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How to Set Limits

Children are not unlike little computers. They come from the factory with blank hard drives and unified wiring. Until programs are loaded, they can assign no meaning to life, they have no limits and no concept of right and wrong. Programming determines their lot in life – one may find the cure to the common cold, the other may lean toward a career in the fast food industry. Parents are the primary programmers of our children’s blank hard drives in the form of the modeling and learning they impart. When children are raised without clearly delineated limits, we are, in fact, programming them for disciplinary problems and behavioral issues. We are teaching them the wrong things.

We’ve all seen this in action. Just observe the behavior at a daycare facility and you’ll see it unfolding before your eyes. One child plays respectfully with other kids, while some grab toys away and push and shove and generally bully other kids at will. Both began life with blank hard drives, so what’s the difference here? Some might argue that these dispositions are genetic, “that’s just who he is,” but that’s up for debate in the scientific community. More likely, the respectful child has been taught limits where interactions with others are concerned, and understands there are consequences when those limits are violated. The other has no idea that their behavior is harmful, both for others and for themselves, since they’ve never experienced the consequences of how they treat others. The daycare teacher may try to define limits and impart consequences, but this is orders of magnitude less effective than the modeling implemented at home. It isn’t that one child is more or less loved than the other, but rather, it’s the discipline of setting limits in the home where life is unfolding – where that hard drive is being programmed – that defines who this child is, and who they will be.

Setting limits is nothing more than establishing boundaries for decisions and behaviors, and then attaching consequences to them on both sides of the coin. The concept is simple: when limits are violated, consequences kick in. When limits are observed, good things happen. By living those consequences, learning takes place. As children test those boundaries – and rest assured, they will – the consistency of the consequences becomes the key to the learning. And here is where parents make a grievous error: they either don’t understand and implement adequate consequences when limits are tested, or they are inconsistent with them. The child can’t comprehend the rules if the rules are fluid.

Liberal-minded households often have different boundaries than those established by stricter parents. Parents get to decide where the line resides, but the concept is inviolate regardless of the liberal-conservative equation: something needs to happen when that line is breached. Because here’s a scary truth: when the consequences of violating a rule are inconsistent, children are still learning. They are learning that they can get away with things, that what mommy and daddy say isn’t really true after all, and that the limits aren’t all that important.

Children assign meaning to everything, especially when it comes to limits, so it is important that they understand what the limits of your household are saying to the child. If they see their parents yelling and hitting, they’ll comprehend that this is okay, even if the parents say otherwise. Saying isn’t enough, parents must live the values they impart to their children. So make sure the limits you set are saying, I care about you, and I want you to be safe, rather than, I don’t trust you, you are a bad kid and need to be controlled. Loose boundaries or a lack of limits can say, We don’t care what you do, we’re too busy doing other things. A better message is, We trust you, make your own decisions, but make them within the boundaries of what we’ve taught you.

Limits should be clear and rational, but firm. Make sure the limits you set are not based on your own unreasonable fears, such as fear of flying or racial prejudice. Rest assured, your limits will be tested, and if a growing child perceives your limits to be unreasonable – they have an innate sense of this, fostered by socialization at school – they’ll be quicker to test you and feel justified in doing so.

The most important aspect of setting boundaries is consistency of enforcement. Consequences need to be in line with the infraction – grounding for life is not an appropriate response to getting caught tossing vegetables from the dinner plate down the disposal. The rule of thumb here is to understand that consequences are not so much punishment as they are reinforcements, all designed to promote learning and cement boundaries moving forward. Discussion is the grease that makes this machine work, so avoid a cold and distance implementation of discipline in favor of a tough but loving focus on the meaning of it all.

Children want and need limits, even if the say otherwise. Limits say that you care, that you are involved. Their innate drive is to please you, and if they see that you care the limits will be more meaningful, even when tested. The objective here isn’t so much to make the parenting task easier, but rather, to make it more effective.

So program your children carefully, and with love. Because unlike a computer, there is no delete button, and their capacity for memory is unlimited.

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