Working together through continuous learning to improve the quality of life for all in DeKalb County, Indiana
An education initiative of the Community Foundation of DeKalb County

How to communicate and set limits for children

The Star

by Nichole Hacha-Thomas

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Every night it’s the same thing. I tell her over and over and over again to do her homework and finish her chores. She just doesn’t listen to me.

What is the number one complaint voiced by parents in parenting classes? That their kids don’t listen.

According to Pam Deetz, Quality Assurance Coordinator for First Steps of Northeast Indiana, the problem isn’t that the kids aren’t listening, it is that parents words don’t match their actions.

“The problem may be that what (parents) say is not being supported by what (they) do.”

In his book “Setting Limits,” Robert MacKenzie talks about the importance of helping children learn acceptable behavior by setting — and sticking to — limits.

“When limits are clear and consistent, the path is easier for children to understand and follow. When limits are unclear or inconsistent, children often steer off course and get into trouble,” MacKenzie says in his book.

Your expectations for your child’s behavior might be clear in your mind, but are you clearly communicating those expectations to your child? Parents should think about what message their child is getting from their own words and actions?

At bedtime, using phrases like “its time for bed, OK?” is an example of what MacKenzie calls a soft verbal limit. Stating the request like this makes it sound as though bedtime is optional — allowing the child to respond that no, bedtime isn’t OK.

“Have a good time at the mall, but don’t stay out too late!” is another example of a soft verbal limit, allowing your child to determine what “too late” is.

Firm verbal limits state the expectation by focusing on direct and specific information about the expected behavior.

Instead, the mother at bedtime should have said, “It’s time for bed. Let’s go brush your teeth.” This firm limit is communicated by the parent in a normal tone of voice, with no screaming or yelling. Firm limits may include, if appropriate, a statement of the consequences to alert the child to what will happen if the child doesn’t comply.

Like the father who allowed his daughter to go to the mall. Giving her a firm limit and consequence will let her know what happens if she doesn’t follow her father’s directions.

“If you aren’t home from the mall by 9:30, you will not be able to go again next week,” is an example of a firm limit the father could have used.

Your actions may also communicate soft limits. If a parent tells their child to clean his room before going out to play, but he doesn’t. If mom ends up cleaning it for him, what is the message that the son glean from that? He may think cleaning his room is optional and that if he doesn’t, his mom will.

Always keep in mind that limits and rules set for children should be appropriate for their age and will evolve over time. Setting firm limits does not mean limits will be the same for your five year old, ten year old and 15 year old.

“Parents’ rules should be flexible in the sense that they can be negotiated and revised as children outgrow them or as changing circumstances require,” MacKenzie says in his book. “But the time to be flexible and negotiate your rules is not when they’re being tested or violated. Firm limits do not bend or collapse when tested or violated. In this sense, they are not flexible, but they are certainly subject to discussion, negotiation, and revision at other, more appropriate times.”

Your children are always listening — parents can make sure their children are hearing what parents intend to communicate.

Learning Link, launched in 2009, is an initiative of the DeKalb County Community Foundation that helps link people and organizations providing learning opportunities for children and adults and align their educational goals. This series, “What’s in your parenting toolbox?” is written by the Adult Lifelong Learning team which encourages adults to improve themselves, their families and their community through continuous learning.

Limit setting resources Book: “Setting Limits” by Robert MacKenzie

Parent learning opportunities: Visit dekalblearninglink.org. Click on Community and Parent Resources. Then click Adult Lifelong?Learning for a Parenting Resources brochure with a list of more than 30 opportunities, or call Judy Sorg at 925-0311.