Photo credit: Lubomirkin via Unsplash

It’s all about setting (good) limits

“Johnny, if you don’t stop, I’m simply going to have to say no”
- mother of the 2 year old boy who was chewing on my grandmother’s shoe

I heard this story when I was pretty little, and I remember being shocked. Who would say that?! How could the boy’s mother not see that she needed to step in long before that?

My grandmother was an elegant dresser, and very urbane. But having her shoe chewed on by a human was a bit much for her. Apparently it took every shred of her self restraint not to give a little Johnny a swift kick to the teeth.

Back then I didn’t appreciate how difficult it was to say something to the boy’s mother. As I became a parent myself, hanging out in mom’s groups and at parks, I learned the hard way:

Discipline is always a touchy subject with parents.

It’s safe to assume that every parent wants the best for their child. It’s also safe to assume that every parent is highly invested in bringing up their child well.

So telling a parent they are doing it wrong is tantamount to a personal attack. And yet, clearly, there are things parents do that aren’t working.

It’s all about setting good limits

It comes down to setting limits for kids. But how do we do that? What do we say? And how does that shape what kids understand and do?

For starters, I wish people realized it’s important to give ALL kids limits, even babies.
“I can’t let you do that”
 “2 more times, then it’s her turn”
 “You can have time on the computer after you finish your homework”

Limits are the conditions we set for kids about the behavior that we will accept. They help kids understand what is wanted from them. Limits are parameters — they establish a zone of clarity and certainty. There’s no magic formula for putting out a limit. Among other things, limits can specify what kids can do, can’t do, when they can do it, or what will happen if they do/don’t. The point is that they clarify the expectation.

My undergraduate students were often surprised when I explained that kids need, and actually want, limits. Knowing where they stand helps kids do the right thing. And they really do want to do the right thing (for the most part). They just struggle with doing it. This experiment demonstrates both.

New toys — don’t touch!

In a classic study, 2–3 year olds were brought into a lab with their mother and shown new toys — but told not to play with them as the mother left the room. (cruel, right?)
 Wanting to do the right thing? You might be surprised, but 60% of these little people were able to resist the temptation to play.
 How hard is that to do? They had to devise strategies for talking themselves out of touching them!

New toys — now clean up!

In another phase of that study the 2–3 year olds were given a chance to play with new toys, then their mother asked them to clean up. (nobody’s favorite part)
 Wanting to the do the right thing? About 30% of the kids didn’t comply with their mother’s request (only 16% actively disobeyed, while another 15% quietly kept playing). On the flip side, only about 1 in 5 kids were good do-bees and went straight into cleaning mode.
 How hard is that to do? That leaves the other half of the kids. They showed a willingness to clean up, but they needed several reminders to turn their attention away from the new toys and stay focused on the task of cleaning.

How do limits work?

There are a couple of important things going on with the kids in these studies:

  1. Self-regulation - the intentional control of one’s thoughts, emotions, or actions
  2. Effortful control - the ability to stop or change an action once it’s already started (and sometimes used synonymously with self-reg)

As hard as it is to regulate yourself in the first place, stopping once you’re already going is *really* hard work. Think of this as a bowl of M&Ms in front of you: It’s much easier to not to eat any of them than it is to stop after eating just 5.

Our instructions and our limits give kids the tools they need to marshal their own best behavior.

Children are capable of exerting control over their actions. It’s more a question of how much, and when. Limits help kids understand what we want from them, which is how they help kids bring that into effect — Limits help kids do the work of self-regulating, and especially the work of effortful control.

Limits can help kids not start a behavior in the first place
“don’t touch that — it’s hot!”
“no cookies til after dinner”
“we can’t swing this time”

And limits can help kids stop or redirect themselves
“last time down the slide, then it’s time to go home”
“when you’re done whining down there you can get up and have chips”
“it’s time to close your book and start your homework”

One caveat — limits only work effectively when grown ups accept that most kids do want to do the right thing most of the time. (and if you don’t believe this you may find yourself in the crazy territory where you have to force or bribe kids to get them to do anything)

Give all kids limits — even babies

What a kid might get into and what a kid can understand change as the child ages. So it makes sense that limits necessarily change with age. It’s a moving target of figuring out what limit this kid needs, at this time, on this task.

But it starts when they are babies. This always surprised and confused my undergrads. Some would even ask —if babies can’t control themselves — why would you give them limits?

Here’s the thing.

  1. Babies CAN control themselves, a little. And
  2. It gets them, and you, in the habit.

When my daughter was very little…

People used to laugh at me about the way I spoke with my daughter when she was very small. I recall clearly a dinner with my research group while I was in graduate school. We went out to a local restaurant, and I brought my daughter who was just a little past her first birthday. I set her up in the high chair, and asked her if she wanted the mat to draw on and her crayons. I heard the gentle titters from my colleagues, and said nothing. I was the oldest student in the group, and the only one to have kids, so I had learned to keep my mouth shut.
I got my 1-year old set up with some things to occupy her. And of course she started banging them around. It was happy noise, but also disruptive given where we were. I let her know that didn’t work at the restaurant table, and asked her to stop. I treated her like a person — not an adult, exactly, but I used a fairly normal tone of voice, and without babying what I was saying. My colleagues thought it was hilarious. One of them even asked, “Why are you asking her that?” The thing was — my daughter’s racket stopped. And so did my colleagues’ laughter. As politely as I was able, I answered my colleague. I talked to her like that because she understood what I was saying, and was very able to act on it.

So yes. Give all kids limits, and start when they are babies. It will help kids develop self-regulation and effortful control. (heck, they even work with grown ups!)

Starting when they are almost 1 year old, babies can control themselves, just not for very long. They can make themselves stop. That’s about it.

At that point the parent or caregiver needs to change the environment so the baby isn’t required to stay stopped.

And when you are setting a limit for child, 
* Ask yourself how long you think a kid this age can stay stopped without further help from you.
* Then ask yourself how you could set a limit that helps this kid do that work for themselves.