Setting Limits

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have been talking a lot about the importance of setting limits for our two children, ages 5 and 7. We know we must do this but we aren’t sure how to go about it, especially since the kids continually challenge us on every new rule. But it’s so exhausting. Any suggestions?

A: You’re absolutely right to be talking about setting limits. Boundaries are essential for raising well-behaved kids, especially in this age of “anything goes.” I wish you would have started your discussions a few years ago (and you probably do too), but it’s never too late.
Why is it so important for parents to set boundaries–and for the children to respect them? Well, start by thinking of your family in a larger context. Every civilized society has rules and regulations. Some may be reasonable and others less so, but just imagine what the world would be like if everyone made and followed their own rules, while ignoring and breaking everyone else’s. (To a child, that might sound like paradise, but as adults, we can hopefully see the larger picture.)

Unfortunately, children aren’t born with a pre-loaded set of rules. So if we don’t teach them the difference between good and bad behavior, healthy and dangerous habits, kind and hurtful actions, how will they ever know what’s positive and acceptable and what isn’t?

Okay, now that we’ve got the philosophy of limit-setting down, let’s talk about how to start establishing rules and how to make sure they’re the right ones for your family. Here are some guidelines I think you’ll find helpful:

  • Boundaries should be reasonable and clear to a child. It’s sometimes a delicate balancing act, but you’ve got to find the middle ground between being too lenient and too strict.
  • Limits should be age-appropriate. What works now for your 5 and 7-year-old, won’t work for a teen. And in fact, what works for your 5 year old probably won’t work for the 7 year old.
  • Be flexible. As your children get older, you’ll need to modify your house rules accordingly.
  • Make sure the kids understand why each rule is necessary. You may say, for example, that they’re not allowed to go to a friend’s house alone because they’re too young to cross the street by themselves. Explaining the reason behind each boundary will show them that you don’t make the rules arbitrarily just to curtail their freedom, but, rather, to protect them in a potentially unsafe environment. That said, make sure your children understand that while you’re happy to discuss certain rules, there are some—health and safety issues, for example—that are non-negotiable.
  • Establish clear consequences for breaking rules. Kids have to be held accountable for their actions so they grow into responsible and trustworthy adults. When—not if—they test the boundaries or break the rules, be prepared to enforce the consequences right away. If you don’t, the kids will learn 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 the rules will be harsher.

All in all, setting boundaries isn’t going to be easy—we want our children to love us and don’t want them to be mad at us, which is exactly what will happen when they inevitably bang up against the rules. But it’s our job to stand firm. The result will be more respectful, better-mannered kids who will grow into responsible, likeable adults.

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