Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kids and Limits

Limits. Boundaries. Restrictions. Things that must be imposed on children for their own good, right? Parents who don't draw hard lines and enforce compliance are told they are setting their kids up for lives of crime. How will they know their limits if you don't tell them what they are?

It is even commonly believed that children don't just need parent-set limits, they actually crave limits. Whenever I hear that, I get a vision of Homer's Odysseus and his encounter with the Sirens. In order not to fall victim to the irresistible song of the Sirens, he orders his men to tie him up and not to let him go, no matter how hard he begs. Are people saying that our children are like this? That they will thank us for restraining them (literally or figuratively), for giving them no choice but to avoid temptation?

This guy did thank his crew for keeping him tied up. (source)

I have a different theory, heavily based on 28 years of research as a human. It's based on the fact that I'm still the same person as I was as a child. I have the same feelings and thoughts now as I did then. I think kids are just like adults in terms of how they want to be treated. I think people, young and old, want to have ultimate control over their bodies and their lives. I don't think mentally healthy people want to be restrained. I could be wrong. Let me know, please.

I think children want to be informed and supported, but they want to be free to make choices. I don't think kids want to be told how many bites to eat or when they need to sleep or when they need to wear a jacket. I try not to impose my will on my children, or my perception of their limits.

Instead, I try to make options available, and let them decide for themselves. If I am worried they might be hungry, I put out some food. If I'm worried they might be tired, I make a warm, cozy place available for them to rest. If I'm worried that they might be cold, I make sure I have jackets handy.

Right now, I get annoyed when someone tells me what to do. I don't mind suggestions. I like options. I love freedom. I don't know many people who would disagree.

I still make choices that some people consider to be mistakes. But with each choice, I learn something. I learn about my own limits and boundaries, which are the most important ones for me. And I assume it's the same way for the smaller people I live with. Unless they tell me otherwise.


And before you say: that's a lot of pressure to put on your kids, making them choose everything... If you are thinking that after reading this, then you are missing my point entirely. I don't make them choose anything. I do make choices for them, based on my knowledge of their preferences. But even then, they are almost always free to object, to veto, to make a different choice. Many times, they do go along with what I choose, because they trust me. And they know they are free to choose otherwise.

Also, before you ask: wouldn't you stop your kids from playing in the middle of the street? The answer to that question is: it depends on what street. There are some streets that are fine for playing in, as long as I am there. More broadly, yes, I do protect my kids from imminent dangers, like busy streets and poisons. If you want, we can argue over the definition of imminent.

One more thing: Nowhere in this post do I say all limits are bad or I have no limits or you shouldn't have any limits. Go back and read it again if you don't believe me.


  1. I applaud the trust you have in your kids. I could not let my kids play in the street as toddlers. I turn my back sometimes and I don't want them to run into the street during those times. I want the street to just be off limits without holding an adult's hand. That is clearly my hang up but I am okay with that and I don't think the limitation of playing anywhere but the street is too confining for anyone even children.

    We have other boundaries too in our life and I don't think they are harmful. I think my kids are thriving despite the fact that Braden can't shoot people with pretend guns, or throw his toys, or has an 8 o'clock bedtime.

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  3. I appreciate the street comment! People always bring up the fact that you would never let your child play in the street so therefore, you DO restrict them, you DO have rules, ect... I always respond as you did...it depends on the street. lol. I'm not sure why this is such a hang up for people. My little one is only 2, but the street is pretty much the least of my worries as a parent!

    And, yes, why do we believe that children NEED and CRAVE limits, boundaries, and even schedules?! I know that I don't like these things. Is there truly a subset of people who WANT these things of their own volition? I tend to think that's not the natural order of things. Perhaps they FEEL as though they want these things because their parents inflicted it on them as a child.

  4. Love love love this, Vicky. The hair on the back of my neck stands up when I hear people start in with "craving boundaries" or "needing limits", and in some ways, with some people, we end up actually believing the same thing. I just don't like that habitual/unquestioned/tradition-over-truth way of talking about it. What EXACTLY are we meaning when we repeat the status quo? I want to think about everything and rethink and question it all. My kids have played in the street, for sure. I think kids are capable of discerning much finer distinctions than we give them credit for and so don't necessarily always need such black or white "rules". Yes, all of this is age and child and parent dependent. Everyone can draw the lines how they choose...but how about more loopy, curvy, wiggly lines and fewer lines which are actually brick walls.
    When they remember that "I AM ON YOUR SIDE', then we can always work out something that feels satisfying to all of us. xoxo

  5. I'm not sure that I agree, but it might be that I am not totally sure what you mean. What I think you mean (and what I agree with) is to present children with options at the right time. Like you said, having food, bed and jacket handy, but not forcing them into something. I assume this means that you are very good at reading your children so that you can present the options at the right time. I completely agree with being the same person as a child as now. That means that I still make the mistakes of not eating when I am getting hungry and not going to bed at the time which is good for me at night. I know the consequences of this, but in the moment I still "forget". That is why I have myself on a quite tight routine, with eating and sleeping because I know that I will forget and it will end in tears (sometimes literally). Within that routine I can "flourish" and I am thinking, that I will help my child to find out his best routine. And I am think now that you might agree with me on that, but would have disagree if I had written "make a routine for him"? Just trying to figure out if we agree or not ;)

  6. @MelissaJ, You said "We have other boundaries too in our life and I don't think they are harmful."

    All I'm saying in this post is that I don't think kids want, crave, love limits. If the 8pm bedtime is working for you, and Braden doesn't mind it, then you know it's totally fine. And I'm not here to tell you it's harmful. I have a little girl who would never stand for having a bedtime. She fought the idea from very early on. A bedtime in our house would mean nightly battles at this point. And for the sake of what? That is what I am getting at. If you have limits that your kids are ok with, then they aren't all that limiting. The trouble is when a kid fights a limit, and society tells you "It's OK, she really does want the limit, she just doesn't know it. Parent knows best." That's the kind of thinking I disagree with. Does that make sense?

  7. @Hannah Joy, I see you removed your comment, but I was looking forward to getting back to you! Please come back and re-post if you want me to bounce back some ideas. Thanks for reading, and I love comments. They really help me to clarify my thoughts.

  8. @Lyndz and Kris Laroche, Exactly! What I don't like is the unquestioned parenting rules, like this one, that "we have to set limits, otherwise they will never learn." I have found my kids to be great at finding their own limits, once I gave them the freedom to do so. I think there are some kids out there who don't mind parent-set limits, but there are others who definitely do. And those are the kids who seem "difficult," but really they just might need to have more control over their own lives.

  9. @Brave New Life, I think you are on the right track explaining what I mean. But I just want to clarify further with an example. I have seen so many parents argue about the "wearing a jacket" thing. I hear the parent say "put your jacket on, it's too cold to go out without one." But the fact is, we all respond differently to cold. If it is cold enough for you (the parent) to want a jacket, then put one on. If you think your kid might get cold but he doesn't want to wear a jacket, then carry one. When you get outside, he will decide for himself if it's cold enough for him, at that moment. What I am saying is that you aren't doing him a favor by forcing him to wear the jacket. And I think that's what conventional wisdom wants us to believe, that we always know best, and that forcing the jacket on the child is for his own good. But I disagree. I think children, even really young ones, can decide for themselves.

    But I don't agree with a parent who says: "FINE, I won't bring a jacket, we'll see how you like that! That will teach you!" I like to be prepared to provide what my child tells me he needs, saying: "I'll bring one along just in case you want it."

    I don't think there is anything wrong with mutually agreed upon routines! What I do question is a strictly parent-set routine that prescribes what's best for the child, ignoring his input.

    Does that make it clearer?

    1. sorry this is so far back, but i've only recently found your blog.

      Each time i read it, i find myself nodding away more and more each time...in theory. I'm having trouble putting some things into practice though. Tacking onto this comment for the jacket scenario. I have a specific incident, and I would like some ideas on how it can be handled/resolved. My husband works away 4 out of 5 weeks, and we need to take him, and pick him up from the airport at times when the temperatures hover around 10-15celsius. My quandary is with my 12 yo son. I have respected his decision before to not bring his coat, and without fail he always ends up cold and miserable,and takes it out on his sisters. You suggest, perhaps bringing his coat for him, but in our case when there are 4 other younger children, who willingly take their coat, knowing it will be cold. It doesn't seem fair to them or to me either, that I become his pack mule, because he refuses to learn from past experience. Letting him be in control of his decisions rather than telling him,"you must take your coat" seems to come at the cost of everyone else's happiness.

      This is a specific situation, but in general, i am wondering how to put into practice these insightful and great ideas you blog about within older families.
      thanks so much

    2. Hi! Thanks for reading. First of all, let me say that I know it can be more difficult to handle many situations when you have 5 children. I come from a family of 6 kids so I know how chaotic it can be. Also, I don't have any older kids so I can't speak from experience there either.

      One thing I would do is step away from the idea of "fairness" when it comes to situations like this. If the other kids are fine bringing their coats, and the oldest is not, then helping him out by bringing one for him is not unfair to the others. It's just giving the older one what he needs.

      On a practical note for this specific situation, can you leave a coat for him in the car the night before? Or if he has an extra one, maybe leave it in the car all the time, just in case? I think a lot of this mindful, gentle parenting is in the planning. If you know this happens every time, then you can prepare for it. Accept that his not wanting to bring a coat is inevitable for now, and then make it as easy on yourself as possible. You don't even need to say anything to him, until he says he's cold. Then you can say with a smile, "Oh, I brought a coat for you if you want." :)

      Think of how much he will appreciate your thoughtfulness, and your other children will see how thoughtful you are too. There can't be anything bad about that!

    3. One more thing... does your son want to come with you or has he expressed any desire to stay home or do something else while you go with the other kids? Not sure if that's a possibility, just wondering. :)

  10. What an interesting post. I am all about offering as much as freedom as is reasonable to my child, and to children in general. Even "gentle" "peaceful" parenting gurus often talk about the whole idea of children thriving on limits, however, so I never really questioned it and have set out to provide them. I set very few and I am thoughtful about them, and always willing to reevaluate, but now that you mention it I'm surprised by how happily I've eaten up the idea that they're something my child has an inner craving for. I'm a bit conflicted at this point, but you have given me some great food for thought. Thank you!

  11. Much clearer, thank you! Then we agree :)
    But let me ask you something else, is this view controversial? I read what you written and now that you have made it clearer, I am thinking "well, duh! of course you shouldn't force children into things just for the sake of forcing". But since you are writing this I guess this is not the norm.
    I work within the educational system and with parents. I hear many stories about conflicts between children and parents because of parents trying to set limits just for the sake of it. However, I have now become aware that I assumed that other parents don't do this as I only meet parents whose children are having a hard time in school.But since you've written about, I take it it is not the norm.
    Uh, eye-opener!

  12. @melissa, Glad I have made you think! It is funny how many gurus tout this "children love limits" stuff, even the ones who seem to have a good understanding of children. I know my kids are pretty good at telling me what they want and don't want. And I tend to believe them!

    @Brave New Life, I can't tell you how many times I have heard this theory that children love limits. Uncountably many times. It's a pretty commonly held theory, even by people who don't have children. I feel like it is so ingrained in our culture, that people don't really even realize what they are saying! It's just a reflex response to any statement about limits: "Oh, limits? Kids love limits! They WANT limits!"

  13. Vickie...I love this. I work with parents a lot and this is one of their biggest concerns.

    For me, I have spent the better part of my adult life trying to return to the limitless being I truly am. So why do I want to put limits on the beautiful being I live with?

    My daughter has an incredible amount of freedom and she sets her own limits by what feels good to her. I am always amazed with how confident and aware she is. Like you, I make sure that when she does ask for support, I'm right there!

    I like to tell parents to think about when their child was in their womb. Their job was to take care of themselves, eat healthy, stay relaxed and offer a wonderful container for their child. They weren't inside telling their child when and how to grow!

    When they come into the world I believe this continues to be our job. To take care of ourselves, eat well and stay relaxed. If we provide that container, they will take care of their growing!

    Glad to find you!

  14. @Leslie, I like your idea of comparing parenting to pregnancy. I think I will borrow that idea when I am trying to explain my ways to people! It's so hard for some people to understand that nature takes care of so much of the process, we really would do well just to "nurture" our kids in the positive sense of the word. Thanks for your comment!

  15. I'm loving your posts!! I won't comment on them all, but I like to share my views sometimes. On limits, well I think the ideas here are understood and shared, but maybe mine are not the same? I think my mom made limits that were less limiting than most. As in, if the average limit is at scale of 5, hers would be an 8 or 10. It gave me room to move so to speak, so I felt responsible and could self manage. I hope to be that kind of parent (so far so good I think!) so that my child/children learn what's safe and appropriate, and learn healthy decision making.

    An example I can think of was when I wanted to eat massive meals - eg a pound of spaghetti or 7 tacos - She would warn me about overeating, but would let me go ahead. She then would remind me about it the next time so I could decide if I thought it was the right decision. Sometimes I forgot or ignored the info, but I was allowed to go ahead when it wasn't a harmful thing. Another was I could get angry, but throwing a full blown tantrum (screaming and acting out) was off limits. If I did, she took me outside or elsewhere and I was punished if I didn't stop. While I don't agree with "punish" it is what all parents do one way or another since a tantrum restricts enjoying an activity. That full blown tanty was the max limit.

    Now I've worked through all that kid baggage - I can see where the bad discipline was and where the good was. I can see limits that were more than fair, for my own safety, and taught me lessons. Maybe it's that "limits" is too closely understood as "restraints" when it really could mean safety net?

  16. I've read this post half a dozen times over the past few days. On the one hand, I agree with every example you offer and I agree with your reasoning about how to live well with children. On the other hand, I've been stuck on rejecting "kids love limits" though. I just want to work out a few of my thoughts here, if you don't mind.

    I can think of plenty of limits and boundaries that my child likes, desires, and needs. For example, when she says no, it means no. No, she doesn't want to wear her coat. Fine. No, she doesn't want to take a nap. Okay. No, she doesn't want to be hugged or kissed right now. No problem. I think that a toddler's insistence on "no" is the emergence of boundaries and limits that children set for themselves. The next step is "mine." In this sense, I think it's perfectly acceptable to say that children do love and need boundaries (their own). I think that perhaps SOMETIMES they need help establishing them. Maybe enforcing them when they can easily be over-powered, giving them reasons for establishing boundaries, and explaining to them to consequences of their choices. I think in this frame work, establishing my own boundaries doesn't seem like an offense. Mommy can say "no" too. Sometimes when we have disagreements (my daughter is almost 3), I might say "Well, you say "no" and I say "yes." We want 2 different things, what should we do about this?" We work things out. You know, like adults ;)

    Then there's bedtime. My daughter has never been the kind of child to get cranky when sleepy. She actually turns into a silly performer and puts on concerns. She didn't have a bedtime until she was 18 months. I would usually try to create a calming atmosphere and snuggle with her and read until she eventually fell asleep and I didn't care when that was. But then she started to resist sleep (not me, but sleep). She would be exhausted, but figured out all these mental games (like rhyming and word association) to keep herself awake and this could (and sometimes did) last till 2AM. Her internal clock still had her wake up at 7AM and she would be miserable all day. I feel like it would be real cruelty to let her harm herself this way. I started implementing a bedtime routine that would end around 7:30 and she's been fine with it since. I do think she needs me to set this limit for her. It's peaceful and she gets 12 hours of sleep instead of 5. I realize other children don't need this particular boundary, but I do think this is an example of a child needing a limit.

    I apologize for rambling, but I'd be interested in your thoughts. I think that maybe people misunderstand a child's need for boundaries. They don't need us to enforce limits upon them (most of the time), they need us to guide them and help them establish their own BECAUSE children actually do crave limits and they have a pretty good idea about where to place them themselves.

  17. @Hollie, It sounds like your mom was pretty cool. I do want to say, it's not that I feel parents should never step in! It's just that I find arbitrary limits so... arbitrary. If my child is having a meltdown, of course I will step in. I will remove her from the situation if necessary, but not as punishment. As a way to help her calm down. Once removed, together we can figure out what she needs. There is a difference between that and sending a child away in punishment for having a tantrum. Does that make sense?

  18. @Emily W, I think you got exactly to my point. The point is, kids generally know their own limits, or at least they want to figure out for themselves where they are. I find parent-imposed limits (that are not for actual safety reasons) that are not agreed upon by the child are not helpful. Trusting and respecting your child's own boundaries is wonderful though.

    As far as your bedtime experience... If is doesn't FEEL like a limit to your child, then it's not really a limit. :)

    We have a "bedtime routine" as well, that involves a snack and movie in our bed. it just happens at different times, usually somewhere between 11pm and 1am. But if I try to start things in that direction before my kids are ready, I get resistance. If I would insist on going to bed anyway, then that would be limiting, and I don't feel it's necessary to do that, usually. If I don't insist on my schedule, then it's not a limit.

    Does that help?

  19. Hi Vicki, do you have a post on "I do protect my kids from imminent dangers, like busy streets and poisons. If you want, we can argue over the definition of imminent"? I would love to read your summary on this.

    A friend asked me recently if I have any boundaries for my children, I said I do protect them from running to the middle of a busy street, as it is dangerous. The mother replied that she believes that TV is dangerous for her kids (and her husband) so it is only allowed 20 min a day. I know your take on TV and screen time, and it is a similar situation in our family.

    And in this regard I would love to read a post of you on "Protecting from imminent dangers".

    Love, Olga

  20. Olga, I really like that idea for a post. I will definitely write one about that!

  21. I know I certainly didn't enjoy having limits as a child, especially having to go to school and do homework. I don't think I'll ever be able to forgive that fully.

    Just out of curiosity, what if your daughter wants a cell phone someday, like at age 12? Would you let her have one?

  22. @Voice, For now, since my kids are usually with me, they could always use my cell phone. I will share it freely with them. But when the time comes when they start spending more time away from me, I would certainly consider getting phones for them. I don't have a certain age in mind for when they are "old enough." Instead, if they said they wanted one, I would talk to them about why and try to meet their needs as well as I could. There are some pretty cheap phones and plans out there so I'm sure we could work something out. Thanks for the comment. I also did not enjoy having limits as a child, just as I wouldn't enjoy that now!

  23. my daughter is only 18 months but we are headed down the unschooling path. We just stick to safety issues and just go by the flow on everything else. We are so happy and our daughter is amazing. We are still learning our personal limits. Sometimes I doubt myself about how we do things but I think that us pressure from society. I would love to know some of your limits, like the other poster, what are your imminenet dangers?