Limit setting: 5 tips for those times when good parenting isn’t fun

In the popular children’s book by Mo Willems, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, the message is clear – no amount of begging, pleading, cajoling, insisting or demanding will make this pigeon ready-and-able to drive the bus. And so it is with young children. There are some things that give too much power too soon to children and parents need to say “no”. Yes, but how? The problem with limit setting isn’t simply what-when-how to define the limit but your child challenging, questioning and trying to renegotiate your position.

What – When – How
The first question for parents is what limits – what is fair and age-appropriate? Best place to start is safety. It’s not safe to run in the street, hit baby brothers or cut sharp objects without supervision. The best limits are clear and predictable. In the beginning, limits are set to keep your child safe, e.g. starting gradually with baby proofing then opening up the stairs as your child becomes more skillful. Babies sit in high chairs, safe and secure until they learn to sit with the family in a chair without constraint.

Over time, your child begins to accept the boundary whether it’s a physical boundary or a routine. Your child begins to internalize the rule and the structure as a form of self–management. Life is good – limits help children understand how to act and how to make good decisions.

Limits Change
Limits change as children acquire skills and better decision making. And so, not-hitting-your-brother turns into how-can-you-and-your-brother-work-that-out? Limits also change because your child wants more independence. Except children, aka pigeons, don’t know that independence assumes more responsibility. Sleeping in a bed requires more self-management than sleeping in a crib. And yet, at some point the transition must be made.

So, limit-setting parents are always looking to connect the dots from external limits to self-managed limits. Parent-guided discipline evolves into self-discipline, from toddlers to preschoolers, school age to young adults who actually drive cars and say “no” to peer pressure. All limits must be accompanied by skill-building. Toddlers must hold hands in parking lots until they demonstrate they can stay safe by your side.

The Problem of Enforcement
Teaching skills while enforcing limits is a process requiring time and attention (which is why the pigeon often wins because pigeons can wait you out and have singular focus while you are trying to get 99 other things checked off your to-do list). Carrying your child or always using the stroller is one way to set the limit – i.e., they keep your child from running away. However, eventually those options get tiresome. So, your child needs to “practice” walking side-by-side repeatedly, when they are eager and when they are tired. In some cases, teaching new behaviors is easy and automatic. In the life of every child, there will be skills that require parent commitment to the teachable moment. In those instances, parents must prepare for resistance with gentle persistence.

Gentle persistence means try and try again, with the confidence that your child wants to grow and learn despite momentary opposition. Start with the least coercive parent-power possible. In this case, verbal reminders or a gentle holding of your child’s shirt. If resistance escalates (as it sometimes does because children MUST test your consistency and commitment level, aka the pigeon), avoid the power struggle. Take a minute to wait for your child to regroup, possibly with a reminder that there is something fun beyond the temporary frustration. The last resort is to change the situation. In this case, leave the parking lot and head back home. Without blame, shame or anger, simply explain that you can’t go to the fun place your were going because your child wasn’t walking safely. Note: you don’t do this on a dreaded visit to the doctor, you “practice” it on a trip to the carousel or ice cream.

The challenge of successfully enforcing limits is knowing in advance what you can and cannot enforce. You can’t make a child eat, sleep or potty on your terms. You can set boundaries around those experiences so that you are steering them to self-management and good decision making. Power struggles occur when you try to control something because you are the parent but in reality you cannot control it. Control the environment not the child. The best limits are your rules and routines that keep your child safe and keep you sane.

Time to Grow and Learn
Everyone wants to believe the pigeon! You want the pigeon to be a successful risk taker and masterful driver. Eventually that pigeon will drive but only after he can reach the pedals, read road signs, anticipate other drivers, and stay within the speed limit. Children are inexperienced at making good decisions, just like that crazy pigeon.

They need to learn what’s safe and what’s not, what’s healthy, what’s kind and helpful, and all the ways things can go well or go poorly. Limits teach and limits guide. Choose reasonable limits. Experiment with what your child can do responsibly. It’s okay if you or your child makes mistakes along the way. Both of you are learning new skills for new situations every day. Before you know it, your little pigeon will be driving off to college!

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