Communicate Effective Limits and Boundaries

Limits are behavior boundaries. Some are set by nature (humans can’t fly), some by the law (you can’t drive the wrong way down a one-way street), and some are set by you. It’s up to you to define and make explicit each child’s limits.

The limits you set for your child should be effective, reasonable, and well communicated. Kids do best when they have structure in their lives, both daily routine and behavioral structure. Children do best when they understand what is acceptable, what isn’t, and what will happen if they push the boundaries too far.

Defining Limits for Your Child

Any limit you set for your child has to fit inside your family’s values, and it can’t contradict your family rules. Here are the components of an effective limit:

  • Does the limit fit within your value system? Look at your family values statement. Say you have a statement that reads, “We solve our problems with words, not violence.” If so, this limit wouldn’t pass: “When John is fighting with Eliza, he’s only allowed to punch her on the arms, legs, and torso. He’s not allowed to punch her in the nose.”
  • Does the limit contradict a rule? Review the family rules. Here’s a sample contradiction: Say you have a rule that you turn off the lights when you’re the last person leaving the room, and Joey has a limit that says, “Joey can only have 12 lights on in the house at a time.” (Every family and every child’s rules and limits will be different.)
  • Is a particular limit really needed? Is it a limit just for the sake of having some limits? Sometimes overeager parents start going wild with arbitrary limit-setting, just for the sake of having something on the books. You don’t need to discipline for the sake of discipline.
  • Are you dogmatic about limits? Limits are not laws. There are times when you need to be flexible about limits.
  • Are you setting new limits after the fact? Ideally, set limits ahead of time. You’ll save everybody agony.
  • Does your child understand the limit? Once you’ve decided on a limit, make it explicit—the child should be informed exactly what the limit is.