A natural and beneficial way to solve problems in the household is setting limits. However, in practice parents quickly realize that children don’t always understand or follow the limits in place. This problem often stems from parents skipping crucial steps in the limit-setting process.
Knowing the Goals of the Limits
Every action has a reason. The act of limit-setting is no exception. But sometimes parents have a hard time explaining why they have a certain limit in place. A family who lives in a remarkably safe neighborhood, for example, might still feel the need to put restrictions on how late their kids can play outside. This is normal, and the reason is most likely the peace of mind of the parents. Regardless, knowing why you set a limit before you actually teach your child the limit will give you a base on which you can explain the limit to your child. A side benefit to this is that it keeps parents from setting overly demanding limits on their kids.
Explaining the Goals of the Limits
Before your child follows limits, he must know why the limits are in place. This is especially important for older children who simply aren’t satisfied with a “because I said so” reason. Children who know why rules are in place are more likely to follow and respect the rules. Telling a child that she must put on a coat on a cold winter day “because I said so” might work as you leave the home. But when your kid gets to the schoolyard, there’s no telling whether she’ll leave it on. Explaining to your child that putting on a coat on a cold day is safe and will keep her from feeling bad is much more persuasive. You might even hear your child telling other children to follow the same rule.
Brainstorming Alternative Actions
Many limitations go directly against a child’s desires. Getting a child to go to bed when he’s busy playing is a classic example. Explaining why he should go to bed will help him understand where you are coming from, but it might not be appealing enough for him to give in without a fight. In situations like this, parents should set an objective of helping their children brainstorm possible alternative actions. Not only does such an action teach children that limits are not a binary process -- either you break the limit or do what Mommy says -- but it helps them enhance their decision-making skills. Parents with younger children might have to do much of the brainstorming, but they should still engage the children in evaluating the ideas. A mom might tell a child who wants to stay up late, “I know you want to play, but if you don’t go to bed now, you’ll be very tired in the morning. What do you think about sleeping now and waking up earlier to play with your toys?” Children who are involved in the brainstorming process are likely to see the conclusion as their decision, which makes it easier to follow.
Letting Kids Be Kids
A somewhat paradoxical goal of teaching children limits is letting them break limits. If you’ve done your job as a parent and set good limits -- limits that have clear reasons behind them -- then when your child breaks one, he will suffer the repercussions. The benefit of this is that he learns from his mistakes, solidifying his belief in the family limits. In fact, failing to let kids be kids is stressful on the parents, as no child will always perfectly adhere to all rules. Clinical psychologist Haim Ginott, author of “Between Parent and Child,” says that eventually, your child will be the one setting limits in his life, so you may as well let the learning process begin early.