Newsletter

How to Set Limits Effectively

How to set limits with childThis Mother’s Day, vow to make your job of parenting easier and less draining. Sound impossible? It may be hard to make the mindset shift to understand how to set limits without rewards and punishments but it can change your life when you begin to trust your children and let them learn from their own mistakes.

I can talk till I’m blue in the face about the benefits of replacing punishment with problem solving, but parents still say, “But what do I do when my child is behaving badly?”

We are so enmeshed in the reward and punishment mindset that we can’t see the value of a more responsible — and effective — way to set limits on our kids. We are too afraid that our kids will run wild and never learn unless we threaten them, put them in time out, take away privileges, or use arbitrary consequences to keep them in line. We know that respect and cooperation is gained when we show them respect and cooperation, but in the moment, we “lay down the law”. And I’m not talking about being permissive.

Setting Limits are important so our kids know what to expect, are kept safe, and learn that others’ rights and needs are as important as theirs.

And because young, egocentric children can’t be expected to be considerate of others and control their impulses. But really the reason we need to set limits on our children is because we don’t live in tribal cultures where the village literally does raise the children; where babies are on their mothers’ bodies until they can crawl away; and where safety factors have to do more with wild animals than automobiles and dysfunctional people.

In most uncivilized tribal cultures, children were all brought up the same way. Basically they were trusted to follow the rules and customs of the tribe as modeled by all older children and adults. Expectations were uniform. Mothers were always working alongside other mothers and roles were clear. Consequences were only natural. If a child did something wrong, the group members simply looked on with disapproval — enough to let the child know he had done wrong. Nothing even needed to be said. The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff is an inspiring read.

As soon as we started imposing arbitrary tactics of manipulation to get children to do what we want them to do, we broke that all-important trust. The reward and punishment techniques we use tell our children that they are not capable of behaving in the way we want, and so they must be trained. They learn a dependency on us to tell them whether they are good or bad. Training comes externally, but wanting to do the right thing is internal. External control undermines internal guidance.

But in modern society, we do things differently and independently of others. We must get our needs and rights met as well and must insure a certain amount of cooperation to maintain that balance. This is accomplished through problem solving in the form of the question, How can we make this work for both of us?

When children are trusted — yes, their behavior can be annoying and inconvenient, but that is our problem — they have an amazing capacity for meeting challenges and solving problems. Their behavior only turns negative when they have obstacles of our distrust and criticism put in front of them. We cannot give children the unconditional trust they need in order to behave as expected if we punish, threaten or blame them. And when they no longer feel trusted, they learn to behave in an untrustworthy manner — the manner to which they have become accustomed.

A new way of thinking about setting limits:

  • Trust that even a young child can understand right from wrong and wants to do the right thing — even when their impulses get the better of them.
  • Know that when children behave impulsively and aggressively, it is because they are developmentally reactive and egocentric in their desires. It’s never because they are bad.
  • Motivate your children with a positive direction rather than a threat: “As soon as you finish cleaning up, I’ll take you to your friend’s,” instead of “You’re not going anywhere until you get that cleaned up.”
  • Giving your child choices is a way to trust and empower and allows consequences to be fair and effective. From “Do you want the red sweater or blue sweater today?” to “Do you want to turn the television off or shall I?” to “You can either load the dishwasher now or miss out on going to your friend’s. It’s your choice.”
  • When a problem arises acknowledge it and deal with it blamelessly. “This isn’t working for me. We need to figure out a plan so we both get what we want.” And then follow through. Don’t stop creating a plan until you both agree.
  • Rewards and punishments undermine the natural consequences that teach children the most. Allow them to feel your anger or upset without punitive reactions pushing them behind a wall of defense where cannot take in how you feel.

Please leave your comments and let us know what you do about limits in your house.

 

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32 comments on “Newsletter
  1. amy russell says:

    So true. I appreciate the simplicity of the message: let go of the fear and be there. Thank you.

  2. Anita says:

    How very true! I feel so guilty of not been able to do just this 1 thing – “Be there for her”.
    But as I read this article, I find some hope that it is never too late to change

  3. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    That’s brilliant Bonnie, I can never get enough of these messages; sometimes the same message “wrapped up” in different ways, and every time it makes it more and more easy to absorb and take on board in an unconscious/subconscious way. Thank you for these gifts Bonne! Warmest Amelia 🙂

  4. Kristi says:

    Amen Bonnie,
    For many years my son was overwhelmed with the stimuli of the world and fell apart multiple times daily. He would become a screaming, writhing, spitting creature who scratched his own face to bleeding trying to deal with the difficulty of ordering food from a menu! So many public breakdowns it was so hard to know what we should be doing! Get tough and demand that he “behave”? Well that really didn’t help. Thanks to you and a local therapist I learned not to get caught up in MY emotions when he was out of control of his, just be there. We learned to limit the stressors for him. Today he is a different kid. Successfully navigating the high school waters of intellectual, social and physical challenges and knows when he has had enough and needs to have some downtime. As a primary care provider who sees a lot of parents struggling-I tell them to relax-be there, keep them safe and don’t take their behavior personally- and of course I recommend your books and website! Keep up the great work, and thank you.

    • admin says:

      Kristi – Thank you so much for this comment. I hope everyone reads it. I may even add it to another article when I share parents experiences. You have been in the trenches and know what it’s like to have a difficult kid, didn’t try to change him, and came out the other end with a great kid. These stories are so important for parents to read.

    • Betsy says:

      “Don’t take their behavior personally” — This has become a mantra for me, thanks to Bonnie’s advice. I wish I had employed it when she was a toddler and preschooler. But better late than never!

  5. Amber says:

    hi bonnie,
    thanks for sharing this. I worry about my daughter a lot too, but I guess I don’t give her enough credit either.

  6. Kirsten says:

    This was a timely piece for me. Had just done back to school night and came home to an 11 year old anxious about leaving all his school work at a friend’s house. He was anxious and I had listened to the message of the night, “let them have these experiences where it is safe, don’t rescue them, 70% of this year is organization”, but I knew what my own child needed in order to sleep wasn’t my fear that he wasn’t ever going to pull it together…I also have a much more emotionally challenging middle son (9) and he is often trying so hard, but so inflexible about the actions of others, and still having tantrums, yet intelligent, sweet, and sensitive, sometimes the scariest part is when we aren’t present and then everything gets catastrophic. I was pleased to see the comment above and curious as to how Kristi got through the trenches without worrying about the impact on the family and her son’s self image ?

  7. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    Kristi your comment was so good to read, thank you too 🙂

  8. Leah Davies says:

    I love your quote, “You are your child’s mountain. While she swirls and blows like a hurricane, sometimes a tornado, around you, she needs to count on your stability and most of all your faith that she has and will continue to have whatever it takes to get through whatever it is” That is wonderful advice. – See more at: http://bonnieharris.com/the-connective-parenting-newsletter/newsletter/#q1

    For 11 additional complimentary parenting handouts, video, and activity that is dedicated to helping parents raise responsible, caring adults, see: http://www.kellybear.com/ParentTips.html

  9. Kristi says:

    In response to Kirsten’s question: it wasn’t elegant, or seamless or a straight path, (and still isn’t) that’s for sure – but I think that is the essence of parenting. No matter what our virtual personas (or that of our friends) depicts to the outside world. It’s messy and scary. Parenting can be like walking alone in a dark forest. We learned to recognize early when WE needed counsel, we also allowed our son a chance to intermittently work with a child therapist, and brought along his sibling. One of my biggest realizations was: I needed to let go of MY agenda for my child. He is who he is, AND he is not this behavior currently. I learned (to try) not to get attached to ANY behavior, whether I liked it or didn’t like it, because it is likely to change. The family dynamic is a huge challenge always. My husband and I try to find common ground and create a united front. We learned it didn’t matter what other people thought we should do with our child, including family… we simplified life. Keep them fed, safe, loved. Keep looking out of the trench occasionally for some inspiration Kirsten and remember “This too shall pass” !

    • admin says:

      Kristi – This is so beautifully put. I so appreciate your response. I totally agree – families are a messy business not matter that they look like. Parenting is the hardest job on the planet. I love the steps of your realizations and how you maneuvered your way.
      Thanks for this.

  10. MK says:

    What you write Bonnie rings so true for me. What can I do when I realise that the way I was parented undermined my confidence and felt like it cut me off at the knees. I feel I have very little resilience myself and don’t want to make the same mistakes. How can I build my own confidence along with my daughters?

    • admin says:

      MK – What you are describing is exactly why I wrote my book, When Your Kids Push Your Buttons. It is all about how our own childhood experiences effect how we parent our children – and most importantly, what we can do about it. I would highly recommend checking it out. You can get my book on amazon, you can get the audio download version of it on my website, you can also order the workbook filled with exercises to go along with it. And I have a When Your Kids Push Your Buttons teleseminar available for download that is 12 hours of the Buttons workshop and has the workbook included for more intense work. You can read about it here.

  11. i love the simplicity of this message! This is a challenge for me at home with two teenagers and the ups and downs that teenage life brings. I recognize how my frustration may have actually been perpetuated by my own actions of protecting and solving problems that they should be given the chance to handle themselves. With a college student 1200 miles away this challenge becomes more complicated at times. My goal is to practice by stepping back this week.
    Bonnie… I would love to add a link for this article on my preschool blog, which is private to families enrolled at The Amherst Preschool. Is that possible?
    Thank you
    Ellen Grudzien

  12. The question about teen disrespect brought up a few things for me.
    I’m passionate about this because I grew up with a father like this. He rarely listened to me. He only wanted a relationship on his terms. He was disrespectful to me and never apologized. As a result even as an adult I was never able to be close to him (Despite many attempts). Because he couldn’t be human with me I never respected him. Instead I felt sad for both of us. He was too proud to meet me as a human being. We both lost something valuable.

    In many families, ideas about “obedience” and “respect” get intertwined. Obedience is an action, respect is a feeling. Obedience comes from power over and respect comes from power with. Obedience is enforced using power and it disconnects the two people involved (and creates escalating power struggles). Respect relies on relationship and connections and comes from influence, not force. Like toddlers who are learning who they are in the world, teens too go through a developmental stage of learning about power. When a 4 year old is stubborn and says no or demands that she has to do it her way it can still be “cute”. Not so with a 14 year old.
    14 year olds want to be engaged and respected. This comes from listening, being humble and over and over again repairing mistakes. Adults get to lead on this. (We have the more developed prefrontal cortex).
    Working with a partner who is demanding obedience is challenging but using the same tools that are effective with teens work for partners too. Connect before correct.
    When (teen) is yelling and being inappropriate, it seems like you are worried that he will not grow up to be a healthy adult. You dream of having a son who has manners and treats others respectfully. I appreciate it that you are willing to stand up for me (This is the connect).
    Then the correct or request: My request is that when you sense he is being disrespectful to me that you ask before you intervene. I promise I won’t ignore the problem. My approach will be to wait until things calm down and then ask him to make a repair. I want him to be able to make mistakes – even if they are disrespectful and then have time to think about them and repair them.

    The other thing this mom can do is coach her son on making repairs and asking for repair. If the relationship isn’t already too strained it could be a gift to his dad. Eg. Dad, you were right. It was not cool for me to yell at mom. I’ve apologized to mom. I also didn’t like it when you called the police. When you are ready I’d like an apology and would like to make a plan about how to solve problems when you are angry.

  13. Karen Daley says:

    My husband and I have been having this food argument since our son started solid foods. He’s 10 now. My husband still eats as if he’s a teenager, pizza, chips, pop,etc. & I gave up junk food when I became an adult, minus my once a month sugar fix a week before my cycle starts. We work different shifts so when I’m home it’s all the good stuff & when my husband is home he’s either a short order cook, making two different meals or they are munching on take out (grease & more grease)when there is a full fridge of healthy options. My son knows all about healthy eating & all the good stuff is served in school. How do we all get on the same “healthy eating” page?

    • admin says:

      Karen, it is of course important to convince your husband that modeling good food eating and having only good food in your house is important. You might talk to him about what he thinks in terms of his own health and if he approves of your son following in his tracks. Make sure he understands how serious you are about this issue and what your worry is.

  14. Mary Ellen says:

    In response to “Transitions from Day Care”, sometimes children fall apart because they are exhausted from their day. Not because of stress or because they don’t want to stop playing, but because they have run out of inner resources. None of us deals well with change at the end of a long day, but people will look funny if we act howwe are really feeling! :o)

    • admin says:

      Thank you Mary Ellen. You are so right. I include exhaustion and lacking inner resources with stress. Stress comes in many degrees and varieties. When children are stressed in any way, they need our understanding and patience more than ever.

  15. Julietta says:

    I resonated with the one about “stupid”. Sometimes my son calls me stupid or dumb, too. In addition to the strategies Bonnie suggests in her reply to the reader’s question, all of which I totally agree with, my strategies for dealing with this have been 1) to say “Please leave off the label” (obviously we’ve had discussions about what i mean by “label”) – with a tone of request, not reprimand/disapproval, ie telling him what I want him to do rather than telling him off. After all, kids learn to use labels at school – it is common behaviour at school. It is natural that he’ll emulate that behaviour. But together the two of us can carve out better ways of being. It’s about teaching, not telling off. 2) The other thing I do, which seems most effective, is to state, calmly & as a fact, not a reprimand: “No, I’m not stupid. Sometimes I make mistakes but I certainly am not stupid.” ie, call him to account on throwing around labels without thinking, by challenging him to think about what it means & whether it’s true – while at the same time requesting the respect I think I deserve (& modelling it by respecting myself). Saying it in a calm tone, also involves refusing to respond with an upset tone, because as you point out, if they get a rise from it that’s why they keep doing it. (Fun to make Mum, or brother, react!) – of course, my son is older, but these suggestions might help someone. All these strategies are founded in ideas from Connective Parenting. Also – just want to say that telling my child what i “DO” want him to do – not what i don’t (as in the main article) – has been one of the most effective ‘tricks’ i’ve learnt.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for this Julietta. All great suggestions when your child calls you stupid. And of course in order to practice any of this, you have to be able to respond rather than react. And that means not taking it personally, understanding why your child wants to use a strong word, and responding to him in a way that is logical not blaming.

  16. Kate McGuire says:

    What a great newsletter to read as my child breaks up from his first year at nursery. I was wondering what I should do with him but now am feeling less pressure and that just “being” with him – truly present, is enough. These are precious years, you are right, and by taking the pressure off myself and him, we get to have a much more fun, playful time. Which is what life is all about, I believe. Thank you as always Bonnie.

  17. Resa Aschbacher says:

    Parenting is such a learned skill! I have four children all grown into their 20’s now. What I thought was personality driven behavior I now realize was “Parenting Skills” driven. My oldest got the parent, me, who punished the anger. My youngest got the parent, again me, who opened her arms for a hug. I am so sorry I didn’t have more skills when I had my first child. He forgives me!

    • admin says:

      The wonderful thing Resa, is that it is never too late. The fact that your son forgives you says that you owned your mistakes and asked for his forgiveness. That in itself is so huge and what sooooooo many of us parents wish our parents would do. Good for you for having that courage—because that is what it takes.

  18. Yvonne says:

    I am especially encouraged to hear information on how to help children who are misbehaving to act more responsibly. I have grandchildren and I am a fifth-grade teacher who has seen behavior affect relationships and learning

  19. Cheryl says:

    …Dear Bonnie,
    Thank you for sharing your insights especially about the “disinterested” teen, your advice is so on target and so needed!! My son was extremely much ahead of grade level in 1-6th grade and as a sophomore in high school is still struggling to acquire study skills and inner motivation to do well academically. He gets easily discouraged with low grades and doesn’t want to spend time fixing them which is taking an enormous toll on his academic record. Like the teen in your message he also likes to spend a lot of time in his room alone online gaming or on his cell phone. But his circle of friends is actually into gaming and he visits with them every day via the internet and cell phone. I often times hear him conversing with them and laughing and singing joking talking … so I think the mentality of todays’ social world is very different than when we grew up in terms of “connectivity” (pun intended) It has taken me a while to be able to accept this as a valid form of socialization- but I think he values these connections as friends. It’s just that the face time isn’t there and sometimes I wonder if those with shy tendencies actually become a bit more shy when face time is added to the equation when its time to actually visit with people. I’m trusting that enjoying being around others is linked with developing nuances of communication styles and that will come with maturity and life experience.
    Thanks again for the excellent and caring work you do that contributes a great deal to understanding how to be a better parent!