It's no leap of brilliance to state that kids require consistent limit setting. And yet, we all struggle in different ways as to how to go about implementing it. Our kids resist, often quite resourcefully. We want them to be happy, and we want to be happy ourselves, so we relent, perhaps because just at that moment we're too tired and rundown to rally. Maybe sometimes our neighbors set different standards and we worry they'll judge us, or that our kids will.
Further confusing the picture, some books and websites advocate for fewer limits. They encourage us to anticipate each need of our kids ahead of time, or to treat a two year old how we would another adult. Not only does this burn out parents, it flies in the face of what we know about cognitive development.
We absolutely want to minimize our children's distress and maximize their well-being, treating them with loving-kindness and respect. The overriding goal is a warm and supportive environment that balances clear rules with openness to discussion as children get older. Yet the bottom line is that kids require clear limits to grow, to develop resilience and frustration tolerance, to understand that boundaries are a part of life, and to learn how to interact with the world. From our position as well-meaning adults with the benefit of some life experience, we must strive to keep track of what's best for our children over the long haul.
Limits Shape the Brain
Limits are a large part of why kids need parents. If children knew how to behave in public, eat a balanced diet, pick clothes that make sense for the weather, treat their friends well, manage their time, handle responsibilities, and make healthy lifestyle choices from the start, we could get them an apartment when they go to kindergarten and leave them to it.
In reality our kids rely on us to help mediate between them and the world, to protect and teach them as they grow. During this phase in life we do everything we can to care for them, knowing that whenever they leave our home, life will present challenges. In anticipating those times our role is to cultivate skills that help in managing the ups and downs of life with autonomy such as emotional resilience, cognitive flexibility and patience.
We know from decades of research that experience shapes brain development. Parenting techniques, lifestyles, and preschool programs that emphasize core social-emotional skills increase the likelihood children thrive both socially and academically. Moving down this path to greater independence depends on our ability to teach boundaries now and to allow kids to encounter, and manage, occasional frustration along the way. Common-sense, old-fashioned parenting sayings - life isn't always fair, you can't have one just because your friend Joseph has one - may appear to be going out of vogue but are often what science suggests children need to thrive.
Mindfulness and Parenting
Would we deprive a child who stepped on a nail a required tetanus shot because they are screaming a blue streak? Of course not. A short-run battle, but long-term prevention. Reality is, children can get incredibly upset over almost anything. And one common flash point is when they encounter a limit: It's bedtime now. You can go out to play when your homework is done. You can't push your sister, go take a time out. These standards sometimes lead to an upset child or a tantrum, yet that reaction does not mean our choice was not healthy or valuable, or that we've let our child down.
It also doesn't suggest we are being ‘mean' to our kids. They may feel, and they won't hesitate to let us know, we are ‘depriving' them of the newest video game or funkiest shoes and wrecking their lives. It's not fair that the kid next door has a later bedtime. Still, the most skillful option we have is maintaining our open-minded objectivity, taking stock of the situation, making a choice, and then standing by our judgment of what is appropriate. We're rarely doing a child a favor by overindulging them or failing to guide their behavior.
Clear limit setting is therefore inherent to mindful parenting, paying full attention to our family with compassion for everyone. When we truly pay attention to our children - recognizing their temperament and abilities, knowing their likes and dislikes, and responding to their development through the years - we discover an evolving necessity for rules and guidance. At two years, at ten and into their teens the details will change, yet consistently upheld limits remain one of the most essential, loving parenting skills kids require from us.
So what gets in the way of our limit setting? Our own exhaustion, for one. Parents who immerse themselves in rearing children without any acknowledgement of their own needs are at risk for burn out - which often leads to inconsistently managed limits, and potentially a general state of over-indulgence. Yes, you can have the whole box of cookies for all I care as long as you let me finish this phone call and go play.
An important aspect of setting limits for kids is therefore understanding our own. Good parenting recognizes the necessity for time to take care of ourselves. Setting aside a few minutes a day to meditate or hang out with a friend or schedule a date night with our spouse can go a long way towards establishing consistency with our kids. It can be the refresher you need to hold your ground in the face of resistance.
Attachment Isn't Limitless
Children are more likely to grow to be settled, happy adults if they develop ‘secure attachment' to others. From a psychological perspective, attachment refers to a strong, unwavering emotional bond between a caretaker and a child; it should not imply a child who never experiences frustration or disappointment. Secure attachment does not demand that every momentary desire be met and every problem solved for a child by an adult. Unconditional love, confidence your parents care for you and will protect you, is in no way antithetical to setting limits. Limit setting teaches self-regulation and builds resilience; secure attachment alone isn't enough.
Maintaining clear rules and guidelines also does not mean becoming rigidly strict or draconian. Guide behavior through reward and praise whenever possible. Have fun, make jokes. Offer reasonable options - you can do your homework now or in half an hour (but not at ten o'clock tonight). Pay attention to your choices, and stick to only as many limits as required. Recognize your role in the equation, and remember to take care of yourself. And then, remaining open to discussion and flexible about change when appropriate, establish clear boundaries you adhere to the remainder of the time. This is mindful, caring parenting.
Up Next: Part Two: Exploring Your Own Limit (setting): Mindfully Balancing Attachment and Limits At Home