Last night I was talking to my son about childrearing. To my amazement, I think my children all are doing a wonderful job of raising their children, each in their own way, so it was not a discussion where I was giving advice, merely a talk about what seems to work best. He said that he was convinced that the most important reason for a parent to set limits is that limits make children feel secure. Children actually want limits.

I have to agree (after all, he learned that from me!) Children feel secure if they know what they may and may not do. They feel happy and in control of their lives if their parents have told them what actions will have what types of consequences and then enforce them. Of course consequences can also be good. If a child knows that helping to clear the table will earn him a special story or helping to fold the laundry is good for some cookies and milk, then he is able to choose a behavior that will yield him a reward. The key to this type of security is consistency. If parents consistently provide rewards that have been promised for certain actions and punishments that have been defined for others, then children begin to understand that what they do matters. The child learns: “It is not just whether Mom and Dad are happy with me, but I am able to arrange for good things for myself if I put in the effort.” For after all, isn’t that the way the world works? When we do something good that requires a lot of effort, there is usually a reward at the end. Sometimes it is monetary, sometimes it is something tangible, and sometimes it is the satisfaction of a job well done.

For children, knowing what’s permitted and what’s not is a key to their making sense of the world and to understanding that it is not just a random place where things happen for no discernable reason. Having limits that are clear and consistent provides them with opportunities for self-efficacy and with feelings of security.

Although I was fairly consistent as a mother, I remember having that important lesson taught to me once again as one day I was driving with my then 11 year old and he said to me, “the same thing happens to Scott as happens to me.” I asked him what that was and he told me, “Scott does bad things and his parents still give him good things.” He said it in such a way that it was clear to me that he didn’t understand why that would happen. For him, receiving ood things after he had misbehaved was not a gift of love, but something that confused him. I began to appreciate even more that I had before that limits are of vital importance, not just for teaching children how to act, but for enabling them to make sense of the world.

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  1. This subject strikes very near to me. Since Batya Z”l left us I have been more lenient with Chaya. She was starting to get a little to sassy for her own good, thinking she, at 11, could do anything she wanted.

    So I set up a chart and she gets a sticker for everything she does in the day. They are simple things – putting shoes away, taking shower, brushing teeth and such. She gets a erev Shabbat treat and if really good and covered all the chart gets a small prize from the local store on Sunday. Life has been so much nicer since we instituted the chart.

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