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The Art of Setting Limits

August 2011

Ask anyone who has children and they will almost all agree that raising them is one of the hardest tasks they perform. Parenting is difficult in part due to our lack of being prepared. Just like carpenters and plumbers who are given correct training and tools of good quality in order to do their job, there are well-established, effective tools for parents which can help us in that important job. Most of us can benefit by learning how to use them.

One of the most basic and often needed tools a parent can learn is the art of setting limits. Parents are often overly-strict or overly lenient in this regard. In order to raise a child who is self-sufficient and respectful, your most helpful limit setting gives the child the opportunity to exercise self-control. This is called the democratic approach. It balances your child’s rights with their responsibilities. Here is a simple three step tool which will help accomplish that end. It is called the A-C-T method of limit setting and comes from the Univ. of N. Texas Play Therapy Center.

Here is a typical scenario to help illustrate this method of setting limits: Manuelito has been drawing with crayons on a piece of paper. He runs over to the living room wall with some of the crayons, looks at you and says, “I am going to draw on the wall, too!”

The first step is to Acknowledge your child’s feeling or desire in a tone of voice that conveys empathy and understanding. “Manuelito, I know you think it would be fun to draw on the wall with crayons…  ”

Next, you Communicate the limit. “But, walls are not for drawing on.” Be specific, clear, and brief.

Then you Target an acceptable alternative. “You can draw on the papers.” Pointing towards the alternative – in this case, the papers, helps to redirect the child’s attention. The goal of this third step is to provide an acceptable outlet for their expression of the original action, in this case the paper instead of the walls. You want to give the child an opportunity to exercise self-control, which also helps develop self-sufficiency.

An all important question parents frequently ask is, “When should I set limits?” Limits should be set only when the need arises. In other words, don’t go around indiscriminately saying to a child – “Don’t do this, don’t touch that!” There are four good reasons to set limits. The first is to protect your child from hurting him or herself or others. Secondly, a limit should be set in order to protect valuable property. You don’t want your child to break Aunt Maria’s most valuable crystal vase! The third is very important – you want to maintain your acceptance of your child. You won’t like them as much if they mark your walls with crayons or carelessly break Aunt Maria’s vase. The fourth reason is to provide consistency, which is something everyone wants and needs.
Once you adopt this method of limit setting, you will be less stressed and more effective as a parent. Here is one more suggestion. Before setting a limit ask yourself three things: “Is this limit necessary?” “Can I consistently enforce this limit?” and “If I don’t set a limit on this behavior, can I consistently allow this behavior and still accept my child?”

Remember, learning any new skill takes practice and must allow for making mistakes. You will make them! But, if you make a conscious effort to consistently practice limit setting with the A-C-T method, before you know it, you will be living in greater harmony with yourself and your child.


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