Parenting Styles and Reasonable Limits for Kids

New Social Rules Require More Creative Parenting Models for Limits

For decades people who work with kids have been trained, but, parents have been doing the job without training for eons. Setting limits can be mysterious and frustrating.

The need for training has become apparent as a result of decades of social change. According to Don Dinkmeyer and Gary McKay in The Parent’s Handbook [American Guidance Services Inc.,1989], society’s shift from autocratic to democratic attitudes and social equality has presented challenges for parents. Kids are watching as groups formerly considered inferior rise up to claim new status. Unions, civil rights, and the women’s movement have changed the system to one in which people insist on being treated as equals. Children have become conscious of their rights too.

Effect on Parenting

In moving from autocratic to democratic child-rearing, it is important that procedures are based on principles of mutual respect and equality. Children and adults are not the same. So, it is important to define what is meant by equality. It means that children are equal to adults in human worth and dignity. Democracy permits choice and democratic parents provide choices for kids, within limits, and kids must be accountable for those decisions.

When setting limits in democratic child-rearing, there is an alternative to autocratic reward and punishment systems called natural and logical consequences. Natural consequences are those that flow from the natural order of things, e.g. the child who refuses to eat goes hungry. Logical consequences are those that flow from the social order of events. They permit choice and are logically connected to the child’s misbehavior. For example, a child who is an hour late can lose two hours of free time tomorrow.

Establishing Limits

Thomas W. Phalen, in Surviving Your Adolescents [Child Management, Inc. 1994], writes that when setting limits in such a system it is important to keep several things in mind.

  • Age: kids always want to be treated fairly compared to siblings. Don’t be swayed by that argument. Of course a 14-year-old can not drive and a 16-year-old can.
  • Trust earned: trust is earned and can be lost. The answer to “you don’t trust me” can be yes that’s right! This can be said when explaining how to re-earn trust.
  • Basic needs: kids have some of the same needs as adults. Setting limits that prevent them from meeting needs can cause trouble. If a 14-year-old is kept from socializing with all male friends, she will either violate the limits or abide by them and miss out on important development.
  • Expect kids to test limits: it’s nothing personal so avoid anger. It’s just part of growing up.
  • Keep it simple: consequences must be reasonable, timely, and not too elaborate.
  • Consequences should escalate in force: if the kids escalate behaviors. And, they should be applied consistently.
  • Set the limit calmly: be respectful and avoid anger. Tell them this is what must happen and they are loved, but they must take responsibility for behavior.

Finally, as David J. Wilmes admonishes in Parenting for Prevention [Johnson Institute-QVS, Inc. 1995], when it comes to alcohol and drugs, illegal behavior, etc. make it clear that total abstinence is expected. Testing can be expected but allowing any use, or using with them, may cause a belief that the behavior is condoned. It is important to remember that the job is parent, not a friend.

Removing the high level of emotion and remaining calm is easier when limit-setting and testing is understood as a natural stage of development. Once practiced enough, setting limits according to a democratic style makes for a more peaceful household. Remaining firm but calm is a way to establish mutual respect so that family members view each other with the deference and esteem they deserve.