Listen to this episode

Setting Limits

Air Date: 12/28/10 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at   Like it or not, the world is held together by limits. In a civilized society, there are inevitably rules about how people should behave. There are speed limits and traffic laws, and rules about property. We have laws about who can get married and about whether or not you can harm other people. Whole fleets of people have dedicated their lives to writing, interpreting, and enforcing these limits. Life without limits might seem enticing sometimes, but we have a word for that arrangement: anarchy. It rarely works out well for the people involved.             Many of the families I encounter in my work appear to have adopted the anarchy approach to family life, sort of by default. Kids often seem to be running the show: parents are busy, or they worry that rules will impede their children's creativity, or that kids won't like them as much if they say no. Sometimes parents suspect that limits might be a good thing, but they're unsure of when and how to set them. The sad reality, however, is that like all human societies, families thrive when there are reasonable limits. And it's up to parents to figure out what the limits should be, how to communicate them, and what to do when they're tested-as they inevitably will be.             If you listen to this commentary from time to time, you have probably heard me say that the word "discipline" actually means "to teach." That's literally true: ask your Latin teacher. But in order to discipline your children, you must know what it is that you're trying to teach-and that means you have to have some clear rules. It may help to know that you don't actually need a lot of rules: just a few that are fair and firm will do. But once you know what you want your family to look and feel like, you have to let your children know. You have to set limits.             Parents often ask me when they need to begin setting limits. Well, the longer you wait, the harder it's going to be on you and your children when you try. Babies actually become aware that they can influence their surroundings around the age of 8 to 12 months. They learn that when they cry, parents show up-so they figure out that crying is a good way to get attention. They also begin actively experimenting with the world around them, dropping their peas on the carpet and mashing up their food to learn what happens. It looks like they're deliberately trying to make you crazy, but in reality they're just little scientists, learning about their world. Here's where the idea that discipline is teaching comes in handy: it isn't necessary to punish babies, but it is helpful to teach them.             In early childhood, discipline and setting limits is teaching-and the more proactive you are, the better. Good parents teach constantly, with kindness and humor and hugs. We help children understand what they can and cannot do by telling them, and then by using kind, firm action to let them know when they've crossed the line. If you want your children to learn kindness, responsibility, patience, and respect, you have to both model and teach those qualities. If you don't-if your children have no limits-you'll eventually notice that their behavior isn't winning them many friends.             As children get older, limits need to be set in advance, they need to be specific, and kids need to know what will happen if they violate a limit. You can and should be kind when you set limits-remember, you're teaching-but once a limit is in place, you have to follow through. This doesn't mean punishment, which is ineffective in creating long-term behavior changes, but it does mean you have to look for solutions and follow through with agreed-upon consequences when necessary. Otherwise, the limits are nothing but words.             Imagine if you drove down Interstate 80 and saw the speed limit signs-but you knew that you would never get a ticket, no matter how fast you drove. How likely would you be to obey the speed limit? In the same way, your child will ignore your limits unless she knows you mean them, and will follow through when necessary. Most parents will admit that even knowing the speed limit and knowing they could get a hefty fine, they sometimes drive too fast. Kids are just like us: they won't be perfectly obedient, but the limits still help them learn to manage their behavior.             Think for a moment about the sort of person you want your child to be when she is an adult. How will she behave? What sort of character qualities will she have? Will she have skills and self-reliance? She will learn these things only if you teach her-and that means setting reasonable limits and following through with kindness and firmness. It isn't always easy-but it is absolutely necessary. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.