by Amy Lemieux
Giving children choices and freedom is a hallmark of modern parenting. It empowers them and encourages independence and determination. I bought into this philosophy wholeheartedly.
What I did not initially understand was that giving children choice and freedom has its limits, as I learned from my husband’s grandma. “Big Grandma”, as she was called, adored our children and thought they could do no wrong. We were regular visitors at her house and our kids had free reign when we were there. Her cupboards and refrigerator were open. Her craft room, which looked like Joann Fabrics, was fair game; scissors, glue, buttons of all shapes and sizes, and fabrics were at their disposal. Since she raised six children, three children under the age of four was no match for Big Grandma.
One night after they blazed through popcorn, ice cream, and made placemats out of cut up greeting cards, my son came into her living room and walked across her couch. “Nick, get your feet off my couch. We don’t walk on furniture. We walk on the floor.” I’m not sure who was more surprised, my son or my husband and me. Big Grandma had never corrected our kids before. She looked at us and said, “In my mind Nick can do no wrong, but if he walks on other people’s furniture, they won’t like him.” Her words stayed with me because she was so right.
Studies have shown that children do need to know they are not in charge. Not having rules and expectations creates anxiety in children and causes them to test their boundaries precisely because they are trying to figure out what the boundary is. Metaphorically speaking, a lack of boundaries makes the world too big and unpredictable. Children need a solid leader who is clear and confident about what the rules are and is committed to ensuring those rules are followed.
Studies show that children’s self-esteem is directly correlated with limit-setting. Children who are demanding, constantly testing, and defiant annoy others, including their own parents. The child can sense people’s feelings toward him/her. The bottom line is that children without limits feel lonely and unhappy because they don’t understand the reason for others’ feelings about them nor do they know what to do about it. These same studies have shown that parents’ guilt, ambivalence and inconsistency will be picked up by most children.
When you find yourself getting annoyed by testing behavior, it is often a sign you need to be clear and direct with limits. A few years back, a parent asked us to help problem-solve a situation regarding carpooling with another family. The mother had agreed to carpool and was worried that her child “wouldn’t let” another little girl ride in his family’s car; as soon as he heard of the carpool plan, he began arguing about it, saying he didn’t want the little girl in his car. It was easy to help the parent see that this was an adult decision. The child does not get to decide who rides in the family car; the parents do. Some decisions and limits are for children to make; should I wear my red shirt or my blue shirt? Should I have one apple slice or two? Bedtimes and the type and amount of screen time are adult decisions. Wavering on adult decisions will create the perfect storm and kids will go in for the kill! A child who repeatedly asks for “five more minutes” has figured out ambiguous limits.
Communicating clear and consistent boundaries remains true for teenagers! When I find my teens repeatedly asking the same question in a variety of different ways, I get irritated and it is a great reminder that I need to be clear and direct.
Son: “Can my prom group sleep over at our house after prom?”
Me: “I’m assuming there are girls in your prom group, so no.”
Son: “But everyone sleeps over for prom.”
Me: “The girls can do their own sleepover. You can have the boys sleep here. The girls leave at midnight.”
Son: “What if all the girls get notes from their parents giving them permission to sleep over and they sleep in a different room?”
Me: “Girls are not sleeping at our house after prom. Not even if their house burns down. Not if their dads all come and sleep here with them. No girls who aren’t your sisters are sleeping here.”
That’s the limit and I’m sticking to it.