Setting Limits Is Not OK, It’s Necessary

As parents today we are bombarded with advice, ideas, suggestions, and rules on how to be the best parents we can be for our children. Emerging research tells us more and more about human development and how our brains work. Still, it can be hard to weed through and parse out the truly helpful ideas, from the ideas with good intentions that don’t really serve us or our children.

Let’s start with the basics. Giving children choice is important. Respecting children as autonomous human beings is important. We should recognize that even though they are young, their lives are not ours to live. Their dreams are not ours to fulfill.

So, we give our children choices. We let them make their own decisions. We honor their growing independence and understand that their ideas may sometimes (often) conflict with our own. And we try to be okay with that.

But should we let our children do whatever they want all the time? We would argue that no, that is a very different scenario. Giving choice is one thing, neglecting to set any boundaries is something altogether different.

What do children need?

In order for a child to strengthen their sense of independence they need to be able to make their own decisions, but they need to make these within a framework that feels safe. As kids learn and grow, they need to be able to take risks and make mistakes; after all, making mistakes is one of the most important ways we learn. As parents, it is critical that we provide the framework of developmentally appropriate boundaries within which our children are able to make choices, and mistakes, and still feel safe. To do this successfully it is essential that we, as parents, form trusting and secure bonds with our children.

As children grow and develop, they will test the adults in their lives; they push against the rules we set because they are seeking a sense of how strong our limits are and whether or not we mean what we say. They are seeking a sense of how trustworthy we are.

Have you ever had someone tell you one thing, and then do another? Does that instill trust in you? No, of course not. Same with our children. When a parent sets a boundary but doesn’t hold that boundary constant from one day to the next, then the parent creates a sense of doubt and insecurity around that boundary and the parent becomes untrustworthy in the child’s eyes. One day “no” may mean “no,” and the next day no may mean “ok, sure today is a special day,” and the next day “no” may mean “I already said NO!, how many times do I need to tell you?”

Inconsistent boundaries creates a sense of ambiguity. This ambiguity often awakens the need for safety and clarity in the child, which can lead the child to further test the limits of the boundary. What does testing limits look like? Pushing back.

Holding boundaries firm (with kindness) while your child pushes against them as hard as they can, may not feel like connection in the moment, but it is one of the most reassuring and trustworthy acts you can do for your child. Yes, it can be extremely uncomfortable and emotionally difficult to see your child upset, sad, or even mad. It can be heart-breaking to hear them push back against a boundary with any form of emotion whether it’s yelling, screaming, crying, begging, or even the deadly silent treatment.

However, setting and holding developmentally appropriate boundaries with consistency isn’t just okay, it’s imperative for creating the trust and security in the relationship that children need to feel safe. Only when children feel safe, are they free to develop their full potential.

The good news is that the more consistent parents are with boundaries, the safer their children will feel, and the less push back they will ultimately have. When children feel safe they can relax in a trusting and secure relationship and do the important work of living their own lives, developing their own potential, and fulfilling their own dreams.

What does this look like in our classrooms?

Montessori classrooms are carefully prepared environments with built-in choices and limits. Some examples of how we achieve this balance:

  • Furniture is arranged so that children are free to move around, but most classrooms are devoid of large open areas that might encourage running in such a confined space. Those shelves are placed with intention!
  • Materials on the shelves are rotated frequently. Children may only access what is available to them. Materials that we do not want the children to have access to are kept stored away in a cabinet or closet.
  • The snack table might be just large enough for two chairs. We want children to eat and socialize when they choose, but we also know that if there is space for ten children to do so at once, the activity may become disruptive and lose its original intent.
  • Older children may utilize work plans. This enables them to determine the pace, order, and details of their work, but requires them to be accountable for completing all desired tasks within a specified amount of time. For example, a child may be asked to complete a range of math, reading, and biology work within a given timeframe, but there is plenty of choice in how they accomplish the goal.
  • Children in Montessori classrooms do not typically have to ask permission to use the restroom. Instead, we create structures so that they may do so safely whenever the need arises. Some schools have restrooms located within the classroom, others have hall passes available, or hold class meetings to discuss procedures with the children.

What might this look like in our homes?
If your family is new to Montessori, it can sometimes take a bit of time to shift ideas and expectations. Once you do, however, it’s hard to imagine doing things any other way. Some ideas to get you started:

  • Allow your children to make decisions about what they wear. For older babies and toddlers, this may be as simple as allowing them to choose between two different color shirts. For older children, you may just set guidelines, such as their clothing must be appropriate for the weather.
  • If you need your child to get a few things done, let them choose the order. For example, ask them if they would rather take a bath or make their lunch first. Be clear that your expectation is that they will do both, but that you value their opinion and want to let them help decide how to spend their time.
  • Define boundaries when your child is struggling with emotions. It’s great to let your child feel whatever they are feeling, but that doesn’t mean they should mistreat those around them when they are frustrated or angry. “I see that you are frustrated. It’s normal to feel that way but you may not scream in our house. Here are some other ways to express that feeling…”
  • Have frank and open discussions with your older children. Have you been feeling like they’re overdoing it with video games or staying out too late? Tell them what your concerns are, what your limits are, and solicit their ideas with solutions. Rather than implementing sudden new rules, engage your older children in problem solving talks until you come to a conclusion you can both live with.

Wanting our children to be happy can lead to permissive parenting and giving in to our children’s every desire. The good news is, not only do you not have to, it would be detrimental to your child if you did. Our children look to us to be the exemplary adults in their lives. They need us to set the limits for them until they are able to do so for themselves.

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