Setting Limits & Consequences
Sometimes a firm approach is the most loving one.
I was at a birthday party recently. While the birthday boy was opening up his presents, most of the other kids excitedly sat in a circle around him. There was one child, however, who actually was opening presents with the birthday boy. I could hear his parents calling him, but he wasn’t paying them any attention to them.
“Mikey,” said the dad. “C’mon, Mikey.” No response. He didn’t even look up at them.
“C’mon Mikey. Come on over here with Mommy and Daddy,” said the mom. I could tell by the tone of both of their voices that they weren’t actually serious, which probably explains why their requests fell on deaf ears.
After a little more of this, the father of the birthday boy picked up Mikey and brought him over to his parents.
As Mikey got comfortable on his father’s lap, both parents thanked the birthday boy’s father. I couldn’t help wondering why didn’t they just do that themselves. Clearly limits and respecting other people’s boundaries were not part of their guiding principles.
Setting Limits and Defining Boundaries
One of the most challenging but vitally important principles of parenting is the ability to set limits and boundaries. Many of us want confident children who believe they can do whatever they want. But there are limits to what they should do and boundaries for themselves and other people. Ironically, if they don’t learn these limits, or if they don’t understand their own boundaries or the boundaries of other people, they will actually be more limited in what they achieve in life.
Additionally, limits are useless if there are no consequences when our children cross them. This is where parents really struggle. “Because discipline (meaning “to teach”) is a big commitment!” says Chris Kelley, M.Ed., Director of Training at Children, Inc. in Covington. “It’s difficult to enforce a consequence when the parent may also have to feel the sting of it. For example … ‘you didn’t clean up your toys, so no Happy Meal’ means that the parent now has to prepare dinner. Exhausted, stressed parents may just want peace and quiet, and a crying child who just had outside play removed as a consequence doesn’t provide much peace. Working parents who spend hours away from children may not, out of guilt or other conflicted feelings, want to be an enforcer of consequences in the limited time they’re able to spend with children.”
Says Connie Harrison, Program Manager of Community and Therapeutic Services at Beech Acres, “Parents struggle with guidance for a number of reasons. Some take their child’s behavior personally, as though it is done to them. Some want or need their child to like them, or never want to cause any unhappiness in their child, or just want to avoid conflict.”
It is just so much easier to avoid providing consequences for a child’s actions. “Some parents view consequences as punishment, rather than a logical, natural result of the choices that children make,” says Kelley. “It’s sometimes tough to think of limits as love, but lovingly-enforced limits provide children with the security they crave.” Providing limits is like creating a shell around your child. If this shell is reasonable and fair, it is experienced like a big hug. Your child knows that when he is within the shell, he has freedom and safety because you are looking out for him. When he goes outside the shell, he is either afraid to do anything because it all seems dangerous or unafraid, smashing through the limits and boundaries of everyone around him.
Both parents must be in agreement with the limits and the consequences of bad behavior. Children can sense when parents don’t agree and will interpret that disagreement as room for misbehaving because the rules are not clear.
“It is important for the adults to have some agreement,” says Harrison. “Children are accepting of individual differences, but house rules need to be house rules. Children crave routines and consistency. As children age, the differences between the adults will allow the opportunity to learn to be manipulative. These differences are even more challenging for adults who co-parent from different households. If it continues to be a problem, parents might try mediation. When the rules and consequences are consistent between the adults, children are reassured. Many parents experience their child asking the same question over and over. They are looking for the reassurance of the same answer, and this builds the internal security on which self-discipline is built.”
“The child may at first be confused, but very quickly (and from an early age) learns to disregard consequences as a response to his behavior,” says Kelley. “We often call it manipulative when a child learns to take advantage of his parents’ lack of agreement, but it’s really just a matter of the child adapting to his parents’ unwillingness to work together on his behalf.”
Taking turns applying consequences and setting limits is crucial so the child knows both parents are serious. The main keys to providing consequences for actions are the following:
Be age appropriate. Limits and consequences must be age appropriate and realistic. “Guidance is not easy, but it is simpler than we make it,” says Harrison. “Have age appropriate rules or guidelines, decide on age appropriate consequences. All works best when parents’ expectations are realistic. Take a 4-year-old in a restaurant. It’s not realistic to expect that the child will sit quietly for 20 minutes with nothing to do while the adults converse. It’s even less likely if the child is tired and hungry. What’s the limit, is it realistic? What’s the consequence? Better for all to anticipate the situation, bring books and small games, talk with your child as well as the adults, get some crackers or a glass of milk to keep that hunger at bay. Any time the adults let the situation deteriorate into a power struggle, it will spiral downward. Intervene early, calmly, and consistently.”
Explain it clearly. Says Kelley, “All children, no matter the age, benefit from a simple explanation of how their choices are linked to consequences. From toddlerhood on, children should be given ‘structured’ choices (‘You may do this, or you may do that. Which do you choose?’). When the child’s choice works out well for her, parents must be quick to celebrate with the child. When a choice results in a problem for the child or another person, parents should, without shaming, point out the problematic consequences. If children, from an early age, are helped to understand consequences of their ‘mistaken’ behavior, then the concept of consequences becomes much easier to establish and enforce later.”
Give clear warnings. Your child must know the consequences of his actions in advance. The only way to stop the behavior is if he knows ahead of time that it is wrong and that it will lead to consequences. Harrison advises parents to be cautious about over-explaining. “This is often interpreted by children as the opportunity to argue their points, and can escalate as they got older and have better language skills. Give your explanations when you make the rules, and when you have to use a consequence, just say; ‘That is our house rule.’ Plan ahead to minimize situations where you will need to do this, use the rules, dial down the emotion, never threaten something you can’t do (‘We will NEVER go to Grandma’s house again!’), and be as consistent as humanly possible.”
Make it immediate. The consequence should be as immediate as possible. If your child acts out in the supermarket, telling him he can’t have dessert because of his behavior won’t achieve anything because there is too much time between what he did and the consequence of his action.
Relate it to behavior. “The consequence should make sense,” says Kelley. “For instance, a child throws the toy, the child loses the opportunity to play with the toy for a limited amount of time. What’s critical for parents to remember is that consequences should be simply stated and consistently enforced without the heat of emotion. When parents are out-of-control when they are imposing consequences, the power of consequences is lost. It then becomes scary for the child, who may fear a loss of the parent’s affection.”
No pain needed. The consequence should never involve hurting your child. Some parents believe if their child knows what it feels like to be bitten they won’t bite anymore. Not only is that not true, but it sends a contradictory message that even though the parent said it was wrong to bite, the parent just bit, so maybe it is not bad after all. Since we are our children’s models, our words and actions need to compliment each other.
Follow through. Kids pick up on hollow threats and will begin to ignore them and you. They also learn quickly when the threats are real and will pay more attention to what you say.
Separate the behavior from the child. Your child is not bad, but his actions are. He needs to know that even though you disciplined him, you still love him and don’t think he is bad.
Explain and hug. After the time-out is over, be sure your child understands why he received it. Once he understands, give him a hug and let him know you love him and put it behind you.
Setting limits and providing consequences is incredibly challenging, but immeasurably valuable. It is not something that can be done periodically. Maintaining limits and providing consequences should be as consistent as your breathing. But it is a benefit for yourself and certainly your children that will last them a lifetime, freeing them to achieve their full potential.
Jeremy Schneider, MFT, is founder and executive director of Empowering Children and Families, a non-profit organization fostering the confidence in individuals to create stronger families. He is a husband, father and writer.