Guiding Principle: Setting Limits and Consequences

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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.

Full2411.jpg“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.

While he kept opening up the birthday boy’s presents, I could hear his parents giggling. They knew it wasn’t fair for him to be opening up someone else’s gifts, so they kept calling his name.

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 of parents to set limits and boundaries for their children. 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 can achieve in life.

Additionally, limits are useless if there are no consequences when our children cross them. This is where parents really struggle. It is just so much easier to avoid providing consequences for a child’s actions. “I don’t want to punish him,” parents say. “I don’t want to hurt him or make him think I don’t love him.” Incredibly, it is the lack of boundaries that makes children feel unloved, even vulnerable. Providing limits is like creating a shell around your child.

If this shell is reasonable and fair, it really is experienced like a big hug. Your child will know 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, there are consequences. Without this, children don’t know where they are safe and secure and where there is danger. They are left to figure it out themselves either afraid to do anything because it all seems dangerous or unafraid, smashing through the limits and boundaries of everyone around them.

When you tell your child to keep his hands away from the hot oven because you don’t want him to burn himself, you set that limit out of love. Most other limits are set to help your child in the long run, to understand respect for himself and for others, therefore learning how to effectively function in our society so he can achieve his full potential. This is why consequences – not punishment – are so important for when our children cross the line.

Team Effort

Both parents must be in agreement with the limits that are being set 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.

Parents also need to agree on the consequences for bad behavior. When one parent says, “If you scream one more time, you’re going to get a time-out,” but the other says, “Oh, it’s OK. You know how kids scream,” the child gets a mixed message and, if this is common, he will be less likely to pay attention to the first parent.

Disagreements on limits and consequences are perfectly normal and acceptable, but have them in private to maintain a united front. 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. Fortunately, most people would never consider giving an infant a time-out because he didn’t stop crying. But you certainly could to a 2-and-a-half-year-old who hit another child.

Be in agreement. Both parents must be in agreement – at least in front of your child – for consequences to work effectively. This is why it is so important to be clear between each other what behavior is OK and not OK for your children.


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. Receiving consequences without knowing why will not help children change their behavior and learn from the experience.

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.

Related to behavior. The consequence should be related to what the child did wrong. If he misbehaves at the playground and continues despite several warnings, leave the playground. It is clear that misbehaving at the playground means you won’t get to play at the playground.

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 as much as possible.

Keep it real. Consequences should be realistic for both you and your child. When you’re at the supermarket and your child is acting out, telling him he better stop or you’ll leave the supermarket only punishes yourself since you probably need to get the shopping done.

Follow through. Stick to your guns. 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. It is important that this ends your being upset with him as well so you both can go on with more enjoyable activities together.

Setting limits and providing consequences is incredibly challenging, but immeasurably valuable. It is not something that can be done periodically, however. Maintaining limits and providing consequences should be as consistent as your breathing. Even more, it may take months for it to begin to truly have a positive affect on your children. But it is a benefit for yourself and certainly your children that will last them a lifetime, freeing them to achieve their full potential – pretty good return on your investment.

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.


time out defined

What is a time-out? Exactly what it sounds like – stopping everything that is happening and being quiet, maybe even reflecting on what just happened for a few moments. Time-outs are particularly helpful when a child seems to be getting out of control. “She can’t stop herself, so we intervene and help her stop by giving her a time-out.” The general rule of thumb is that a time-out should last one minute for every year of life; for example, a 2-year-old would get two minutes of time-out.

It is also important to remember that consequences should be tailored to your specific child. We have found that our daughter responds well to time-outs. Sometimes the threat of a time-out is enough for her, but when she really crosses the line, we give her a time-out, and it seems to have an effect on her behavior. However, our son seems to want a time-out. He asks for them. Literally.

“Time-out, Daddy?” Especially when he hasn’t done anything wrong. For him, a time-out, for some strange reason has become like a reward. Obviously, we can’t give him a time-out for bad behavior; that would send a conflicting message. Instead we try to take away or limit something he likes to help him understand the consequences for bad behavior.

jeremy schneider

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