Loving Ways to Set Limits
Spoil-proof Your Kids: How to Raise a Child of Character: Lesson 2
by Dr. Dan Kindlon
In Lesson One you learned about ways in which you might be overindulging your children in your every day life. In this step, we’re going to discuss TLC, which stands for Time, Limits and Caring – what I call the holy trinity of childcare. You’ll learn the importance of limits, and start to get comfortable with making rules and being strict with your children when necessary.
It’s impossible to raise children well unless we spend time with them. And spending simple time together has wonderful results. For example, my research shows that children in families that eat dinner together at least a few times per week tend to be less depressed, have less permissive attitudes toward sex, are less likely to use drugs, and are more likely to work to their intellectual potential in school. Caring is equally important – taking an active interest in our children’s lives, being willing to listen to what’s on their minds and participate in their activities.
For most parents, the trickiest part of TLC is setting limits for our kids. We believe setting limits-saying “no” for example- will destroy the closeness we have with our children and take all the fun out of parenting. But it is only by setting limits that we can help kids develop character and avoid some of the dangers of adolescence, including eating disorders, risky sexual behavior and underachievement.
The Importance of Limits
We all need limits, adults and children alike. Yet some parents believe that setting limits is inconsistent with our desire to have a relationship with our child that is based on mutual respect. Trust and mutual respect are a crucial part of the parent-child relationship, but I strongly disagree with the philosophy that says it is always bad to assert power over your children. You can try to discuss situations in which you and your child disagree – she wants to attend a rock concert, for example, and you feel she is too young to go with a group of friends to such an event – but in the end you may need to assert authority and simply refuse permission to let her go.
So when a child tries to get your okay to do something they’re not ready for by saying, “Don’t you trust me?” I recommend responding, “No, and I wouldn’t have trusted myself at your age either. Part of my job as a parent is to protect you from risky situations.”
Responses like this may anger your child, but your firmness also sends them the message that you care enough about them to hold the line, risk their displeasure, and create conflict and friction. They know it would be easier for you to give in. They are testing you.
Understanding Our Fear of Limits
In addition to obvious reasons, such as fear that our children won’t love us anymore, there is a more subtle level of “why” we as parents have trouble setting limits. A good place to start looking for these deeper whys is in the past, to the interactions you had as a child or teenager with your parents or anyone else who was intimately involved in your upbringing. We can’t avoid the influence of the people who raised us in the way we parent our kids – for better or worse.
Each of us carries idealized images of good parents and bad parents inside of us, what I call our “inner parent.” They influence our feelings and can have enormous power. When we remember the good version (the mother who always got up to cook us a hot breakfast, or the father who patiently helped us with our homework), we may try to live up to these visions – to emulate and please them. And so, in many instances, our good inner parents inspire us to be good parents. But our good inner parents can also influence us to be overly generous or overprotective – in general, over indulgent with our children. Trying to please a good inner parent can blind us to our children’s real needs for limits.
Ironically, we can also indulge our children because we want to avoid any resemblance to our bad inner parent. If we had a mother or father who was never involved, we may vow to be as involved as possible in our children’s lives, bending over backwards to fulfill their needs while we neglect our own. Thus, it’s important to be able to distinguish between when we are parenting our kids and when we are reparenting ourselves as children. Fortunately, it is possible to remodel these inner parents, or, at least, to reduce their power over us. Just getting to know them, by simply being conscious of them, we diminish their influence.
Know Your Inner Parent
Take a moment to visit your inner parents on their home turf, inside your head. Start with the good inner parent. Begin by thinking about an experience with your mother that brings back positive feelings. (If you can’t think of one, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Instead, pick another relative – your father or grandparent, for instance.) Try to remember as many details about the experience as you can. It makes no different whether your mom (or other relative) is as saintly as you remember her. What’s important is that you believe she was. For an introduction to your bad inner parent, simply do the opposite of the first exercise. Recall a painful or traumatic experience with one of your parents, an incident in which you felt furious, abandoned or betrayed. As uncomfortable as this experience may be, try to remember that it is a necessary step toward changing your parenting style for the better.
Choosing Proper Punishment
Now that you have explored some of the reasons why you may have trouble setting limits, you are ready to change your behavior. Once you’ve decided to establish real rules at home, it’s important to be consistent about enforcing them and it’s usually necessary to have some kind of punishment in place. Rules are usually more effective if there are real consequences to breaking them, and it’s important that the consequences are spelled out in advance.
“Time out” is usually effective for younger kids as a consequence. As kids get older, their rooms are generally where they want to be, so this becomes less effective. I stopped using Time Outs as punishment when my kids turned seven.
Other options include having your kids do tasks that aren’t a normal part of their responsibilities, such as sweeping out the garage or washing windows. Grounding is popular among parents; the loss of phone privileges can be effective. But be cautious about setting penalties that are too severe. For one thing, it limits your ability to punish for anything else. Once I worked with a set of parents who, in response to various infractions, removed nearly everything from their son’s room – stereo, television, computer, phone – until they no longer had any disciplinary leverage.
Changing One Behavior at a Time
Remember, setting limits doesn’t only need to be about punishment. You can be proactive about setting positive limits for your child, and you can start now. Choose one behavior you want to change or develop in your child (e.g. cleaning room, doing dishes). It may help you to think back to the Step One exercise. No doubt, there’s a connection between the behavior you give in on and the behavior you wish most to change.
To change the behavior, you need to map out a plan. Your plan should include:
1) How you will talk to your child about the new policy
This should include the reasons why you think it is important (e.g. I need the help around the house). Be sure that you explain your reasons without lecturing or placing blame. Your discussion will be more effective if your child perceives that you are asking for help rather than demanding it. Here’s how I would approach this conversation with my own son:
“John, I need to talk to you about something. Can we take 5 minutes now? I’ve been thinking lately about the kinds of chores I have to do around the house and to tell you the truth I could really use your help. So I’m asking you to take over the responsibility for putting your laundry in the hamper. I know you can do a good job.”
By stating your needs and posing your request in a non-threatening manner, your child will not only be more likely to agree to this new policy, but he will also feel like an integral and valued member of your family. You will also be reinforcing the importance of cooperation and responsibility.
2) The consequences andor rewards that will accompany the change
For example, you may decide to deduct 50 cents from your child’s allowance for every piece of laundry left on the floor. Be sure to explain this plan to your child. If you have previously just given an allowance without an incentive, your child may need some time to adjust to this new policy.
In order for your plan to succeed, you have to make sure you have chosen something about which you can be completely consistent. This can be the most challenging part of the exercise.
In Lesson Three, say good-bye to “gimmes” and “gotta have its”, and find out how to help your kids learn self-control.
Dr. Dan Kindlonis the author of Too Much of a Good Thing.