by Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings and her latest book, the Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook.
You’ve probably heard that kids need limits. I myself used to question this premise. But what I learned by watching kids is confirmed by research findings in neurology. As children are faced with the necessity to rein in their impulse toward something they want (for instance, to grab the toy from the baby), so they can have something they want more (a warm, happy connection with you), they learn self-control. So our limits actually teach kids to set limits for themselves, which is otherwise known as self-discipline.
“But I hate setting limits. It’s the worst part of being a parent!”
Some parents, the ones I might call permissive, tell me they hate setting limits, particularly when their children are toddlers and respond with great frustration. They hate the idea of causing their child more grief, they don’t want to incite a tantrum, and they certainly don’t want their child to be angry at them. Over time, though, they often see that their children do not develop the ability to tolerate frustration or to manage themselves. These children are often referred to by others as “spoiled.” Click here to read more about why Permissive Parenting sabotages your child’s development.
“I count to three and they jump. No raising a brat for me!”
Other parents boast that they have no problem in setting limits, and are proud of their child’s quick obedience to their directives. Their children often do well until high school, when it becomes apparent that they haven’t developed good judgment or the ability to think for themselves. Kids who have been raised in an authoritarian manner are more likely to go along with their peers, to become bullies or victims, to have difficulty managing their anger, and to become adults who are more prone to depression. Click here to read more about why Authoritarian, or Strict, Parenting undermines your child’s ability to develop self-discipline.
The Sweet Spot Between Permissive and Authoritarian Parenting
There is a middle ground that works. Research shows that children develop optimally when we set limits as necessary, but do so with empathy. Empathy makes your limit more palatable to your child, so she doesn’t resist it as much. That’s what allows her to internalize it. Kids need appropriate limits, but it’s how you do it that counts.
“Isn’t setting limits just having the courage to say No and enforce it?”
Yes. But setting limits with empathy means that you:
- Start with a strong, supportive connection with your child so he knows you’re on his side.
- See it from his point of view and offer genuine empathy that he can feel, while setting the limit.
- Resist the temptation to be punitive in any way. Setting the limit teaches the lesson. Anything more backfires.
- See his life from his point of view and only set the limits you really need to set, so that his life is more about connection and discovery than about limits and frustration. Saying No too often undermines your relationship.