‘Setting Limits’ Sets Limits On Children Learning to Discipline Themselves

“It is one thing for a child to want to know the ‘limits of her parents’ acceptance’ and an entirely different thing to say that she wants her parent to set those limits on her behaviour” (Dr Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training.P.E.T.).

In all the parenting literature I read, there is one particular phrase that will ensure I skip an article, one concept that is guaranteed to raise my hackles.

That phrase is ‘setting limits’.

Why?

Well, I worry that when we (adults) think in terms of ‘setting limits’ on a child’s behaviour, we cement the belief that adults always know best, that children need to be told what to do, and we encourage our children to be dependent, rather than learn independence. We create and maintain a power imbalance, because we ‘set limits’ without giving a reason, without hearing our child, without inviting them to find a solution - without giving our child an opportunity to show us their own wisdom.

I am concerned that when we ‘set limits’, we stop thinking of children as people, who would like to:

 

  • have some agency in their own lives;
  • understand why an adult is requesting (telling) them to stop doing something;
  • be understood
  • be accepted
  • be respected

(Before I go on, let me clear. I am NOT advocating ‘permissive parenting’, where children have no guidelines, rules or expectations. Neither am I supporting ‘autocratic’ parenting, where the parent wields all the power. Instead, I prefer an inclusive, relationship-based approach to parenting, where parents respectfully guide their children to behaviour that is acceptable)

‘Setting limits’ – What Do I Mean?

‘Setting limits’ involve phrases such as, “I won’t let you”, “You can’t”, or “That isn’t OK”, and does not explain why the behaviour is a problem (or potential problem). Often, limit setting is followed by a consequence, or threat of consequence.

Adults ‘set limits’ on children when we want to prevent a problem happening in the future (“You can’t have a biscuit before dinner”), or when we want to stop them doing something (“I won’t let you kick me!”)

When I speak about ‘setting limits’, I am talking about adults setting limits within a relationship with their child. Society has rules that are enforceable (such as road rules) and unenforceable (such as a school curriculum), that set external limits on our behaviour. These are not within our ‘area of freedom’ to change. (Teacher Effectiveness Training,2003)

What does ‘Setting Limits’ do?

When I read ‘setting limits’, I see a power imbalance. A person with greater power has the ability to impose (set) a limit on the behaviour of another, without considering the other’s point of view. Only the person with power decides what behaviour is allowable.

‘Setting a limit’ is something an adult does TO a child, rather than WITH the child, and is a term reserved for adult/child relationships only. When we ‘set limits’ we force change on our child and what they are doing; or can do; or will do. And then get surprised when our children resist the change we impose!

Often, a threat of a punishment (in the guise of a consequence) will follow that limit. “I won’t let you hit me, and if you continue then you’ll have to play by yourself”. A limit set by an adult can lead to fear in the child, and less connection.

Sometimes, for a more gentle-sounding option, we are asked to ‘set limits with empathy’, where we state what we won’t allow, then acknowledge the child’s feelings. However, even with this option, the adult is still responsible for determining what a child can do, without involving the child in decision-making around their behaviour.

Why the belief that ‘children need adults to set limits to their behaviour’ is lore, not law.

In article after article, book after book, I read ‘children need adults to set limits on their behaviour’.

Do they?

Surely, like everyone else, children would like to be accepted and respected by the people with whom they have a relationship. These are universal human needs. They would like to know what they can and can’t do, should and shouldn’t do, in order to be part of their family, their community. They would like to understand expectations of behaviour, to internalise what is acceptable, so they are secure in their relationship with their caregivers. They would like to have a say in how they behave, so they can choose to change their behaviour themselves, or be part of the decision to find an alternative behaviour.

The key is how we communicate what behaviour is OK, and what is not OK.

As Thomas Gordon (1989) said, in relation to ‘kids needing and wanting limits’,

“This is a dangerous half-truth” He went on to say “What a world of difference there is between the way youngsters react to limits imposed by an adult and the way they react to limits they have a voice in determining!”

If we:

  • explain the impact our child’s behaviour might have on us, or them, or another;
  • listen to their resistance, in order to understand why they are behaving;
  • invite their ideas on how to find a solution;

then, we might find our children change what they are doing in order to be accepted, rather than fear.

Do children really set out to ‘test our limits’?

Once we are wedded to the idea of adults ‘setting limits’ on children and how they behave, then we open ourselves to the belief that children may then ‘test’ or ‘push’ our limits. When we think in these terms, we immediately set up a potential conflict with our child - an adversarial relationship. We blame our children for rebelling against our directive.

I do not understand why people believe that a child’s job is to ‘test our limits’. What benefit does a child gain from ‘testing our limits’, particularly if, by doing so, they get an angry, or at best, unfriendly, parent in return?

Children are invested in their security and survival, which means keeping parents on side, and maintaining a warm relationship with their parents and carers.

I am concerned that when we interpret children as ‘pushing our boundaries’; we stop looking for underlying needs that may be masked by their behaviour.

What if children are rebelling not against the limit, but against the way their parents set the limit?

Thomas Gordon (2000) saw this as,

Adolescents [children] do not rebel against parents. They only rebel against certain destructive methods of discipline almost universally employed by parents.

In support of Dr Thomas Gordon’s statement, Dr Louise Porter watched children react to their carers as part of her PhD studies. She discovered that 75% of all ‘misbehaviour’ was actually a reaction to the disciplinary method imposed by the carer.

Perhaps we could rethink ‘testing limits’ as a cry to be heard? A plea from the powerless, to be included in whatever decision was being made for them?

What is the Purpose of ‘Setting Limits’?

In general, we ‘set limits’ on a child in order to prevent future behaviour, or stop a current behaviour, that may be harmful to our child or another person.

Limit

Reason for limit

“No hitting!”

Stopping, or preventing, someone being hurt

“I won’t let you touch anything in this store”

Preventing a breakage and cost to a parent

“You can’t go to the mall tonight”

Worried about teenager being unsupervised with friends

“Don’t interrupt”

Wanting to hear what friend is saying

 

As an adult, I would not react well to my manager ‘setting a limit’ on my behaviour. “I won’t let you talk loudly on the phone”; “Take your turn to talk in the meeting”; “You can’t leave the office until you’ve finished this report”, are all examples of someone with greater power attempting to force a particular behaviour from me.

As someone who has been subject to intimate partner abuse, where there was a power imbalance in the relationship, my ex-partner might say, “I won’t let you call your parents or friends”; or “You can’t wear those clothes”. He was setting limits on my behaviour, and, driven by fear, I changed my behaviour to meet his standards, forgoing my own.

Why is it unacceptable for an adult to ‘set limits’ on another adult, but is acceptable for an adult to ‘set limits’ on a child?

When adults unilaterally set limits on a child’s behaviour, the child has no voice, and is not given a chance to consider how they might change a situation themselves. This is especially so when a consequence follows the limit.

Imposing a limit on a child says:

  • I don’t trust you
  • I’m not interested in understanding what led to your behaviour
  • I’m not going to explain why I am concerned about your behaviour
  • I’m not going to help you change your behaviour
  • I will ensure you change your behaviour, rather than encourage you to change

Perhaps we could consider treating our children in the same way that we, as adults, would like to be treated?

In my view, ‘Setting Limits’:

  1. Stops Parents/Carers listening to understand

When we ‘set a limit’ with words such as ‘I won’t let you’, then we are denying our child a voice in the situation. We are closing the door to hearing our child’s point of view, their reason for their behaviour. By ‘setting a limit’, we are forgetting to consider our child, and are listening only to ourselves.

  1. May be experienced as a punishment, and so can lead to conflict.

In general, the guidelines for ‘setting limits’ seemed to be:

  • Set the limit, with phrases such as: “I won’t let you” and “I can’t let you”,

followed by:

  • a consequence if the child did not do as the parent said.

Our children will experience these consequences as a punishment, such as losing their device; or not being allowed to play with their friend. No one likes simply being told what to do, without explanation, or being denied from doing something. Children are likely to resist our arbitrary ‘setting of limits’, and when they say ‘no’, then we have conflict. (for thoughts on the downside of punishment and rewards, please see the references at the end of this article)

 

  1. Does not encourage child to change behaviour out of consideration for others, and does not help develop inner discipline or a moral compass.

When we ‘set a limit’, our child is not encouraged to think ‘how can I help my parent with their difficulty’. We’ve already done their thinking for them. Our child does not change their behaviour out of consideration for others, but because they are complying. We, as parents, are externally disciplining our children, rather than our children determining for themselves how they might make things better.

  1. Keeps children dependent, rather than developing autonomy.

We would like to see our children become autonomous individuals, while maintaining a supportive relationship with their family. We’d like to see our children safely explore their world, learning resilience through making mistakes, gaining confidence and, eventually, independence.

I think children and adolescents can still develop autonomy, but safely and securely, within a respectful relationship – if we change the way we think about, and communicate to, our children. If we, as adults, however, continually ‘set limits’ on our children, then we should not be surprised when our children ‘test our limits’.

  1. Can mean a child will repeat the behaviour

If we don’t give a reason for why changing their behaviour would be helpful, then our children won’t have a reason for stopping that behaviour in the future. If we don’t let them know today, that leaving the door open lets all the cold air in (and we have to pay extra for heating), then they will have no reason to close the door tomorrow.

Before we change what we say about limits, we need to change how we think about limits.

Instead of thinking I have to set limits’ to ensure the behaviour that is acceptable to me, I am more comfortable with encouraging a behaviour that would suit the situation, through respectful explanation. To this end, I might change my thinking to:

  • ‘I need to understand my own reaction, so I can honestly self-disclose how I am impacted by my child’s behaviour. What are the boundaries to my acceptance of their behaviour?’
  • my child needs to know my expectation of her or his behaviour’; or,
  • my child needs to know my reasons for concern about their behaviour’;

I am questioning how we help our children understand our expectations of their behaviour; how we let them know that our limits of acceptance have been breached - because this will shape our child’s response. What words do we use? What action do we take?

Children aren’t mind readers. They cannot be expected to know why we are suddenly putting the brakes on their behaviour, unless we respectfully explain our reason.

Kinder Ways to Let Children Know of Your Limits of Acceptance

All the communication skills I will talk about are taught in the parenting course, Parent Effectivenes Training (P.E.T.). For a short description of the skills, see P.E.T. On A Page. Alternatively, the book Parent Effectiveness Training, by Dr Thomas Gordon, will practically and understandably take you through respectful communication skills.

  1. I-Messages

Briefly, an I-Message contains a non-blameful description of our child’s behaviour; our feelings about it; and a consequence on someone other than the child. "When I see/hear (behaviour). . . I feel (worried etc) . . . because . . . "

An I-Message lets a child know that we are unhappy about their behaviour, and helps us give a reason to the child. When we communicate with an I-Message, we have to take care that is purely descriptive – that it is not judgemental.

There are various types of I-Messages. Two that will be useful as alternatives to ‘setting limits’ are: Preventative I-Messages and Confrontive I-Messages.

Preventive I-Message

In situations where we set limits in order to prevent our children doing something, we can try a Preventive I-Message.

Here are some examples of ‘setting limits’, in contrast to ‘preventative I-Messages’

Long car trip

Setting a limit:

Parent: “I don’t want to hear any fighting or yelling while we’re on this long car trip”

Preventive I-Message:

Parent: “I’m concerned that during this trip you might get bored and begin to fight, and this will stop me concentrating on driving and I’ll feel unsafe to drive.”

Wanting Lollies at the shops

Setting a limit:

Parent: “You can’t have any lollies when we go shopping. Just because you had them last time does not mean you get them every time”

Preventive I-message:

“I’m concerned that when we go to the shops, you’re going to ask me for a lolly. I don’t have the money to buy you lollies – I only have enough for this much food.”

Confrontive I-Message

A Confrontive I-Message is helpful when our child has already done something that we are not happy about. This type of I-Message helps us let our children know what they have done and how it has impacted on us, without blaming them and without yelling or getting angry.

Hitting another child, or parent, or caregiver.

Setting Limits:

“I won’t let you hit!”

Confrontive I-Message:

“When you hit me, my arm really, really hurts – oww!! And I don’t want to be sore!!” or,

“I was scared when I saw you hit Liam – I was worried that you really hurt him – because look, now he’s sad and crying”

Throwing a ball in the house.

Setting limits:

“You can’t throw the ball in the house”

Confrontive I-Message:

“I am really worried when I see you throw the ball in the house, that you might accidentally break my vase”

  1. Listening to a child’s resistance to your request or explanation

Children might resist our Preventive I-Message, or Confrontive I-Message. To help them hear you and understand your concern, we need to ‘shift gears’ and listen to them first – and listen with empathy. When we show we understand how hard it is for children to change, there is less to fight against.

When we Active Listen (or listening with empathy), we try to name our child’s feeling, and the reason. ‘You’re feeling . . . because . . .’

“When I talked about not asking for a lolly, you found this really hard because you love lollies and they are hard to resist when they are right in front of you”

  1. Problem solving together (no lose conflict resolution)

After we stating our concern with an I-Message, and listening to their reason (or their resistance), we could move into problem solving, where we ask for ideas from our children to solve the issue. The words that help me to elicit ideas from my children are “do you have any ideas on how we can both be happy? What would work for both of us? Do you have any ideas on how to help us?”

Problem solving can seem like it will take a long time. In reality, it can be quite a quick process. The benefits include:

  • That if a child has been involved in coming up with the solution, then they are more likely to stick with that solution
  • For the same reason, they are less likely to repeat the behaviour
  • Children learn to consider both the other person and themselves
  • Children feel respected, trusted, and part of a relationship that cares.
Not wanting to go to childcare

Setting limits:

“You have to go to childcare, and I don’t want any tears”

Problem solving:

“You really don’t want to go to childcare. You’re going to miss Mummy and feel sad. I wonder if there is anything you can do that would help you feel better about going to childcare?”

In this case, my daughter (aged 3) found a piece of my clothing and asked if she could take that with her into childcare.

Long car trip.

“I’m concerned that during this trip you might get bored and begin to fight, and this will stop me concentrating on driving and make it unsafe. What can you both do to help make sure you don’t fight, so we can all feel OK about the trip?”

But what about safety?

For me, safety issues might be the one exception to ‘setting limits’. If we are unhappy about how we set that limit, and the effect on our child, we can come back later to hear about their distress, and how we might repair the relationship.

When safety has been at stake, my first go to (unless I have to take them immediately from an unsafe situation) is to use an authentic, heartfelt Confrontive I-Message.

Here is a real life example with my just turned two-year old.

Situation:

My feisty two-years and three-months old daughter was having a shower. A small wall, about six inches high, surrounded the shower recess. She discovered that a great game was jumping from the small wall into the shower. The wall and floor were tiled, and slippery when wet, so was quite dangerous. I hovered around her, my arms ready to catch her should she slip, and asked her several times not to jump. However, jumping was new and delicious, so she continued to jump into the wet shower.

What could I do? If I set a limit, I might say, “I won’t let you jump in the wet shower. You are getting out now”. Alternatively, I could just take her out of the shower and close the bathroom door.

In this case, I decided to try an I-message. I gently took her out of her game, and squatted down at her level. Sincerely and emphatically, I delivered an I-message, to the effect of,

"I am really worried that, when you jump off this edge, you might slip and hurt yourself. When the edge is wet, and the shower is wet, it is very dangerous. I am very scared that you might fall, and you might hurt yourself really, really badly. I don't want to see you hurt!"

My daughter looked at me, then turned around and happily walked out of the bathroom, pounding naked up the hall. She never again tried playing the same game, and our relationship remained in tact.

Finally.

As a parent, the important question for me is: how do we help our children become caring, compassionate, authentic members of their society?

My concern is that when we set limits on a child’s behaviour, we are not helping them to think for themselves, or to consider others. We do not help them to become independent thinkers, to develop an inner moral compass. And we do not help them develop autonomy within relationship.

By ‘setting limits’, I wonder whether we are we encouraging dependence, rather than independence? That is, will our children continually look to adults for guidance, rather than looking within? And what happens when our children become teens, and adults themselves, if they have not learnt how to set their own limits to their behaviour?

In a word, I find the notion of adults setting limits, imposing boundaries, on children (including teenagers) to be disrespectful. Setting limits is disrespectful of a child’s need to be accepted, understood and trusted; of their capacity to care; of their self growth; of their ability to learn to self regulate and self discipline.

If we remove the concept of ‘setting limits’ on children, and replace it with ‘treating children with respect’ or ‘treat them as we would like to be treated’, then we will be more inclined to give them a voice; to hear them, and to involve them in decisions about behaviour that we find problematic.

References

Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.). 2000. Dr Thomas Gordon.

Teaching Children Self-Discipline. 1989. Thomas Gordon Phd.

Teacher Effectiveness Training (T.E.T.) 2003. Dr Thomas Gordon

Children Are People Too. 2006. Dr Louise Porter.

Further Reading (including avoiding punishments and rewards)

All the above books in the reference list.

Parenting Without Punishment or Reward . . . Really?

Without Rewards or Punishment, What Motivates You? Young People Raised Gently Answer Parents' Questions

Unconditional Parenting. 2005. Alfie Kohn

Discipline Without Distress. Judy Arnall

Parenting With Patience. 2014. Judy Arnall.

Parenting For a Peaceful World. 2005. Robin Grille.

Parent Speak. 2016. Jennifer Lehr.

And many, many more . . .

First published by Larissa Dann, 25 February, 2019.

© Larissa Dann. All rights reserved. 2019.

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