When they are little, it is relatively easy to set the limits we need to protect our children. It was not necessary for me to have a degree in rocket science to know that putting a bumper on the cribs of my twins would protect them from hitting their heads.  As toddlers, safety locks on cabinets were the logical solution to ensure they kept all ten fingers intact while installing gates seemed like the obvious thing to do to prevent them from falling down the stairs. As they grow older, however, I sometimes wonder if being a rocket scientist would be easier than being a parent!

Even when we know where to set the limits, like knowing that ice-cream should not be substituted for milk in the morning, setting them is sometimes just as challenging.  Sticking to them, however, is where things really get sticky!

What I have found, as a mother of three teens, and has taught parenting classes for over fifteen years, is that understanding the importance of why I am doing something makes the follow-through so much easier. Of course, few of us would disagree that ice cream as a substitute for milk at breakfast is not a healthy choice.  When parents said (for the tenth time) that they would leave the park if their child threw sand one more time — I would want to intervene to explain the disservice they were doing by having set a limit they did not even want to enforce.  The parents were on the playdate with their friends too; don’t set the limit if you are not going to follow through!

Where Do We Draw the Lines?

When they are no longer babies, knowing where to “set limits” sometimes becomes less obvious. Where do we need to draw the lines? Sometimes, as parents, we can turn to the doctors, the books, the “experts” for answers, but at other times we must make these hard decisions by ourselves.  For example, when we want to limit our son’s “screen time,” and the answers about whether or not watching Youtube or doing homework on his computer should count, is less obvious than what happened at the park when sand got into the playmate’s eye.

In addition, children may not agree with or care about the limit a parent wants to set and stick with. For example, a parent might prefer to live in a clean and tidy house without toddler toys all over the living room floor or dirty clothes supplying the extra layer of cushioning for the carpet in their tween or teen’s bedroom. What might result is that we ask, or tell them repeatedly, to clean their room to the point where our voices become raised. The repeated nature of the task results in resentment building on both sides.  Cleaning their “mess” is not “our job” and when they treat us like we are total bores and boars, as a result, it can be infuriating.  On the other hand, the child may see parents as being disrespectful by not giving them “their” space, especially in their bedrooms.

Underlying Lessons Taught

Focusing exclusively on the toys or the mess, however, fails to address what the underlying lessons are. When we miss these, we are missing opportunities that are so very valuable for the teachable moments our children need. When our children become more able-bodied, the lessons become less obvious. If we leave a bumper off the bed they might hit their head and will get a bruise. As our children get older, setting limits is imperative. Like the bumpers, the safety locks, and the gates, this is our way to not only keep them safe — but also to let them know how much we care.

Consistency Conveys Trust

What?  If I want my toddler to clean his toys or my teen to clean her room, am I communicating that I care? Okay, maybe not in the cleaning “per se,” but setting limits does teach our children the values of respect, responsibility and those other people in the world matter. It is much deeper than “clean.”  Also, when we set limits, and stick to them, we teach trust. When I tell my child that I will be at school at 3 pm to pick her up, and I am there time after time, she can trust me to show up. And, when I establish an 11 pm curfew for my son and offer the car to go out in, he can trust that I will take the keys away next weekend and he will not be able to join his friends if that limit was set and not followed. They can trust we will do what we say.

Talking about these values is important too. In addition to building trust in us, it lets children know we trust them to be smart enough, considerate enough, and respectful too. Will they be late? Will they push back? Will they fail? Will they leave their rooms in a mess? Gosh, I hope so! It is their job to test the limits. It is developmentally appropriate to push back when they reach toddler, tween, and teen ‘hood’ just as it is our job as parents to set the limits and follow through! I want my children to “mess up” and to make mistakes on my watch.  It is only during my watch when I have the ability to help them navigate through life. Consequences will come later in life when we have little to no control, so if children learn to think about consequences now, hopefully, they will begin to anticipate new ones (that we don’t control) as they grow.

Give them a Voice

How to set limits is also very important! Just as we want children to respect us and the limits that are set, we want to give them a voice in setting them and determining the consequences — to show them we respect them. When they have had their voices heard, they are much more likely to see following the rules as a choice they have made, rather than dictatorially imposed. When the former is the case, they are also far more likely to follow the rules too. As they grow into adults, the connection and closeness that will result in the relationships we share with our children will reflect the respectful voices that were used and the choices that were made.

When they are toddlers, their choice and input into enforcing the rule can be made into a game.  For instance, who can collect more blocks during the 2-minute timer that they can set (let them win, they are little and care more about winning while we care more that the room gets cleaned) As tweens and teens, the “tude” will be minimized when we include them in the process in making the rules — and will, hopefully, lessen the impact of the tantrum when it’s time to impose the consequence they chose.  For example, on Saturday morning, let them know how much you would love to get them to the friend’s house on time for the “hang-out” that has been planned.   Ask them if they remember the plan. (When you asked her to clean her room and she said she would do it by tomorrow.  You agreed).

Remember, show your kids they can trust you and you care about their safety by setting rules, and by sticking to them. Most important of all, remind them constantly how much you love them!

Melanie Soloway Prager is Summit Center’s Parent Educator and the Founder and Director of Raising Enlightened Children. Melanie is the mother of three teenagers, two of whom are twice exceptional/2e. She is certified in numerous parenting programs including Positive Discipline, Redirecting Children’s Behavior and Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG). Previously, Melanie was a Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles County and the Co-Founder and Co-Director of Empowered Parenting. She is based in Los Angeles and is available to present workshops to your parent group or school.

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