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Setting Limits

Teaching our children about limits is an ongoing assignment that ends only when they leave home, if it does at all. Our youngsters come into the world full of ego abundance, blissfully ignorant that life operates by laws, both natural and social, and one of our great tasks as parents is to first introduce limits and then teach our children to respect them. The problem is that few children yield willingly to the imposition, since limits tend to stand in the way of getting what they want. It is no wonder, then, that this aspect of family life can precipitate cycles of hostility between parent and child.


Just as we at times backslide in business or romance, or lapse into ill health, so do our children pass through difficult stages: They can be intermittently clingy, self-righteous, or rebellious...


Each family member, depending on their developmental realities, projects onto them a personal mythology. Hence our task is to open up to our children's outlook and provide structure with that in mind. A commitment to learning their logic ensures that we, in turn, are understood.


When [my son] Paul was a toddler, I quickly learned to limit the amount of stimulation he was exposed to-- if for no other reason than to keep me from humming a mantra of "no's." I made sure he avoided late bedtimes, and I restricted the number of playmates that could visit on any given day. In addition, we patronized family restaurants known for their kid-tolerant policies because Paul, a curious and friendly child, could not resist wandering around and chatting with everyone in the room. Although the clientele at these establishments probably saw me as careless, I was vigilantly monitoring my son's excursions.


If your child, too, is naturally stubborn, immediately digging his heels in when attacked, learn to set limits with this trait in mind. Rather than issuing a firm "no," try getting one from a neutral third party or offer a "let's see" explanation. For instance, since hearing "It's too cold for swimming" from you is apt to be less palatable than hearing it on the Weather Channel, you might say, "Let's see about the temperature," then turn on the TV. Stubborn children demand more control over their lives than others do, and are inclined to experience every new boundary as an affront. To avoid a standoff, we must search for more patience, learn how to negotiate, and be more creative about attaining our goals. Otherwise, we risk getting stuck at an impasse where each limitation is laden with power plays and ever more obstinacy...




With my 11-year-old patient Brian, I needed to set limits on myself-- on my temper and feelings of spitefulness and revenge, as well as self-blame. In his presence, I felt like a helpless kid who had been lured into a West Side Story rumble. Only after realizing that I didn't have to "play," and certainly did not have to take Brian's attacks personally, did I learn to assert my integrity. There was no escape, and most of the time there never is. To set limits without staging a vendetta or feeling overcome with grief, we need to work on our own mirror image of ourselves. In short, to successfully fulfill the delicate assignment of setting limits for our children, we must first face up to our impulses and our motives...


There are two primary approaches to parenting. One presupposes the existence of separate worldviews in which parents, in asserting their superiority, mold disorganized children into socialized adults. The other perspective assumes that children are naturally motivated to gravitate toward social cooperation and, with trust and support, able to find their own way. Whichever philosophy makes sense to you, remember this: When the force of punishment collides with a child's inner needs, the seeds of a protracted struggle begin to germinate, leading invariably to unhappy results.


While setting limits, we need not-- and must not-- be tyrants. The reason is that boundaries established punitively or in an act of anger will not be viewed as a means to a functional life. Resenting them, our youngsters may fail to appreciate the more subtle consequences of their behavior...


Finally, for the limits to work, we must also set restrictions on our impatience. Everyone loses when we hurry children into forms of obedience that disrespect or deny their developmental realities. Hence our task is to think through limits before announcing them, all the while turning a deaf ear to the accelerated demands posed by peer pressure or our own desire for instant gratification. Reining in our impatience will also help us see that limits are guideposts, rather than commandments; forgetfulness, mistakes and repeat offenses need not be cause for alarm or punishment...


In some households, battling is the way its members acquire meaning in life. And for good reason-- any time the cause of our true pain is too scary to contemplate, familiar battle scenes become safe and predictable turf. We pull ourselves back from the brink by picking a fight with a disobedient child or slapping on a new restriction, anything to avoid feeling weak or hopeless. In other words, we may act as if we are managing our children, yet we are only playing out roles that distract us from an unresolved agony, or from emptiness or despair. In these warfaring states, we fail to convey a respect for limits and, worse, require our children to deny their true selves.




The way out of the predicament is to seek a mutually rewarding coexistence in which each family member is free to fulfill his psychological potential. For starters, we must understand our motivation for setting limits. Do they serve our children? Do they instead serve us? Is our exertion of power over our offspring a means of allaying anxiety, or avoiding depression? Is it perhaps the only way we have of communicating with our youngsters? As always, it is our parental responsibility to embark on self-examination and make the needed changes.


Recovering from a cycle of negativity entails more than merely wanting a mutually respected household, examining our disciplinary motives, and establishing healthy limits. With that much accomplished, family living can still be unpleasant. We stop a toddler from burning his hand on the hot stove and we are rewarded with a tantrum. We ask for a truce with a cantankerous teenager and all we get is rejection. What is needed now is perseverance. When that, too, fails, the best means of breaking through an impasse is with third-party help. An outsider can often neutralize tensions and diffuse volatile emotions before they erupt and cause permanent damage. A third party can also validate each person's feelings and give them a forum for expression. People who feel heard become less invested in forcing their opinion on others.


Excerpted by author's permission from In the Midst of Parenting: A Look at the Real Dramas and Dilemmas (Brooklyn Girl Books, 2000; $16.95.)

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