The Art of Setting Limits

I had the honor of visiting with a new family to our campus this year.  The parents questioned me on a number of items, but one in particular stands out in my mind, thus, the reason for this post.  Dealing with a child’s misbehavior can be a daunting task on the best of days.  When we, as parents or educators, are faced with undesirable behavior from a child, we have to make a decision about how best to respond to the behavior.  Because we are all human, we often react from our emotions (just ask my own children about this), thus we allow emotion rather than logic to control our initial response.  Sound familiar?

Mrs. Bass, our wonderful assistant principal, and I frequently bounce ideas back and forth when deciding on a natural consequence for a situation.  Now, I’m not saying we always get it right, but we do what we think is best in a given situation based on the information we know (while we ensure it follows the district’s policies concerning the Code of Conduct).  In our experiences as moms and as educators, we both have found how setting limits first is the best way to ensure lifelong learning of positive, responsible behaviors.  It is a powerful tool we use for providing positive discipline for our young learners.  (A friend made our SWAT shirts for this very reason.)

Children like limits on their behaviors; limits give a safe, secure feeling.  There are many ways to go about setting limits, but remember these three things:

  • Setting a limit is not the same as issuing an ultimatum. (Clean your room or you’re grounded for the weekend.).  Limits are not threats; limits offer choices with consequences. (If you clean your room, you can go play with your friends tonight; if you don’t clean your room, you won’t be allowed to go out to play today with friends . . . it’s your choice.)
  • The purpose of setting limits is to teach and not to punish.  Through limits, a child begins to better understand how their actions, positive or negative, result in consequences.  By giving choices and consequences, adults provide a structure for good decision-making.
  • Setting limits is more about listening than talking.  Taking the time to really listen to a child will help the adult to better understand thoughts and feelings.  By listening, we always learn so much more about what’s important so we set more meaningful limits.

Here are five tips to setting limits:

  1. Explain which behavior is inappropriate and be specific.
  2. Explain why the behavior is inappropriate because you cannot assume a child will understand why.
  3. Give reasonable choices with consequences instead of issuing ultimatums; tell the child what the choices are and what the consequences of those choices will be.  Ultimatums lead to power struggles because the child feels forced to do something.  By providing choices with consequences, you are giving the child the power (and responsibility) to decide.  Natural or logical consequences following the child’s action work best as a teaching tool. (You chose to break the lamp in your anger, so you will pay for a new one from your allowance.)
  4. Allow time (what we call wait time in education) so the child has a chance to process and make his/her decision.
  5. Be prepared to enforce your consequences, even when it’s inconvenient.  Setting a limit is meaningless if you do not consistently enforce the consequences you set.  Again, it is important to set reasonable and enforceable consequences (backing yourself into a corner with “no TV for a month” may punish you too!).

Setting limits is a powerful tool for teaching young learners appropriate and acceptable behaviors.  The purpose is not to show who’s the boss, but to give a child respect, gentle guidance, and a strong feeling of responsible security.  There is definitely an art to setting limits…and I’m definitely still learning it!  🙂

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