As parents, a lot of our time is spent teaching our children to behave appropriately. We constantly find ourselves directing, and correcting their behaviour hoping to teach them self-discipline. When our attempts at engaging cooperation do not work, we resort to using threats, bribes, hitting, punishments to get the unacceptable behaviour to stop.
A teenager who even after repeated warnings stays out late. We might ground him, not allowing him to go out of the house for a week, or give him the cold shoulder. We are conditioned to believe that force and authority must be used over children. Unless they are made to feel bad/guilty/shameful, they will not learn and will repeat the same thing the next time.
But, what research actually shows us is that punishments erode the connection between parent and child. When children are full of big feelings of fear, resentment, defiance as a result of being punished, they are not able to understand, reason or cooperate with us. So the learning we are trying to get across is lost. When we use punishments with our children, they perceive us as the opposition. It becomes us versus them. However, we really are on our child’s team and they need to know that!
How can we then guide children, to not only teach them appropriate behaviour, but also strengthen our connection with them? We could do this by setting limits with empathy.
What are the limits?
Setting limits or boundaries are actions taken by parents to keep children safe and in response to helping children manage unacceptable behaviour. Limits are set with empathy and understanding with the intention of guiding children to behave appropriately.
How are limits different from punishment?
Disciplining through the use of punishments relies on authority and control from parents. Limits, on the other hand, can be decided on through collaboration between parents and children. When we set limits instead of punishing our children, it shows them that we care and that boundaries are there to keep them safe.
Limits also teach children how to cope with uncomfortable feelings. When children don’t like a particular limit and get angry about it, we can use this opportunity to connect better with them by empathizing and acknowledging their feelings. In setting limits with empathy, we parents continually acknowledge to the child that we understand how hard it is for him to do or not do something. We are gentle towards the child in the pursuit of helping them learn to set limits for himself, yet stand our ground firmly.
Let us understand more about where to set limits:
To keep children safe — For younger children, limits will be holding an adult’s hands while crossing the road, not touching electrical gadgets. Older children may need limits on staying out late, wearing a helmet while riding a bike on the roads, etc.
For the child’s wellbeing — For a younger child, parents may need to set limits about bathing and brushing, sleep times, etc. Older children need limits around screen time, lifestyle choices like exercise, eating junk food.
To keep the property safe — Sometimes, when learning the right way to use something, or showing/releasing anger, children may break toys, scratch/deface things, tear books, etc. Parents need to set limits here, so children can learn to value their own, and other people’s possessions.
Parents do not need to go out of their way to create unnecessary limits but must not hesitate to set necessary ones, especially when safety and security are concerned. In most other situations, we can work with the child to set limits. Setting limits with empathy strengthens our relationship with our child making them open to receiving guidance from us. For this, we need to create an environment where we hold the limit firmly and yet are not punitive or permissive. In our article next week, we will explore the tools to set limits.
Manasi Dandeker is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families. To know more, look us upwww.parentingmatters.in