It Takes Strength to Do The Duty of Setting Limits for Children

Dear Dr. Fournier:

My son had a test coming up and he knew he had not studied for it. He also had a youth trip coming up. The right thing would have been to decide that he wasn’t going. But if I told him not to go, then I would have been the bad guy and he would have had a fit. I told him it was up to him to make the decision. Well, he went on the trip and failed the test. This is but one example.

How do you teach a child to make a good decision?

Stacy C.

Jackson, MS

Dear Stacy:

In my last article, the topic I covered dealt with logical consequences, and thus the reasoning for avoiding both punishments and rewards as motivational tactics when dealing with your child. When I read your question, I felt the need to continue discussing the concept, but by turning my attention to parents and their willingness to set and enforce parameters on their children.


Picture everyone’s life as a box, with the boundaries representing the rules that make up the limits of our rights.

The size of your box is usually determined by your age and proven level of responsibility. Obviously the box is bigger for some than for others, and at different moments in our lives the box can grow bigger or become smaller.

For example, a person who works and supports himself can decide which car he will buy – as long as that decision falls inside the limits of what he can afford. This box is defined, and the individual cannot break out of that box without suffering the economic consequences. This idea is commonly referred to as living within one’s means.

Children do not have the experience or wisdom to draw their own box. That is a parent’s job. I envision each parent drawing the lines with a bold black marker. As we set limits, we teach our children to respect their box and we give them the opportunity to make decisions that may expand the size of their box.

Many parents today have simply turned the marker over to their children to draw their own box.

When parents surrender parental responsibility, they send their children several messages:

e We do not have the strength to do the right thing and set limits because of the pain it might produce.

e We cannot follow our hearts because we are afraid of our children’s tantrum or negative reaction.

e We are afraid to make good decisions and instead prefer to let our children make bad ones “so it’s not our fault.”

When we give our children the marker to draw their own box, it should not surprise us that they will draw boundaries that are destructive to both them and to us. Allowing your son to go on the trip is not the wrong decision. What was the wrong decision was allowing him to go with unfinished learning still left to be absorbed.

The rule of logical consequences that I discussed last week applies in this situation. He may initially view this method as a punishment, because he is kept from attending an event that he wants to attend. However, what he will ultimately realize is that the only one preventing him from attending these extracurricular activities is himself, because he chose to procrastinate. When your son sees that whether he procrastinates or not, the work will still be completed, he will realize the futility of attempting to put it off. With this realization, he will be well on his way to ridding himself of the virus that is procrastination, and you will have avoided the temptation to resort to a system of punishments and rewards.


Let’s cut to the bottom line. Take back the marker and take responsibility for setting limits for your child. Help your child understand that you recognize his poor decisions and that you can foresee the consequences of other poor decisions he could still make. Don’t be afraid to spell these out as you state your case.

As you draw the box for your child, help him understand what each part signifies.

Inside the box is the freedom to do all that is permitted, given family values, the child’s age, and the degree of responsibility previously shown.

Close to the rim of the box is an area of caution for negotiable items that must be decided each time they are encountered. For example, whether a child can go to a party on any given night will be determined by family commitments and other relevant considerations.

Then there is the edge of the box. This represents the nonnegotiable, or what is not permissible for your child at the moment. This could include the type of movies your child is not permitted to see, not going past curfew, not smoking or drinking, or not socializing with children who have not gained your approval.

Non-negotiable rules set the boundaries of the box and let our children know that we are not afraid to parent.

Parents who have given their marker to their child must have tremendous strength to take it back – strength to make decisions they couldn’t make the first time, or to endure sometimes painful consequences.

Some parents may not be able to do this on their own and may need help through counseling, but the result is to make the parent a parent again, not an enemy or even a friend.