Setting Limits: The Art of Regulating Children’s Behavior

Guiding children without being coercive or controlling is extremely important and can be very challenging. How can parents do this successfully? This is the second part of the parenting approach from the Effective Parenting episode: Setting limits.Setting limits involve the use of parental power to influence, regulate, and modify child behavior. Limits are standards, rules, and expectations that are defined for children in the family, and the kind of discipline strategies chosen when consequences for choices, good or bad, are administered.

According to parenting scholars Craig Hart and Lloyd Newell at Brigham Young University, wise parents guide their children by creating a “safety net” of appropriate limits. They also encourage desirable behavior with positive reinforcement, are clear and firm about rules and expectations, explain the reasons behind rules, and enforce the consequences of breaking them. This gentle-but-firm guidance is crucial because it helps children develop an internal sense of self-responsibility and morality.

Setting reasonable limits on children’s behavior provides stability and security. When consequences are consistent, children learn the results of poor choices. Experiencing consequences allows children to “rehearse” better behavior and understand how to deal with future situations. Parents also should consider each child’s personality and maturity when setting reasonable limits and guiding a child to appropriate learning experiences.

Good parents are rarely viewed by their children as dictatorial. In fact, children are more likely to follow parental guidance when it’s given in a context of mutual give and take. They’re also more likely to be respectful of parents and others when parents share their power, such as taking their children’s input seriously in family decisions. Children of parents who wield total authority are actually less likely to comply.

Parental guidance is so vital because it starts children on the path to developing their own sense of morality and responsibility. As you guide and direct your children, remember this principle offered by parenting specialist Dorothy James: “Children learn by doing, not by having parents do for them. Guiding conveys walking along beside them, showing them the way.”

Here are some ideas for setting limits with children:

Explain family rules in advance. Make sure your children know what’s expected of them in advance and the consequences if they break the rules. For example:

Don’t wait until your teen asks to spend all night out at a party to discuss a curfew time or what the consequences are if she comes home past curfew.

Let your children know ahead of time that if they play ball in the house, the ball will be put away for a few days.

Make sure your children understand that the consequence for name-calling will be a time-out and writing an apology note.

Involve your children in setting family rules. As much as you can, discuss family rules with your children and arrive at an agreement together. Children are more likely to comply with rules they’ve helped set.

Encourage good behavior with rewards. Rewarding good behavior with extra privileges and surprises motivates children better than punishment. For example, if your child has worked hard on chores all morning, you could tell her: “Wow. You’ve worked very hard all morning! I appreciate your efforts. Why don’t we go out for ice cream when you’re done?”

Speak in positives. Young children tend to respond better when they’re redirected to a positive behavior rather than punished for a negative one. For example, instead of saying, “Get away from that vase,” say, “Please come over here by me.” Instead of saying, “Don’t you dare make another mess,” say, “Next time remember to pick up your toys, please.” Parents need to maintain at least a 5-1 ratio of positive to negative interactions with their children and teens.

Monitor, follow-through and use consequences. Unlike coercive parents who administer harsh, arbitrary punishments, authoritative parents proactively explain reasons for setting rules and administer corrective measures promptly when children do not abide by them. Correction is motivated by a sincere interest in teaching children correct principles rather than merely to control, exercise dominion, or vent anger.

Examples of reasonable uses of consequences include: temporarily suspending teen driving privileges for traffic violations; enforcing time-out when a child is angry and hurting others and then discussing alternative methods for dealing with anger; letting the stove timer determine whether chores are completed in a reasonable time frame so that certain privileges can be earned.

Teach children to take responsibility for their own actions. For example, when a toddler runs into a chair, it is a mistake to comfort the child by blaming the chair; or when a teenager fails a test, to blame the teacher for making the test too hard.

Avoid using physical discipline with older children. Any type of physical coercion with older children and teens has consistently been shown to increase oppositional behavior. The best parents rarely or never use harsh physical punishment with children of any age.

Show an increase of love after a rebuke. For example, a mother had a child throwing a tantrum in the car one day. The agile preschooler slipped from her seatbelt and opened the car door. Fortunately, the car was traveling slowly at the moment and the child was contained in the car until the mother could bring it to a stop. She got out of the car and reprimanded the child with sharpness. Both of them still visibly shaken, they soon arrived home. This mother gathered the child into her arms, went to the child’s bedroom and privately sat with her on the bedroom floor. Together, they wept. In anguish, the mother explained: “Honey, I could have lost you. You could have been seriously hurt or killed. I would be heartbroken. I love you. I’m sorry that you sometimes feel angry, but you are never to open the car door while we are driving.” Contritely, the daughter said she was very sorry. The mother and daughter held one another close until they both felt comforted from their harrowing experience. The mother knew that while she had used some tactics at the time of the incident that she infrequently used with her child, in this situation, they were warranted and important. The showing of love after the incident strengthened their bond.

Talk it out. When your children make mistakes, sit down and talk with them. Discuss what they did and what the consequences were. Listen to them. Rehearse with them what they might do differently next time.

Teach by example. Your own behavior is your children’s most influential guide. If you want to teach your children honest, decent, moral behavior, you must behave honestly, decently, and morally yourself. Consider your personal strengths and weaknesses. What can you improve to become a better example for your children? Set a personal goal to improve in one area that will make you a better role model.

Hold family meetings. Recommended by religious leaders and family experts alike, family meetings provide an opportunity for parents to guide their children. (Family meetings are separate from “family nights,” which should be set aside for fun and togetherness.) Family meetings can be used to clarify family responsibilities and expectations, set goals, assign chores, resolve problems, and celebrate one another’s successes. Good meetings allow each person to voice their opinions, express their feelings, and help in solving problems and making decisions.

Schedule a regular time for family meetings, say the first Sunday of every month. Meetings shouldn’t always be used to air concerns and solve problems. Try to talk about fun things, too, like planning a family vacation. Set an agenda and follow it. Before the meeting, encourage family members to add anything to the agenda that they want discussed. You might post a piece of paper on the refrigerator or a bulletin board for this purpose. Rotate conducting the meeting between parents and older children.

Set ground rules for the meeting, such as:

1, Everyone is free to express opinions and feelings without fear of being blamed or insulted.

2. Interrupting the speaker is not allowed. Everyone is expected to listen to the person talking.

3. The meeting will last an hour at most.

4. The meeting will end with treats.

For Further Reading:

Between Parent and Child
by Haim Ginnott

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child
by John Gottman

Additional Websites

Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service Website – Parenting Journey