Dear Mr. Dad: Anytime the topic of discipline comes up, everyone talks about how important it is to set limits. I agree, but it’s a lot easier to talk about it than to actually do it, especially when the kids (mine are 4 and 8) push back and challenge everything. How do you suggest we go from talking to doing?
A: The reason people talk so much about limit setting is that if you want well-behaved children (and I’ve yet to meet a parent who doesn’t), firm boundaries are critical. However, after all the earnest discussions about the importance of limits, most people do what you do: go home and scratch their heads (or tear their hair out) trying to figure out how to implement them. The good news is that, even if you haven’t done a particularly good job of establishing boundaries, it’s never too late to start.
Before we get into that, let’s take a quick look at why getting kids to respect boundaries is so important. Every civilized society has rules. Most are pretty reasonable, while others are arbitrary or even absurd. But society would grind to a halt — or explode into chaos — if everyone were allowed to create and follow their own rules while ignoring everyone else’s. (That sounds like it might be fun in the beginning, but the charm would wear off pretty quickly.)
Unlike the expensive tech devices in their pockets, children themselves don’t come loaded with many pre-set rules. Sadly, there are no apps to show them what’s acceptable and what isn’t, what’s healthy and what’s dangerous, what’s kind and what’s hurtful. It’s up to us to teach them the old-fashioned way: by modeling and talking.
Now let’s get to the challenging part: How to establish limits while making sure they’re right for your family.
Rules need to be clear and achievable.
- Sounds easy, but finding the sweet spot between being too lenient and too strict is a delicate balancing act and requires constant fine tuning.
Limits should be age-appropriate.
- What works for your kids today won’t work when they’re teenagers. And what’s reasonable for your 8-year old won’t be reasonable for your 4-year old (and might not even be reasonable when the 4-year old turns 8).
- As your children get older and your circumstances and their needs change, you’ll need to adjust your house rules accordingly.
Talk about the “why.”
- Explaining the reason behind each boundary will show that you aren’t making rules simply to ruin their lives. For example, telling them that they’re not allowed to ride their bike to a friend’s house is one thing. Explaining that it’s because you don’t want them to cross the busy street alone is better, and shows that you’re trying to keep them safe.
Negotiate — to a point.
- If your kids can make a good argument for why a rule should be changed or abolished, listen to it. However, make it clear that certain rules — health and safety issues, in my house — are non-negotiable.
Enforce rules and establish clear consequences
- . Sooner rather than later, the kids will test your boundaries or break the rules. It’s essential to immediately enforce the consequences. If you don’t, they’ll get the message that breaking rules is okay or that there’s always one more “last warning.” That’s not a lesson that will serve them well in adulthood, when the consequences for bending or breaking rules will be harsher.
Setting boundaries isn’t easy
- — we want our children to love us and don’t want them to be mad at us, which is exactly what’ll happen when they invariably bump up against the rules we’ve established. But be firm. The result will be more respectful, better-mannered kids who will grow into responsible, likeable adults.