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  • Maren Schmidt

Setting Limits.

Updated: May 22



At a neighborhood coffee, my friend, Cheryl, announced that she had stopped eating sugar for several months. Several women gasped at the thought. “But that’s so limiting,” said one.

Cheryl smiled and said, “Actually I find the limitation is quite freeing. I don’t worry any more whether I should eat something or not. Drawing the line at no sugar has increased my freedom and creativity in what I do eat.”

An interesting thought, that by actually limiting one’s actions or choices, a new found freedom is found in the choices still available.

When we set clear limits for our young children, and help our older children set limits, we are actually tapping into a way to help our children focus on certain skill development and learning. When our children become responsible within the parameters we have chosen and start “bumping” into the fence, we know that it is time to enlarge those limits.

As we watch our children, we’ll see them push the limits we’ve set over and over, regardless of the consequences. That’s what they are supposed to do to learn. What becomes critical is that we keep the avenues of communication open by using family meetings and other communication skills discussed in previous columns, such as listening, offering limited choices, observation and more.

If we are watching and listening our children, they will tell us the next steps we need to take together to help them attain the independence and concentration required for positive growth.

We can set limits using natural consequences.

If you forget your coat, you’ll get cold. If you get cold get your coat. Growing up we had a big thermometer and the family rule was to put on a sweater when it got to 55 degrees, or of course, if you felt cold. My mother never told us to put on our coats. She allowed natural consequences, and trusted us to make the right decisions.

We can also use logical consequences to set limits.

This is trickier to do and many parents use natural consequences as a form of punishment, which is not what we want to do. We want to use consequences to provide timely and accurate feedback to our children about their decisions. If we forgot our lunch or lunch money, my mother didn’t bring our lunch to us. Another family rule, or limit, was we were supposed to always have one day’s lunch money in our pencil bag in case we forgot our lunch. If we didn’t have lunch money we had to figure out a way to get some. Needless to say, it only took a couple of times of forgetting our lunch bags, and each of us learned to remember our lunch and lunch money.

The consequences that are most effective are the ones developed in conjunction with our children in problem solving for a solution.

Perhaps there is a persistent problem in your household, for example, leaving late almost everyday for school and work. Pose the question: What can we do together to make sure everyone is ready to go? List the possible solutions. Choose one. What should happen if someone is not ready by the agreed on time? Who will enforce the agreed upon solution?

When our children are part of the solution they will be more cooperative when the agreement is enforced, as well as be more creative in finding a win-win situation. Remember, that if the solution isn’t working start another problem solving session to address the same problem.

Setting limits allows freedom, responsibility and creativity to flourish in our children.


This article was published by Maren Schmidt on March 30th, 2013




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