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Egalitarian Relationship tool #3

October's Alta Class is on
Rules for Kids
Running in the street, too much screen time, rudeness, overconsumption, candy every day--all good reasons for rules. Invite me to your group for a discussion how to set your own limits and collaborate with children on how to meet the standards you hold for your family.

Egalitarian Tools 1-3 are a 3-Part series on

the trouble with setting limits



Need help with a child?

Last month’s post was for parents who set so many limits on children that the kids become oppositional towards them or self-conscious about just being kids. Conversely, if you have trouble setting limits for the child, this is the post for you.


When you are too afraid you will hurt children with limits, they may learn four unwanted lessons that you model:

  1. to disrespect their own limits for fear of losing the approval of others;

  2. to fear emotions;

  3. to take on entitled and impulsive behavior; and/or

  4. to hold in emotion and then let it out in a rage.


In this article, let’s explore four aspects of setting healthy limits that exactly correspond to and counteract those four unwanted lessons:

  1. Teaching Children to Respect Your Limits...and Theirs;

  2. Responding to the Emotion, Not the Behavior;

  3. Giving Children the Parameters They Need; and

  4. Preventing Rage.


1) Teach Children to Respect Your Limits...and Theirs


We want to teach children how to be authentic about their needs. We want them to say no to others when something doesn’t feel right. That learning can start with you.


When something doesn’t feel right with you, the child is likely to sense this. When you allow it to continue despite your discomfort, this can feel confusing for a child. Children are not always under control of themselves, so if you don’t take control of a situation, there is no one to set things right with the world.


If you feel uncomfortable imposing limits onto the child, think of it another way: Limits aren’t for other people, they are for you. If a child starts to run into the street, it’s your job to take care of the concern that evokes in you. Run after them, grab their hand and get them to safety. That is for you, and it benefits the child. 


If the child wants a cereal that is too sweet in your opinion and you get an uneasy feeling when you think about saying yes, then that’s a good place for a no. A yes disrespects your own limits. Taking care of your own needs by telling children what is okay with you and what isn’t shows them how to do the same. Wavering on what you stand for leaves them feeling unstable inside, too.


It may feel like a subtle shift from imposing limits on them to expressing limits of your own. That shift can make a big difference, however, both in your own resolve and the child’s reception of the limit. This is because when you set a limit for what you can tolerate, you are communicating that you have a value to uphold. When you impose limits on a child, it just feels like you want to control them.


Here's how to do it: whenever you have a feeling of discomfort because the child has crossed a line, there is a reason that feeling is in you, and it has to do with a value being violated. Identify the value, and you can find the lesson to offer the child. When you say no, pair it with the value to give the interaction purpose. This gives the child a reason to care.


Sometimes we find that the value being violated is a bias we did not realize we had. You might have said no because the value turned out to be, “because the child was disobeying me, undermining my authority.” Here is an opportunity to evaluate the value's usefulness to you and to consider whether it is something you want to teach. 


This value of obedience is particularly difficult to uphold unless your surrounding community models obedience for children, such as a fundamental religious community or one from a non-Western country. If the mother obeys the father, then the child sees and understands what obedience means and can learn that value.


Also, the person who is older and in charge is not necessarily right. The person with the most authority in any situation—if authority is looked at in a broader, spiritual sense—is really the person following the highest value. Show the child that you have the highest value in mind and you are likely to win them over.


Children show you their limits with their emotions, and if that doesn’t work, through their behaviors. Sometimes it takes detective work to understand what they are valuing. Is it really just the toy they want? If they are getting emotional, probably not. It is likely something more personal than that: they could be needing to sense that you care about them, or feel that they are important, too. By responding supportively to their emotions, you respect their value to be loved, and that inspires them to take on your values when they take on the world.


2) Respond to the Emotion, Not the Behavior


Trying to resolve a child’s strong emotions by giving in betrays our own needs. That is not exactly resolving their emotions. We’re stopping their anger and giving them confusion, instability, and more power than they feel safe with. In that scenario, they do stop crying, but crying makes more sense to them than this more complicated feeling that they don’t know how to express.


Children don’t know how to say, "I’m confused. Why are you saying yes now? Wasn’t there a reason you wanted to say no? I’m not sure I want it now, but I said I did, so I guess I’ll keep it. But this feels weird. Where is your backbone? If you're not strong enough to stick with your no, are you strong enough to protect me from the world?"


Instead of trying to stop their feelings, help children feel understood. If they are infants to preverbal toddlers, nod your head, give them a sympathetic look, and tell them words they don’t understand but can feel like, “You are upset because you want something you can’t have. We all feel that way sometimes. It’s a hard feeling to have.” Whatever the age, the words are not as important as the nonverbal message that you understand them and care about them.


3) Give Children the Parameters They Need


Until children’s cortexes are better developed, they struggle with impulse control, judgment, moral conscience, regulating their emotions, and pacing their energy output. Your limits help them find the parameters that promote healthy socio-emotional development. Experiencing your line gives their brain a reference point for drawing lines on their behavior in all relationships.

When you teach children how to be with you in a way that allows you to feel comfortable, they gain transferable information. If you do not hold your limits, you rob children of lessons they can apply to the rest of the world. If they don’t learn it from you, they will have to learn it from others who might be less loving and supportive.


"But," you may ask, "what if I’m not sure if it really matters that they can’t have something?" It’s not that it matters that they can’t have it, it matters that you feel uneasy about giving it to them. That uneasiness transfers to the child. Here’s how it looks:


Child: I really want that toy.


Adult: No, honey, not today.


Child: Ahhhh!


Adult: Okay, you can have it.


Now, how are you feeling? If the answer is, “The energy is draining from my body. I feel weak and my mind feels fuzzy,” then stop right there. That is your cue that you are giving the child an experience of confusion, instability, and possibly building a sense of entitlement.


But! If your body is feeling strong, your mind is clear, and you are thinking, “I just said no out of habit. It makes good sense to give this child the toy,” that’s your cue to let the child have the thing.


Get it? It’s not words that make the big difference, it’s the feeling you have inside. That’s what gets transferred to the child. 


4) Prevent Rage


Setting limits for yourself means taking command of a situation using values as the authority.


Setting limits for a child puts you in a position of having authority over the child. Whenever we have authority over another human being, we are in a precarious position. 


If you think you have authority over someone other than yourself, you feel personally threatened when that person challenges it. The threat knocks you off balance, and what we humans often do when we get knocked off balance is either fall over (become too permissive), or overcorrect and get angry (become mean). If our default is to fall over, we can build up enough tension over time that our eventual overcorrection looks like rage.


Top-down relationships can get dangerous. The more children threaten our authority, the more adults feel we need to get stronger, colder, and crueler. We fight the urge to hurt children emotionally and physically, and the fighting can feel confusing, exhausting, and frustrating. We get angry with ourselves for being angry, we get angry with the child for making us angry, and sometimes we get angry with other adults for not supporting us with these unruly kids. And it’s hard to support a raving, cold or cruel person, even if that person really wants to have our back.


When you have a bad feeling (it could be a sinking feeling in your gut, your head feels heavy, or your chest is tight), that is your cue that something is not right with you. Ignoring that feeling or shutting it down denies you the opportunity to do something important for you and the child. Paying attention to that feeling and finding your limit supports both you and the child.

Egalitarian Relationship Tool #3: Set your own limits, not the child’s. Rules that you come up with together are based on what works for both you and the child. When you collaborate on rules and limits, you are responsible for communicating what works and doesn’t work for you, and the child is responsible for coming up with their own limits (either verbally or emotionally) on what works and doesn’t work for them. Rules are then formed to help you coexist in harmony. 

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