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Elementary Aged Kids Your little ones have grown up right before your eyes! They are no longer those little babies they once were, and soon they are moving to adolescence.

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Old 08-06-2004, 09:11 PM
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Post HOW TO SET LIMITS ---Ten tips for enforcing them

by Charles E. Schaefer, Ph.D.

Setting limits is just as important for effective discipline as enforcing them, and perhaps more so. If we present a directive well, our children are likely to comply because they basically want to please us. When it comes to setting limits, most of us are not as skillful as we could be. We talk too much, get too emotional or fail to express ourselves clearly and with authority. When we need to tell our children that they must do something and do it now (e.g., stop hitting, pick up toys, go to bed), we'll get better compliance by using the following ten limit-setting strategies.
How often have you heard yourself or other parents give vague limits such as "Behave yourself," "Be good" or "Don't make a mess!" Such general guidelines mean different things to different people. Our children will understand us much better if we make our directives concrete in terms of the behavior we expect. A specific limit tells a child exactly what must be done: "Talk in a whisper in the library"; "Feed the dog now"; "Hold my hand as we cross the street." This one strategy can substantially increase the rate of compliance from your child.

In many cases, you can give your child a limited choice in deciding how to fulfill your directive. Having some freedom of choice makes a child feel a sense of power and control, which reduces resistance. Examples are: "It's bath time. Do you want to take a shower or a tub bath?"; "It's time to get dressed. Do you want to pick an outfit, or do you want me to do it?"; or "Would you rather practice the piano ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening or 20 minutes all at once?" Since it's easier and quicker to tell a child exactly what to do, parents don't offer enough choices. But we can change.

On really important issues, when there will be a consequence for noncompliance, we need to state the limit firmly. A firm limit tells a child he must stop undesirable behavior and comply with your wishes immediately, for example, "Go to your room right now" or "Aaron, stop! Toys are not for throwing." Firm limits are best given with a command quality to your voice and a serious look on your face.

Soft limits, on the other hand, imply to children that they have a choice about complying or not. Examples of soft limits are: "Why don't you put your toys away?"; "Let's do homework now"; "Come in the house now, okay?" and "I really wish you would clean up after yourself."

Soft limits are appropriate for times when you want a child to act a certain way but don't require it. However, for those few mandatory "must be done" behaviors, you will get better compliance from young children by giving a firm command. Firm is the middle ground between soft and hostile.

Children are more receptive to "do" than "don't" commands. "Don't" or "stop" directives tell a child what is unacceptable but do not explain what behaviors you would like instead. Generally, it's better to tell a child what to do ("Talk quietly") rather than what not to do ("Don't shout"). Authoritarian parents have been found to give more "no" commands, while authoritative parents are prone to give more "do" commands.

When you say "I want you to go to bed now," you may be creating a personal power struggle between you and your child. A better strategy is to state the rule impersonally, for example, announce "It's 8 o'clock, your bedtime," and point to the clock. In this way, any conflicts or hard feelings will be between the child and the clock. Hopefully, when you say, "The rule is no throwing balls in the house," rather than, "I don't like it when you throw balls in the house," your child will dislike the rule rather than you.

When people understand the justification for a rule, e.g., to prevent harm to self or others, they are more likely to comply with it than if they deem it arbitrary or capricious. So when you first give a limit, explain why your child has to comply with it. Understanding the reason for rules helps your child develop internal standards of behavior--a conscience. Rather than giving a long explanation that children will tune out, state the reason briefly, for example, "No biting people. It hurts them"; "When you grab toys away from other kids, they feel sad because they still want to play with them."

Whenever you restrict or limit a child's behavior, try to point out an acceptable alternative activity. By so doing you will sound less negative and your child will feel less deprived. Thus, you might say, "I know you'd like my lipstick, but it's for lips, not for playing. Here's a crayon and paper instead." Another example would be to say, "You can't have a candy bar before dinner, but you can have some of your favorite chocolate chip ice cream after dinner." By offering alternatives, you teach your child that while her feelings and desires are acceptable, it's just certain ways of expressing them that are not okay.

A cardinal rule of effective limit-setting is to avoid on-again-off-again rules. A flexible routine (e.g., bedtime at 8 P.M. one night, 8:30 the next night, 8:45 another night) invites resistance and is almost impossible to enforce. Important family rules and routines should be in effect day after day, even if you're tired or out of sorts. If you give your children wiggle room under your rules, they will almost certainly try to squirm out of them.

No matter how serious the misdeed, we need to make it clear to our children that we are disapproving of their behavior and not rejecting them. So instead of saying, "Bad boy!" (disapproving of the child), we should say, "No biting" (disapproving of the particular behavior). Rather than saying, "I really can't stand you when you act like that," we should say, "Those cans are not for pulling. They need to stay on the store shelf."

Researchers report that when parents are very angry they punish more severely and are more likely to be verbally and/or physically abusive to their children. There are times when we need to take a slow, deep breath and count to ten rather than lashing out in a hostile way. Discipline is basically about teaching children how to behave, and you can't teach effectively if you are extremely emotional. So rather than attacking your child with an angry putdown, such as "What's the matter with you?" it's better to take a minute to calm yourself and then ask with composure, "What happened here?"

All children need their parents to establish guidelines for acceptable behavior. The more skillful we become at setting limits, the greater the cooperation we will receive from our children and the less need there will be to enforce the limits by applying unpleasant consequences. The result is a more pleasant home atmosphere for both parent and child.

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