Limits are important for children because they teach kids what to expect about reality. As they go through the educational system, get jobs, have friendships and romantic relationships, there will always be limits.
Life sets limits on all of us, and learning to live happily and effectively within them is a skill we acquire through our childhood experiences. But many parents are unwilling or unable to set and maintain limits. Here are a few examples:
Recently, I counseled a single father whose six-year-old son regularly goes to bed between 11:30 p.m. and midnight, falling asleep in front of the TV set with his dad. Dad says, "Ryan just doesn't want to go to bed, and I can't stand for him be mad at me."
Another client complained about the money she was spending on her two children, both in elementary school. She explained that she couldn’t go anywhere without having to stop at Wal-Mart or the mall to buy something for the kids. If she didn’t, they’d “throw a fit.”
Still another recent example comes from an executive mom who works 60 to 70 hours a week, leaving almost all the childcare to an au pair. To lessen her guilt, she does whatever the kids want on weekends. Now…three years later…Mom says, "My daughter thinks she’s my boss. How did that happen?"
What could you learn from these examples? Well, perhaps it’s clear to you that kids need limits, and yet, like many parents, you struggle to hold the line on the limits you set.
What might cause you to be reluctant or unable to set and maintain firm limits? Anxiety about repeating your parents’ mistakes, so you overcompensate.
Fear that the consequences of your kid’s choices will traumatize them.
Afraid that they will be harmed by their upsets.
Fear that your kids won't like you when you stick to your decisions.
Guilt about feeling that you haven't been around enough.
Fear (in a divorce) that you’ll lose your connection to your children.
Fear of embarrassment over the tantrum you can't control in public.
Such fear-based parenting decisions will not prepare kids for the reality of life.
There’s a different way. Children need and benefit from limits. It’s not just Dr Cale’s theory here. This is well documented with lots of research, and we all know…it’s just “common sense.”
What if kids don’t get experience realistic limits? They grow up thinking that there are no limits set by society (when there are) and they falsely believe there is no consequence for many of their actions (when there will be). They also learn dangerously inaccurate expectations, particularly when minimal efforts on their part are rewarded with significant returns.
It can be remarkably seductive to get caught up in the loving responses young kids give to parents when parents soften the limits they have set. It can make you all warm and fuzzy inside, if you aren’t paying attention. If you are paying attention, then you see how you have just destroyed the integrity of your word. When this is repeated over and over…then the real damage begins to unfold as you see that your word is not respected with your kids.
YOU CAN AVOID THIS! It’s essential to keep your focus on the long-term vision of what you want your children to learn. Make your decisions with that that vision, and your values, clearly in min. If you abandon that vision to avoid pain or fear, you’re relieving your immediate anxiety rather than making healthy parenting choices.
Is it easier to buy the toy than deal with the tantrum? Yes! Is it easier to let them watch one more TV show than struggle over turning it off? Yes! Is it easier to do those chores yourself than make sure the kids do them? You bet!
All of these are short-term solutions to anxiety and fear…and they produce long-term problems of growing complexity. It may seem easier in the short term, but in the long term, you’re better off setting limits and sticking to them. If you don’t, there’ll be more trouble down the road.
If you say "no" and then give in to a tantrum, your children learn that "no" is simply a signal to have a tantrum. They know they can get what they want.
If you say it's bedtime and then allow them to stay up for another hour because they whine, your words are a signal that it's time to whine.
If your teen keeps calling and asking to stay out another hour, and you repeatedly negotiate, then your words are only a signal for negotiation. Eventually, your words demand no respect.
Bottom line: For your kids to learn about reality, you must set limits for them to experience. For your words to have meaning, you must stick to the limits you set. Not just on your good days, but every day.
Dr. Randy Cale, a Clifton Park-based parenting expert, author, speaker and licensed psychologist, offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. His Web site, www.TerrificParenting.com,, offers free parenting guidance and an e-mail newsletter.