Do Children Need Limits?

We are continuing to look at several factors that help us explore why adult-imposed discipline does not produce self-disciplined children. Let’s briefly look at a misunderstanding in many discussions about discipline that centers on the notion of limits.

All adults recognize the necessity of kids growing up with certain limits, yet few understand that it makes a difference how these limits are established – again, the issue of what means are employed. Dare-to-discipline proponents assert with confident conviction: “Kids need limits and kids want limits,” a dangerous half-truth. It is necessary that kids feel there are limits on their behaviors, for the sake of others mostly. But what a world of difference there is between the way children react to limits imposed by an adult and the way they are react to limits they have a voice in determining!

In a future edition we’ll look at how parents and teachers can use the potent “principle of participation” to get kids involved in mutual problem-solving that yields agreements, contracts, rules, and limits that really stick. We’ll see how kids are much more motivated to keep commitments when adults give them a voice in setting limits on their own behavior.

Life, families, classrooms need specific rules and clearly understood policies. Given the opportunity, children are quite capable of participating with their parents or teachers to set rules and policies that will govern their behavior. Classrooms and families can govern themselves effectively without adult supremacy, without someone being the boss, the rule-maker. With the tools taught in Dr. Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training you can forget the dire warnings of all those dare-to-discipline approaches that claim without rules set by adults authority there will be anarchy, chaos, and confusion. Life and research has shown this isn’t true.

I remember visiting with a friend of mine, Rowena, a single Mother of three sons age 9, 11 and 17. It was a stressful evening, a guest was in the house (me), dinner had to be prepared, homework had to be done, there was lots of house work to be finished. I commented to the youngest son how amazed I was that all of them would just do as Rowena said and how the job-sharing of all chores was decided in less than a minute without any quarrels. I asked him what made them all listen so well to their Mom. He said “Oh, we listen to Mom because she listens to us.”

When children are given the opportunity to participate in setting rules, families often discover they have more rules than before and everyone sticks to them. The critical question, then, is not whether limits and rules are needed in families and schools, but rather who sets them: the adults alone or the adults and kids–together.