It’s a commonly held belief that while our parents’ generation failed to pay enough attention to our thoughts and feelings as children, our generation cares too much about our children’s thoughts and feelings. While this is certainly an over-generalization, I believe it reflects an important reality: Parents today have difficulty setting limits and saying “no” to their kids.
This does not mean we should stop listening to our children. Rather, the key to effective limit setting is finding a balance between being firm, on the one hand, and giving our children some control on the other. If we can identify what our children are capable of, hold onto the limits we know to be important, compromise on those we don’t, and include our children in the process when appropriate, the limit setting process can be (if not exactly fun) quite manageable.
To illustrate this point, I would like to start by describing some limit setting dilemmas a few parents with whom I have worked have faced, and a parenting moment of my own (lest anyone think I am suggesting this limit setting stuff is easy). I have changed the names and details for confidentiality purposes.
Sleepless Sally: Dan and Mary attended a limit setting workshop I gave because their 2-year-old, Sally, was not listening to them. When I asked Dan and Mary about their approach to limit setting, they explained that they never used the word “no” with Sally because it was too negative. Instead, they would try to explain the reason for the limit in a more positive tone. For example, when Sally refused to get ready for bed (a frequent occurrence), they would tell her, “You need your sleep. Aren’t you tired yet? It’s important to get enough sleep.” When I asked them what they would do if Sally started to run into the street by herself, they responded, “Sally, why don’t you stay with Mommy and Daddy?” They knew their approach wasn’t working, but did not know how to fix it.
Trampoline Thomas: Another parent, Karen, who consulted with me about her 5-year-old son, Thomas, explained that Thomas did not respect the limits she tried to set. Karen was particularly upset over a recent visit to a friend’s house. Her friend had a trampoline, which Thomas absolutely loved. Thomas loved it so much, in fact, that he refused to stay at the kitchen table during dinner, instead leaving the table to go on the trampoline. Karen tried to dissuade Thomas from going to the trampoline during dinner, but she couldn’t seem to figure out how to get him to stay. After a few nights of unsuccessfully trying, Karen decided to set a consequence for Thomas: If he got up from the table and went to the trampoline during dinner, he could not play on the trampoline at all the next day. Despite Karen’s warning, at the next dinner Thomas got up and went to the trampoline. The next day, Thomas was not allowed on the trampoline, but that night at dinner, he did the same thing again. When I heard this story, I was surprised; I would have thought a day without the trampoline would have been enough to get Thomas to change his tune. As I inquired more about the consequence and its implementation, however, Karen sheepishly admitted that not only had Thomas been prohibited from using the trampoline, but everyone had been disallowed from using it, lest Thomas be upset about being left out!
Reserved Rachel: While my daughter, Rachel, had always been rather reserved, it wasn’t until she was 9 years old that my husband and I really took in the fact she was not saying hello to anyone in our building (or in public), even if they greeted her first. Pointing out to Rachel that this was rude or that others might not like her did not seem to help, nor did setting consequences or rewards. We were really at a loss.
I recount these stories not to show how lousy these parents and I are at parenting. We aren’t. In fact, we are all loving, caring parents who really just want to figure out how best to support and help our children. Frankly, all parents try things with their kids that don’t work. Rather, I want to use these stories to highlight how complicated limit setting can be and to point out some of the important questions we need to ask ourselves as we go about the job of figuring out how to set limits with our kids. These questions include:
- Why are limits important?
- How do I know when limits are appropriate?
- How do I enforce limits?
- When and how should I use consequences?
- When and how should I use incentives?
1. Why Are Limits Important?
Sometimes, amid the battle of limit setting, we feel like giving up and giving in. At these times, it can be helpful to remind ourselves why we need to stick with it. And here’s why:
Limits help children feel safe, physically and emotionally: It may seem like our children hate us when we tell them what (not) to do, but unconsciously (and sometimes even consciously), children often have their fingers crossed that we will take charge. Why? Because they don’t have total control over themselves and this is scary for them! Until they learn self-control, which happens slowly over the years, our children rely on us to provide that structure and control. In fact, it is partly how they learn self-control, by internalizing the structures and limits we provide them. It is how they feel safe.
For example, if a 2-year-old is doing something dangerous (like running out into the street), the parent must act quickly (“No!” is great for dangerous situations). Two-year-olds do not have the impulse control or reasoning skills to assess danger on their own. They need to be taught to be cautious and wary of certain situations.
Limits teach children how to regulate their different needs (hunger, tiredness, transitions, etc.): Children need to learn how to listen to their bodies and respond appropriately. This is not something that comes easily or quickly. By having routines and limits for our children, we are helping to regulate our children in ways they are not yet capable of. We are also modeling for them the importance of listening to one’s body and needs.
Perhaps because of our determination not to make the same mistakes our parents made with us and/or because of all the research showing us how smart and capable our children are from very young, parents today often assume that our children are able to regulate their needs on their own, much as adults do. However, this is typically not the case. Learning to self-regulate is a process that happens over many years; it is a developmental task that can’t be rushed. At any given moment in time, we need to figure out what our children are capable of and not ask more from them.
For example, understanding the importance of sleep and being able to choose one’s bedtime is something that Sally, at 2, is simply not capable of. She does not have the cognitive capacity to understand the importance of sleep, delay gratification, or regulate her tiredness and activity level.
Limits teach children important social skills (turn taking, being polite): I am a big believer in allowing children to feel whatever it is they feel, no matter how difficult it may be for them or their parents to handle. However, feeling something and acting on it are two very different things. While a 1-year-old may not be capable of distinguishing between the two, a 5-year-old certainly is.
Thomas, for example, is probably capable of sitting at the dinner table for a reasonable amount of time, assuming he is developmentally more or less on track. At some point, trying to understand why Thomas has trouble sitting at the table will be helpful, but understanding is not a substitute for setting the limit.
Rachel, after much discussion, agreed to work on greetings through role-playing with my husband and me. Rachel also suggested she would try to make eye contact and smile and/or wave to people so that they would not think she was rude. We all agreed on a system for carrying this out. Carried out with starts and fits over time, these solutions helped Rachel feel more comfortable interacting with the outside world.
Parents are one of the primary carriers of culture for our children in these early years. It is our responsibility to teach our children how to be in the world in a way that won’t annoy everyone else. Introducing some of the social graces—sitting at the dinner table, taking turns, greetings, thank yous, etc.—and limiting the no-nos—hitting, biting, grabbing, etc.—is an important part of that job.
Limits help children build self-esteem: When children are able to predict and meet our expectations, they feel more competent. As children learn through our limits how to regulate their needs, handle their feelings, and function effectively in the outside word, they become more confident. However, when we expect too much of them, the opposite can happen; kids can become very frustrated and disappointed in themselves. This brings us to our next question …
2. How Do I Know When Limits Are Appropriate?
I would argue that limits are appropriate when they reflect an understanding of what your child is capable of developmentally, reflect an understanding of your child’s unique needs, and take your (the parents’) needs and preferences into consideration.
One of the problems that Dan and Mary faced with Sally was that they didn’t seem confident about how much sleep she needed. Although it can be hard to know how much sleep an individual child needs, there is a range that is commonly accepted (which you can readily find online). After we discussed this range together, Dan and Mary, through trial and error over a few weeks, were able to figure out how much sleep Sally needed. Feeling more confident about how much sleep Sally needed then made it easier for Dan and Mary to enforce her bedtime. Having a consistent bedtime helped Sally get the sleep her body needed and helped her begin to learn how to self-regulate her own tiredness.
Another reason setting limits is important is that it helps you take care of yourself. For example, having a consistent, reasonably timed bedtime for your child usually gives you some much-needed down time—time to relax, catch up with your partner, and recharge a bit before you face another day of parenting. This benefits not only you, but your child as well. A parent who takes care of himself or herself is generally a happier, more patient parent.
Lastly, when deciding which limits to set, try not to sweat the small stuff. If allowing your child to watch an additional 15 minutes of television gives them a sense of agency and you a much-needed break, why not? As long as the 15 minutes doesn’t turn into two hours, being flexible within your structure gives your child the message you are willing to take their wants and needs into consideration, but that when you set a firm limit, there is a reason for it. In my experience, children tend to respect limits more when there is some flexibility on the stuff that is not as important.
3. How Do I Enforce Limits?
When setting limits, I recommend keeping the following in mind:
- Be clear (with yourself and child) about why you are setting this limit.
- Be clear with how you are setting this limit.
- Be firm; don’t turn back!
- Less is more.
- Separate feelings from behaviors.
Before setting a limit, you need to be confident about why you are setting it. Kids of all ages pick up on doubt. If you start to waver, you are going to have a much harder time setting the limit. When explaining a limit, less is definitely more. With Sally, age 2, “It is time for sleep” is about all she can handle. Said with confidence, Sally will understand the importance of this limit, even if she goes to bed kicking and screaming.
With a child like Thomas, age 5, a longer explanation can be offered, preferably ahead of time rather than in the moment, something in the realm of, “During dinner, you need to sit at the table with everyone else.” “You are not allowed on the trampoline during dinner; it is not safe.” “If you leave the table tonight, you will not be able to use the trampoline at all tomorrow,” or some variation thereof. If your child has questions about the limit you’re setting, feel free to explore, but when it starts to feel repetitive and unproductive, I would suggest ending the conversation with something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but this is how it is going to be.”
The key to effective consequences is finding ones that are realistic in terms of age-appropriateness and practicality, relevant to the behavior you are limiting, and are something you have the means and wherewithal to follow through on.
With Thomas, it might even be possible to discuss what is going on for him, what he is feeling, and why he doesn’t want to sit at the dinner table. Perhaps there is something specific that is bothering him. More generally, in setting limits with a 5-year-old, it is often a good idea to ask what limits they consider appropriate. Interestingly, children often come up with harsher limits than we do and are more likely to follow limits they have helped set. Of course, if it feels like your child is playing a game of what-can-I-get-away-with, this is not the route to go.
With Rachel, age 9, I believe she was able to follow through on the agreed-upon strategy in part because she helped come up with the alternatives (eye contact, smile, and waving) herself. Children tend to respond better to limits when they feel like they have some control, no matter how small that control is.
Of course, once you’ve set your limit, you need to enforce it. If you are not able to follow through, the limit obviously gets harder to enforce. However, even if you have had difficulty in the past, it is never too late to start to enforce a limit. A quick heads-up to your child about the change may be useful in advance. “I know I have been letting you get up from the dinner table the past few nights, but tonight is going to be different …” Your child may very well test you for a few nights, but if you are firm, you should be able to get back on track relatively quickly.
Checking in with yourself as to why you are having difficulty enforcing the limit is a good place to start. One reason some parents have difficulty enforcing their limits is because of what I call the “empathy trap.” When our children are upset, we feel badly for them and want to empathize with them. It’s important for us to do this, yes, but when their being upset is connected with a misbehavior or refusal to comply with a limit, we need to be able to separate our children’s behavior from their feelings so we can effectively set the necessary limit. I generally recommend a simple statement of empathy followed by a limit. With Sally, it might mean a sympathetic, “Aww, I know it’s hard,” as you carry her off to bed. With Thomas leaving the table, I might say something like, “I know it is hard for you to sit at the table, but dinner is not over yet.” With Rachel it was, “I know how hard it is for you to greet people in our building, but it is important you not appear rude.”
Later, when the limit setting moment has passed, you might talk to your child about their feelings connected with the (mis)behavior, either through direct conversation (as with Thomas or Rachel) or, for younger children such as Sally, through reading a relevant, age-appropriate book (e.g. on bedtime) or through making a simple observation such as, “Sometimes children get angry at their mommy and daddy when they make them go to bed.” We want to validate all of our children’s feelings, but not all of their behaviors.
4. When and How Should I Use Consequences?
Sometimes you can set a limit and not have to give consequences. Phew! For those times when limits alone seem not to be working, however, consequences can be very effective. Of course, setting consequences is not always easy. One of the difficulties parents face in setting consequences is the worry they will have to keep enforcing the consequence over and over again, which can feel too punishing and depriving, or feel like too much work. However, if consequences are chosen wisely, enforcing them just a few times is often enough to deter the continuation of the misbehavior without being overly punitive.
The key to effective consequences is finding ones that are realistic in terms of age-appropriateness and practicality, relevant to the behavior you are limiting, and are something you have the means and wherewithal to follow through on. In the example with Thomas, Karen was able to pick a consequence that was realistic insofar as it was developmentally appropriate and seemingly practical and relevant insofar as it involved the trampoline, but she didn’t seem to have the wherewithal or confidence to follow through. She simply could not tolerate the idea of Thomas being left out.
One consequence that is particularly controversial among parents and parenting experts is the timeout. There are probably as many opinions about timeouts as there are parents and experts, so my opinion should be taken as just that, an opinion. It is my belief that timeouts should primarily be used for when a child is in some way out of control—temper tantrums, disrupting a gathering, biting, hitting, or threatening another, etc. The main point of a timeout should be to help the child feel more in control of their behavior. In this view, timeouts are less about punishment and more about removing the child from a troublesome or volatile situation.
Regardless of why you give your child timeouts, however, it is important you do so in an effective way. Ideally, your child would be able to be in their own room or crib until they have calmed down or for however long you have designated the timeout. Depending on the situation, you might choose to be right outside the door to let the child know you are there (without a lot of discussion or engagement), but this does not mean being in the room with your child. Sometimes parents have their child sit on a chair quietly for a few minutes. This is fine as long as the child experiences it to be calming in some way or, if you are using it as a punishment, somewhat negative. The goal with timeouts, like other consequences, is to motivate the child to not do the behavior again and/or to help the child regroup and calm down.
5. When and How Do I Use Incentives?
Sometimes there are behaviors that don’t seem consequence-worthy but need limits, such as getting ready in the morning, getting ready for bed, cleaning your room, etc. In his wonderful book on limit setting, 1-2-3 Magic, Dr. Thomas Phelan calls these behaviors “start behaviors.” These are behaviors you want your child to do (rather than not do) that generally require more participation from your child than “stop” behaviors.
One of the techniques Dr. Phelan recommends for incentivizing these behaviors is “positive reinforcement” (or as some of us prefer to call them, “bribes”). Stickers, treats, etc., are great for these behaviors and help get you and your child out of battle mode. Just be sure to pick a reward that is age-appropriate (a 2-year-old simply cannot wait a whole week for a reward) and is sustainable over the medium- to long term—e.g. a few graham crackers versus a lollipop every day.
Again, as much as possible, involve your child. Even a 2-year-old can decide choose between graham crackers or Goldfish for a reward; the child will feel more in control and is more likely to comply with your limits. Some parents lament the idea of having to bribe their child indefinitely, but it is my experience that (for most behaviors) once the behavior becomes routine, the reward is less important and eventually can be discontinued or modified if you so choose.
Limit setting is not for the fainthearted (neither is having children!), and a lot of figuring out what works is through trial and error and being open to considering other approaches. If you maintain an open attitude to learning about your child’s capabilities and needs and set realistic, age-appropriate limits that allow for some input from your child when warranted, you will most likely find the job of limit setting gets easier and easier as time goes by (well, at least until your child turns 13—EEK!).
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