Tool #2: A Positive Strategy for Setting Limits  

This is the second in a series on Parenting

Explain your decision-making process to your children, without becoming defensive or having to repeat yourself.

When children challenge a rule and ask why they have to do something, a favorite response is, “Because I said so.” While it may be tiring to have a child question your authority, setting rules without an explanation prevents children from learning about the decision making process, and in turn learning how to make good decisions themselves. If a child wants to know why they can’t stay up until midnight, rather than ignoring their question, explaining that getting enough sleep is important for kids to be able to pay attention well in school, to avoid getting sick, and to allow the body the time it needs to restore itself. This can be applied to almost any rule, such as not having ice cream an hour before dinner time, not hitting others, or any other rule that a parent thinks matters. It is important to note that explaining your thinking to your child is not the same as answering endless questions on a topic. If you feel that you’ve answered a question sufficiently and your child keeps asking, “Why?” as a way to wear you down, it is okay to end the conversation. But sometimes, the best teaching moments can occur when parents are open to the honest questions of their children.

Arbitrary rules vs. reasonable ones.

There is one more thing that is important to state about setting rules and limits with children. Parents should ask themselves why they are setting a rule, and if the rule makes sense. Sometimes, parents may set a limit without really having a good reason why, or simply for the sake of having a rule. Upon further examination, parents may realize that the rule was either arbitrary or simply not well thought out. If your child asks if they can go outside and play and you quickly answer no, your child is likely to ask why. If there is a good reason, you can explain your thinking to your child. However, if you realize that you answered too quickly, it is okay to state this, and that upon further reflection you think it would be fine, within a certain framework (i.e., timeframe, location, etc.). Parents often think that “giving in” in this way shows weakness, and that once they’ve made a decision they have to stick with it. However, thinking through rules or limits that might not make sense in fact shows flexibility, another skill we want to convey to our children. It also further models for children the process of how to make good decisions on their own and be mindful of their own thoughts and behaviors.

If parents follow these principles, the majority of children will do well with their behaviors at home and in school. However, if the above standards are followed and children continue to have problems, it may be a sign of other difficulties occurring in the home or with the child. An evaluation by a mental health professional may be needed to provide the child and family with additional help.

Dr. Carolyn Heier welcomes your ideas on future topics you would like to see discussed. You may also suggest questions that you would like answered in this space. You may reach Dr. Heier at: