Understanding Limits and Consequences, and Why They’re Important
Rules make modern life possible. Without restrictions on how we use common resources, communicate, and work together, a civilized society could not exist.
Your family unit is a miniature reflection of the greater social structure. Without order, your little society can fall apart. Setting healthy limits and establishing consequences for crossing them is necessary to keep all family members working together for the greatest benefit of the group.
Defining Limits and Consequences
Limits are guidelines for expected behaviors. They teach children how to act in various situations. Telling your toddler to put candy wrappers in the trash rather than on the floor is a limit.
Consequences are the events caused by an action. As a consequence of throwing the wrappers on the floor, your toddler will not be allowed to have any more candy.
Limits and consequences grant caregivers the ability to shape a child’s decision-making process by helping them understand that their actions have meaning and affect more than just one person. By learning to live by a set of standards, children become self-disciplined, avoid risky behaviors, and become better able to handle difficult emotions.
Drawing the Lines
How does a family of different people and personalities set limits and consequences that work for everyone?
Be as consistent as possible. Age differences, disabilities, and other challenges make it difficult to hold every person to the same standard. Expectations may need to be adjusted for individual ability levels. You may not expect your three-year-old to clear the whole table after dinner like the eight-year-old, but he can help gather utensils and scrape plates.
Lead by example. Children are experts at detecting hypocrisy. If no food is allowed outside of the kitchen, how will you justify eating a sandwich on the couch? Emphasize family unity by being the chief rule-follower.
Explain the limit’s purpose. Older children will appreciate the time you take to talk about the benefits of their limits. Tweens and young adults are more likely to stick to an established boundary if they believe it’s for their own good.
Regulate behavior, not emotion. Children are people too. Like adults, they have good and bad days. Allow them to feel disappointment, anger, or sadness. However, their feelings should not be an excuse for disruptive behaviors.
Make the consequence fit the behavior. Overreaction can cause a child to withdraw and lose trust in their adult guardian. Underreaction encourages the child to take rules less seriously.
Display house rules prominently. A dry-erase board lets you easily update written guidelines, so they’re always relevant and understood.
If life is a garden, parents are the caretakers of a precious future crop. Careful use of limits and consequences has the effect of a gardener’s thoughtful sheers pruning away excess limbs and growths. Far from being an act of control or restraint, limits and consequences help children reach their highest potential. By Deanna Colette Cupo ,MSW