get me wrong, changing your mind can be a good thing—it teaches your child how to own up to mistakes, and the benefits of flexibility. But too much waffling leads to whining, now and forever.

Behave Yourself!

Reminders are not the same thing as nagging. Nagging is characterized by an unpleasant tone of voice, and constant repetition. Kids' ears all come equipped with an “N” chip that filters out nagging. They simply cannot hear it!

It's a Good Idea!

It takes energy to set limits, but the payoff is worth it. Your child will feel reassured, and life at home will run smoother. Added bonus: a dive in the number of “Oh Pleeeaazes” and “Whine-nots?”

Using Reminders

There's a lot of life in life, and in the middle of all the daily hullabaloo, it's easy for kids of all ages to forget their limits.

Using reminders is a gentle approach to keeping kids in line. Repetition is a vital part of learning. Reminders, when repeated, simply and clearly bring the limit to your child's awareness. Before entering the mall with Paul, you might remind him that he can select one pair of gym shoes, and they need to cost less than $60. Or, say Tony has a 9 p.m. bedtime, and at 8:45 you watch him pulling out an elaborate game. Saying, “It's 8:45, dear,” and leaving it at that is probably more effective than, “Tony, how many times do I need to tell you to be ready for bed at 9? How can you possibly think that you can play that game now? How many times do I need to tell you not to start something new so late!” and so on.

The Wiffle-Waffle and the Waffle-Wiffle

There's a type of parent who has a hard time setting and sticking to limits. There's another type of parent who leaps to No! And then there's the wiffle-waffle and the waffle-wiffle whose favorite answer is, “We'll see.”

  • Wiffle-waffles say, “We'll see,” and the answer is always no. They're uncomfortable asserting themselves, or they don't want to hurt their kids' feelings. Is this you?
  • Or perhaps you're a waffle-wiffle, whose, “We'll see,” can be translated as an inevitable yes. Waffle-wiffles are afraid of seeming too lenient.

Remember, you don't have to be tough or overly solicitous—just firm.

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