Limits and Why Kids Need Them

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Admit it. The only time you drive 55 miles an hour on the highway is when you see a state trooper's radar gun pointed your way. Most times, like most people, you casually break the speed limit within a margin you feel is safe and that the flow of traffic seems to condone.

OK, so you don’t obey the speed limits, but how would you feel without them? How would you feel if anyone anywhere could drive any speed at any time? “Cool!” the adolescent in you cheers. “Think about the risks!” your adult self replies.

It’s true. You wouldn’t be the only one out there doing 110 mph. There’d be four lanes full of crazy people flooring it in their five-year-old Fords and turbo minivans with little caution and less regulation. If that’s cool, it’s time to turn in your license plates and take up telecommuting.

The Value of Limits

Speed limits are just one example. We fill our children’s lives with limits – how much they eat, what they can watch, with whom they can play; limits about bedtime, school, health, clothes and toys. Limits frustrate us by definition, but as parents we must recognize that they also reassure. Limits help us to feel emotionally contained. They teach security and help us to define who we are and the absolute best way to coexist safely.

Human beings (and perhaps all living things) are limit-testers by nature. From our earliest experiences of containment in the mother’s womb onward through life, we are pre-programmed to test the limits imposed upon us, to stick first a toe, then a foot and then a leg over the line as far as we can. Our drive to push outward and upward is the motivation behind basic emotional and intellectual growth. It’s the same force that yields new scientific frontiers and the innovations that surround us every day. This is the same human drive behind each of our children’s greater or lesser tendencies to test the limits we set for them.

Total and complete freedom – like an unregulated, unpoliced highway – may seem exciting at first, but it quickly becomes terrifying and dangerous. When a child knows that there are limits in his world and learns that those limits are consistently and predictably enforced, the terror and the danger decrease. Energy otherwise wasted trying to cope with unlimited options and unknown dangers can be focused on learning and growth. But for all children (and some adults) the only way to determine the limits is to test them … to sail off like Columbus and discover whether you really will fall off the edge of the earth.

Because emotional growth is a process of internalization – taking what surrounds you inside to define yourself – children who grow up in well-structured environments tend to become relatively well-organized and secure people. When the chaos in the world surrounding a child is contained, the chaos within the child gradually becomes contained as well. Impulses begin to be controlled, frustration becomes tolerable and energy can be focused laser-like on the goals of choice.

By contrast, when the world is lacking consistent limits; when the home or family is chaotic and uncontrolled or inconsistent because all the grown-ups are too busy with their own chaos to help regulate the child’s, the child has no way of learning to regulate himself. Anxiety runs rampant. This is the formula for raising a child likely to turn to drugs and alcohol … to crime, distress and great dysfunction.

Limits Mean Consequences

Setting a limit means defining what is acceptable and unacceptable and the consequences associated with each. Whenever possible, we praise and reward a child’s choice of the acceptable, but knowing that the limits must be tested, we must be prepared to respond to the unacceptable well in advance.

Consider the state trooper’s behavior after stopping you for speeding. He addresses you politely, inquires whether you were aware of the speed limit and of your speed. He then writes you a ticket, advises you to make better choices in the future and wishes you a good day. There is no emotion. He doesn’t take your choice to break the law personally. He isn’t angry, hurt or offensive. You knew the likely penalty before you took the risk and, once you were caught, the penalty was applied in an entirely calm and predictable manner.

Parenting should be slightly different. Post the limits by the side of the road. Make the consequences known well in advance, then follow through calmly and efficiently. But where no state patrolman will ever pull you over to reward you for your good driving, you should do exactly that. The more often you applaud compliance, the less often you’ll have to punish non-compliance.

Beware, the Push-Over Parent

No one likes punishment, least of all small children. They cry, scream, whine and fuss in the most grating and abnoxious ways imaginable. In the short run, it’s far easier and more personally gratifying to give in, to forgive the trespass and withdraw the consequence if only for a moment’s peace. Go ahead, let him stay up that extra half hour. Let him have a third helping of dessert or another 10 bucks out of your wallet. The tantrum will stop and he’ll probably seem happy … for now.

Not only does giving-in undermine your child’s sense of security by communicating that maybe you aren’t in control or maybe he isn’t contained, it also teaches that screaming, crying, pouting or withdrawing gets him what he wants, so he’ll do it more. Each time you give-in you are fueling his motivation to fuss that much louder and longer the next time.

If the limit was worth setting in the first place, it must be worth enforcing every single time.

Too Many Limits?

It’s possible to err in the other direction, to become so regimented and rigid that you squash your child’s creativity, initiative and drive, replacing them with anger, resentment and dependence. Make it your goal to set as few limits as possible. Start with limits that ensure safety and mutual respect within your home, then add others cautiously to protect the values and property that are most important in your home and community.

Be firm but flexible. Because children and circumstances change, our parenting must also change. This means the limits you set and their associated consequences must be negotiable. You must be able to look at which limits seem to be most useful and which others require change. You and your children must, in turn, have a forum to discuss changes in limits and consequences calmly away from the heat of battle.

Teach negotiation by responding to reasonable concerns. A child who can approach you to request a later bedtime, for example, might be rewarded with a trial period for staying up later. If homework and chores will get done, the later bedtime might be adopted as the new limit. If problems arise, the earlier limit will be reinstated. This process cannot occur at bedtime. “I understand that you think 8 o’clock is unfair,” you might say. “We’ll talk about that tomorrow after school. For tonight, your bedtime is still 8 o’clock.”

Benjamin D. Garber, Ph.D., is a clinical child psychologist and the author of Raising Functional Families and The Co-Parent's Companion (both published by Benjamin Garber).

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