Most parents have great intentions when they come up with limits and boundaries. Which rules to set and why they are important are usually clear. The power struggles and negotiation start when parents find that keeping those limits, following through, just doesn’t go so well.
While most children will not actually admit to wanting or liking limits, especially when it means less cookies or no more screen time…keeping limits is one important way for children to learn to trust and accept guidance.
Alluding to limits but not actually keeping them is just not helpful to children. What tends to happen is waiting to long to set a limit, making threats and then never doing anything about it, being unclear and suddenly yelling, all which lead to uncertainty, disconnection and even anxiety for some children.
So, limits and boundaries are important.
Even more important? How we set them and follow through. Following through is about keeping things moving forward. Following through is not about asserting power in a “do as I say, right now…” manner. Actually, if “following through” or “being consistent” is used as an excuse to use coercion, threats, bribes and constant power struggles then there is a problem. (I said constant because a certain amount of resistance is developmentally normal!) Following through when done properly actually encourages cooperation and builds trust. While there may be tears, resistance or frustration, there does not need to be a disconnect.
The purpose of following through is to help your child know they can trust your guidance. Guidance that is coming from a place of love, care and respect.
Setting limits and then forcing them will not lead to more cooperation, and will more likely lead to fear. Fear and power will stop most children in their tracks and more likely lead to a power struggle.
How to follow through with limits in a positive, caring way?
1. Be Kind: Validate your child’s wishes, it doesn’t mean giving in, instead let your child know you heard them.
2. Be Clear: Offer a brief explanation so your child can understand your reasons.
3. Be Respectful: This includes accepting all the frustration, tears and disappointment that may follow.
Here are a 3 examples of how to follow through in a kind and clear way:
Let’s say a child does not want to go to sleep, you have read stories and they are asking for more: “I hear you want more stories, reading together is so nice, I like it too, AND now it’s time to turn out the lights and sleep.” “No! more stories!!!” the child replies “It’s time to turn out the light. I hear you want more stories AND tomorrow we will read again.”
Let’s say a child is asking for cookies or sweet treat and you have decided it is enough: “More cookies!” the child says “Those cookies are delicious, I understand you want more, AND it’s not healthy to only eat cookies. Right now you can choose apples or carrot sticks.” “NOTHING!” “Ok, if you don’t want anything that is fine. The apples and carrots are still here if you change your mind, the cookies are done for today.”
Let’s say a child doesn’t want to bring their dishes from dinner into the kitchen “Please clear your dishes so they can be loaded into the dishwasher.” “I don’t wanna!” “I will only load the dishes now, if your dishes stay at the table, you will be responsible for washing them in the sink, drying them and placing them away.” Child does not bring dishes – several minutes have passed and now the dishwasher is now closed and running. “The dishwasher is now running. Here is the soap, and a dish towel. Do you want to wash the plate or utensils first?” Offer to keep your child company and get them started.
Parents can be kind and firm at the same time. – Cheryl Erwim
Responding in the examples above is kind because it validates the child’s wishes. It is clear because the child receives a short explanation as to what will happen next. It is respectful because it does not shame, blame or focus on punishing the child but it does keep those limits in place.
Limits often are different from one family to the next, but following through in a kind, clear and respectful way can be helpful in so many different situations. Our attitude and approach really models to our children that we are trustworthy, confident guides and that we believe in their ability to make good choices.
Follow through works best when we strive to be consistent with care and flexibility and skip the lectures, nagging, and punishments. Don’t be afraid to follow through and yet still be kind. Following through helps children understand that their actions also impact the lives of those around them and that working together is possible.
Peace & Be Well, Ariadne
Related Reading Positive Discipline Tool: Follow Through by Cheryl Erwim