Setting limits is breeze! In four simple steps, all you do is:
1) Figure out what your family rules are, based on the following 5 pillars: safety, health, values, (e.g. helpfulness, no lying), family unity and increasing self-responsibility. Examine your own parental role in modeling the behavior you’re trying to cultivate so as to eliminate hypocrisy.
2) Discuss and formally agree upon as a family, specific consequences and reinforcements/rewards.
3) With consistency, support your kids when they abide by the rules and discipline them (and yourselves as misbehaving parents!) with agreed upon consequences when rules are broken.
4) Seek to understand contextual and internal factors that figured into your kids’ misbehavior, so that compassion and learning accompany discipline.
Simple- right? Now consider three typical parenting scenarios:
A) After being told that he cannot play computer games, 6 year old Brett flings himself onto the floor, pummeling and kicking in a frenzy of fury; “I want to play Wii RIGHT NOW!! I HATE you! ”
B) 11 year old Allie once again ignored her father’s directive to clean up the family room of her strewn snack mess before heading up to bed; she’s sound asleep and the pizza crusts and soda cans litter the coffee table and carpet.
C) 16 year old Dave is caught going through his mother’s wallet for cash. When confronted he claims he had to pay someone back for a loan of lunch money. $40 worth?!
Obviously, it’s not the setting of limits, but the enforcing of limits that is the most challenging parenting problem.
Why is it so very difficult for parents to set limits? Eight ways we sabotage our own discipline efforts:
1) We are ambivalent about what the best rules and limits should be in the first place. We do NOT want to parent the way OUR parents did. (And have our kids wind up like us?! We shudder at the thought!) So we do nothing at all, or we don’t set out our expectations with the emphatic clarity that facilitates compliance.
2) It’s a hassle to stop what we’re doing and pay the transaction costs of our kids’ foul tempers when we discipline them, especially when we’re busy, tired, “on our last nerve” or overwhelmed, which is, truth be told, 24/7.
3) We’re always rushing such that, in our hurried impatience, we don’t take the time to do the limit-setting “maintenance work” of a) explaining the good-parenting rationales underlying those most resented rules; b) supporting successful adherence to rules by anticipating and preparing for challenging temptations (e.g. before middle and high school parties where drugs and alcohol may show up) c) affirmatively appreciating and thereby reinforcing our kids’ positive efforts. Stern demands for obedience without enlisting our children’s understanding and solidarity evoke either hollow obedience or defiant oppositionalism rather than intrinsic self-control. Lack of maintenance work on the “fences” of limits means more holes for our kids to squeeze through and more straying misbehaviors to track down and correct.
4) We are inconsistent in enforcing the rules, sometimes nagging, other times overreacting, still others overlooking misbehavior, thereby undermining our credibility and authority, and promoting “mommy/daddy deafness.”
5) We moms and dads disagree with and undermine each other when it comes to discipline, rather than forming a united front and backing each other up. Our kids, our teens especially, are masterful at blowing up hairline fractures into vast canyons of disagreement between parents, which they can opportunistically drive through, leaving arguing parents in their dust.
6) We hate disappointing our kids and making them unhappy, especially if we’re feeling guilty about not being there for them as much as we feel we should be. Our indulging them “just this once” amounts to LOTS of “onces” which is a formula for bad habits that are harder to break.
7) A larger family crisis derails all rules and routines; e.g. a family member gets very sick; marital discord or recent divorce pits parents against each other with kids becoming pawns in a battle of overindulgence.
8) We are hypocrites, modeling the very behavior we’re forbidding; “do as I say, not as I do.” (“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders; but they have never failed to imitate them.” James Baldwin)
So how do we go about setting limits without sabotaging ourselves? Try channeling Cesar the Dog Whisperer; the gifted dog trainer who viscerally communicates his authority through his calmly assertive carriage and tone, and his no nonsense gravity that is devoid of reactively shrill or angry emotionalism. He is clear on his rules and expectations, consistent in his execution of rewards and corrections, unapologetic about imposing his authority, and effusive with his affection when not in training mode.
What of Brett, Allie and Dave? Change is always possible, starting with 1) “striking when the iron is cold,” after the conflict, addressing in a serious discussion the need for more self-controlled/responsible/trustworthy behavior;
2) followed by brain-storming strategizing about how to work toward that end together, including incentives and consequences.
3) followed by attending with keen consistency to affirming the small positive changes
4) and counterbalancing heavy limit-enforcement, as always, with regularly enjoyed light, playful one-on-one parent-child times designed for the sheer senseless fun of it. This builds up the most powerful incentive for compliance with family rules there is; love.