Setting Limits for the Little Ones

An interview with Robert J. MacKenzie, Ed.D

I’ve found that one of my greatest parenting challenges (thus far) has been figuring out how to effectively discipline my child in a way that changes his behavior without making him feel like a “bad boy.”  When he feels like he’s “bad,” his behavior actually spirals like a self-fullfilling prophecy, so punitive discipline seems more often to backfire rather than help.  At one point, a friend recommended that I read  Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child, by Dr. Robert Mackenzie, and I found it incredibly helpful.  Per Dr. Mackenzie’s advice, setting limits that are clear, consistent and logical seems to be just the right recipe to adjust my strong-willed kid’s behavior when it steers off course. — Sam Kurtzman-Counter, President, TMC

How do you define “setting limits” with children?

Setting limits is the process parents use to teach their rules, standards, and expectations for acceptable behavior. On the surface, these messages look like red and green lights (e.g., green= do this; red= don’t do this), but under the surface, our limit-setting efforts, to the extent that we are successful or unsuccessful, defines the the parent’s credibility and the balance of power and authority between parents and children. Many parents interpret limit setting as “punishment” or “praise” and rewards, but the process is much more complicated than that. There are many ways to set limits with children, some effective, and some not so effective. My goal in my books and workshops is to help parents understand their limit-setting style so they can see what is and is not working for them. Then, I try to provide parents with the tools to teach their rules and expectations in the clearest and most effective ways with children across the full spectrum of temperaments and learning styles.

Without limits, what are the consequences for both parent and child–both short term and long term?

I’m assuming what you mean is “without effective limit setting practices…” Limits define the path of acceptable and unacceptable behavior for children. Children are not born pre-wired with this information genetically. The lesson must be taught and it’s the parents’ job to do so. When parents are ineffective in their limit-setting practices, children receive incorrect or mixed messages about the lessons parents are trying to teach. Ineffective limit setting sets both parents and children up for conflict, confusion, miscommunication, misunderstanding, and power struggles. Children with unclear or ineffective limits often appear self-centered, anxious, insecure, and insensitive to the feelings and needs of others. Ineffective limit setting practices are not a good blueprint for children’s healthy social-emotional development.

What are some examples of healthy limits most parents would benefit from setting, and why?

Let’s address the why? first. Effective limit setting at home prepares children to behave acceptably out in the world, to understand the rules for appropriate social behavior, and to be able to relate appropriately with others (at school, in the neighborhood, and in the community). In effect, the home is the training ground for the real world. Limit setting, and the lessons it teaches, provides children with the foundation for communicating and behaving acceptably out in the world. When parents are ineffective in their limit-setting practices at home, they are setting their kids up for conflict and social-emotional adjustment problems out in the world.

Some examples of healthy limits parents should set for children: acceptable communication skills (e.g., hello, please, thank you, no thank you, how to listen when others speak, how not to interrupt when others are speaking), acceptable problem-solving skills (e.g., “We use our words. We don’t hit, yell, scream, call names, say hurtful things”), how to sit in a chair acceptably, acceptable eating habits, table manners, how to get dressed independently, personal hygene and grooming skills, care for toys, clothes, belongings, establishing effective morning routines, after-school routines, bedtime procedures, and teaching them how to behave out in public– in restaurants, grocery stores, doctor’s offices, church, parks, and at other people’s homes.

What is the best approach to handling power struggles with strong-willed children?

When working with strong-willed children, parents need to be very firm and very respectful in their limit setting. Giving limited choices and supporting your rules or requests with logical consequences is the gold standard. For example, if you ask your strong-willed eight year-old to turn down the TV when it’s too loud, you should say, matter-of-factly, “Kevin, you can turn the TV down, or I’m going to have to turn it off. What would you like to do? Who decides the consequence? Kevin does. Who does the learning? Kevin does. There’s no power struggle when parents take themselves out of the conflict. All they have to do is follow through based on their child’s choice. If Kevin chooses to turn theTV down, the parent simply thanks him for cooperating. If Kevin refuses to cooperate, then the parent simply turns the TV off. If Kevin decides to hood his parent into an argument or throw a fit to persuade the parent to let him continue watching, the parent should hold firm and send Kevin for a time out in his room regardless of whatever drama he might use to protest his parent’s action. Firm and respectful gets the job done with strong-willed children. They need consistent amounts of this type of limit setting to learn to accept their parents’ authority and cooperate with the rules their parents are trying to teach.

How do parents encourage mutual respect and cooperation with their children?

The most powerful way parents can teach cooperation and respect is to consistently role model this behavior for their children. The parents’ positive example is the most effective lesson.

Robert J. MacKenzie, Ed.D. is a Family Therapist, Educational Psychologist, and nationally recognized Parent Educator and Staff Development Trainer with more than 25 years of experience helping parents and teachers solve children’s learning and behavior problems.  He has authored, “Setting Limits”, “Setting Limits in the Classroom”, and “Setting Limits with your Strong Willed Child”.

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This article was originally published October 5, 2014

Posted in: Expert Advice, Discipline, Learn