Setting Limits for Your Children

Father talking to Daughter While Working
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Once two neighbors were visiting after a dinner and talking about raising children. One of the neighbors - a mom - was doing the dishes after dinner. The other neighbor looked at the mound of dishes on the kitchen counter and noticed that her daughter Rebecca was nowhere to be found.  The visitor asked the mom at the sink if Rebecca was doing her homework or at a school activity.

"No," she replied.

"She is out playing with her friends."

"Doesn't Rebecca help with clean up after dinner?" the friend asked.

"It is her chore, but she enjoys being with her friends so much, I hate to make her do her chores before she goes out to play. I don't mind doing her work for her because I enjoy knowing that she is having fun."

Do you think that was the message that Rebecca wanted to hear? Probably. But what message is she really getting? That Mom will bail her out and that there are no consequences for not performing. Will Rebecca's boss at her first real job be that understanding when she tries to get out of working?

By being allowed to play rather than take responsibility for her own behavior, Rebecca is learning that the rules her parents have established have little meaning for her. She is learning to develop an attitude that will not serve her well in the long run.

Children naturally experiment and push boundaries in their quest to mature and learn to be a part of society.

Not everything they try will be right every time. Parents are part of their lives to correct them and teach them appropriate child behavior. It is, after all, better to learn young the realities and expectations of life than to learn later in a much higher risk situation.

When fathers work with their children in setting and enforcing appropriate limits, they teach them skills and tools for a productive life.

If you set and maintain limits, your children will learn from your positive discipline and develop their own sense of right and wrong and attitude of self-discipline. Sometimes, like Rebecca's mom, we feel like spoiling our children a little is a way to show them that we love them. But do they feel loved? Perhaps, but more importantly, they feel empowered to do as they please. A better sign of love is to see that our children develop positive child behavior by consistently following the rules.

Guidelines For Setting Limits

1. Set limits and consequences together. Rules are set best when parents and children set them together. Being a part of the rule-setting process helps them understand the rules and consequences better. For example, if you are setting a curfew, you might undertake a conversation like this one.

"Beth, your mom and I are concerned that as you are getting older, you should have a curfew--a time to be home on school nights. Why do you think we might be concerned about the time you come home at night?"

"Well, maybe you think I need my sleep before school in the morning. I know I feel better at school when I get a good night's sleep the night before."

"That's right, Beth. So if you need about eight hours of sleep a night and you have to get up at 6:30 in the morning, what might be a good time to be home at night?"

"How about 11:00?"

"Your mom and I feel like that's a little too late on a school night. Maybe that would be O.K. for a special event on a weekend, but we were thinking more like about 8:30 p.m. That would give you time to get ready for bed and get a good night's sleep. What do you think?"

"I could live with 8:30 if I could stay up a little later on the weekends. Would that work for you?"

"O.K. It will be 8:30 on weeknights and 10:00 on weekends unless there is a real special occasion that we talk about and agree on before it happens. What would be a good consequence if you are late?"

"I don't know. Maybe you could have me skip dessert if I get home late."

"We were thinking about a little more meaningful consequence. What would you think about being grounded the next evening altogether if you come in late on a weeknight?"

"I guess I could handle that."

2. Show your love by consistently applying the rules. Being a "marshmallow dad" that gives into his children regularly rather than enforcing the rules of good child behavior may seem fun and loving, but it is not showing true love and concern for them. Having them obey rules and face the consequences when they are broken is real love.

3. Make the consequences stick. When the rule is violated, remind the child of the consequence and make it happen. No matter what. Consistent application of the rules gives the child a feeling of security in knowing that your word is real and that you expect hers to be the same. Giving in to a whining child who is not enjoying the consequences of their behavior is not living up to your potential as a parent and is not helping the child learn about the real world.

4. Remember that firmness is not cruelty. Being firm creates a strong foundation for your relationship with your child. You can be firm but kind. And you should be fair. That is why a clear setting of expectations for child behavior and the consequences - good or bad - is important in this process.  Being firm and direct, when tempered with love and respect, can be a strong positive influence in a parent-child relationship.

Setting limits shows love for your children. The dad who works with his children to set boundaries and consequences for appropriate child behavior and administers them fairly, firmly and consistently creates a relationship of trust with them and helps them develop into responsible and dependable adults.