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EGALITARIAN RELATIONSHIP TOOL #2 The Trouble with Setting Limits

Egalitarian Tools 1-3 are a 3-Part series on The Trouble with Setting Limits

Part 2: A Foreign Way to See Kids

This second post on limit-setting is about how, oftentimes, limits try to prevent children from playing out their own natural level of evolution. Being told to stop acting according to their maturity level can essentially make people feel ashamed of who they are. While we do want to inspire people to evolve, there are a variety of approaches that promote healthy development. Here is one: let children be children by offering guidance in place of limits.

The Puritan roots of US culture reveal themselves in many ways, and the tradition of how to treat children is no exception. The culture has reaped many benefits from this heritage, and it has been the source of harsh pain, as well. This stark, rigid, exacting religion saw humans as essentially sinners, and our task was to seek redemption and improve ourselves through the use of punishment and repenting.

While things have changed quite a lot over generations, this fundamental way of regarding children’s behaviors has remained somewhat constant in the US. We take normal, inborn traits and behaviors of children that do not jive with societal norms or adult desires and call them “bad behavior.” By extension, we think of the child either as “bad” or “acting bad.”

Many cultures in the world have not had these roots. Instead of seeing normal behaviors as bad, some see them as normal. Instead of pointing out what the child is doing wrong, they wait for the child to grow out of it while continuing to model a more sophisticated way, or they invite the child into that way.

In Parenting without Borders, Christine Gross contrasts her experience raising her kids in the US versus in Japan. Gross is from the US, where, she points out, the belief is that we are inherently bad and must work hard to be better people (that Puritan ethic). She noticed that in Japan, adults were relaxed with children’s misbehaviors.

There, young children are not expected to refrain from hitting or being mean to their friends because this is normal for their maturity level. They were not scolded for or even prevented from such behavior most of the time. Adults in Japan expected children to learn how to get along with each other through practice in conflicts and with little adult intervention. They allowed children to learn how to work things out for themselves, and if anyone went too far, they were asked questions and given explanations, not given demands or consequences.

In Educating Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education, Catherine Lewis describes an approach taken by the Japanese culture: “Parents seek harmony with their young children, not rules or ‘limits’; a close parent-child relationship, not obedience.” In Japan, she explains, a parent's goal is for their young children to be nobinobi, or carefree.

Lewis explains, “Teachers attribute positive motives to children, making it very hard for children to develop an identity as ‘bad’ children.” As Gross points out, parents in the US tend to worry that if their child steals something at 5, they will grow up to be thieves, and if their children hit, they will become bullies. In Japan, Lewis writes, “The point of discipline is to help shape a character that you believe to be intrinsically good and well-intentioned, and fostering a child’s ‘understanding,’ not ‘compliance,’ is the ultimate goal.”

While US teachers tend to try to motivate children to behave by discouraging bad behavior, punishing them with a disapproving tone of voice or a recess taken away, teachers in Japan take a longer view. According to Lewis, "teachers are less interested in meting out immediate consequences for bad behavior." They believe that “The best way to motivate children to behave or try to get along with others is to enhance their feelings of belonging, not make them feel bad.”

Granted, Japanese culture has been criticized for allowing bullying to go unchecked in older children, but there may be something to take from the premise. Children need guidance more often than they need limits. It does not help a child to allow them to do whatever they want, but when we shift our thinking to assume positive intent rather than worry about potential criminality, we shift our own behavior to becoming both connected and more mature as parents and teachers. (More on the emotional maturity of adults will be in next month's post, Part 3 of The Trouble with Setting Limits.)

Will guiding stop the behavior better than imposing limits? Consider what happens in your own home or classroom. Using the language of the Neurorelational Framework of flexibility vs. rigidity and chaos vs. stability, would you say that limit-setting has felt more flexible or more rigid in your relationship with a child? If you answered more rigid, you may notice that this rigidity causes the child's anxiety level to rise. The loss of connection creates a sense of instability, and this instability can create more chaotic behaviors in children who have a hard time regulating emotions and energy levels.

Many examples exist where limit-setting offers greater stability without creating relationship rigidity. If, however, you do not have a connected way of setting limits, you may be more likely to feel that limits contribute to a sense of rigidity in your relationship. For these children, we can move from chaos to stability by using egalitarian relationship tools. An approach that inspires connection can transform that rigidity into greater flexibility, turning chaotic interactions with children into more stable ones. Connection inspires understanding; understanding inspires cooperation.

Egalitarian Tool #2: For something non-urgent, try letting a child do as they do. Give a reason to do it differently once, then stand back and let them decide. For a class on staying out of a child’s business, join the last Alta August class this Wednesday, August 29, from 9-12, or join the Inquiry Circle Meetup Sept. 16 on The Three Kinds of Business.

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