The Core Emotional Need for Reasonable Limits can be defined as giving our children a sense of right and wrong, a sense of boundaries, and the tools they need to get along in the world and work well with others. Children whose core emotional need for reasonable limits has been met naturally develop traits and beliefs such as reciprocity, fairness & equality, self-control & self-discipline, and a sense of mutuality.1 In addition, they will consistently and on an emotional level believe the following messages about their parents:
They challenge me in a respectful way when my behavior and words are out of line.
They encourage me to persevere with tasks that I find frustrating.
They guide me to consider multiple factors in order to avoid rash decisions.
They don’t always let me have my own way; they say “No” when it’s best for me.
They expect me to be responsible and contribute to the well-being of our home, such as by doing chores.
They expect me to be wise when choosing my closest friends, and to be able to say “No” to some of my friends when the need arises.
Carly’s parents were not financially well off but they worked hard and looked forward to the birth of their first child. When baby Carly was born, her parents talked of nothing else. Other siblings followed, but to her parents, she was always special—the smartest, prettiest, the most talented. As all the children got older, the parents’ favoritism became more blatant—when the other children got a toy, Carly got two; if her siblings got a single scoop ice cream cone, Carly got a double. The other children had set bedtimes with no television on school nights, Carly was allowed to stay up to watch TV as late as she wanted. Naturally gifted, she didn’t have to work hard to stand out in class, and she was easily accepted into several universities. However, out on her own, success did not come so easily—after being dumped by her boyfriend, she could not get out of bed to take some important exams. Carly managed to get hired after graduation, but quit due to boredom, and drifted from job to job, falling for “get rich quick” schemes along the way. She cheated on her husband who then left her, and was fired from her last job. Carly declared bankruptcy and now lives alone, bitter about how life has been unfair to her.
Peter was born into a wealthy family, surrounded by hired help. He had a nanny, a chauffeur, a cook, and a nurse to make sure he always had everything he wanted. The moment he cried, someone was there to offer him a cookie. The second he fell down, someone was there to coddle him. If he did not like his kindergarten, he was moved immediately. If he wanted the latest toy or a new pair of shoes like the ones he saw on television, he got them. Peter never heard the word “no” and never experienced frustration. He became an insufferable bully on the playground, a shallow friend to the other kids at school, and an obnoxious older brother. The rest of the world wouldn’t put up with his nonsense, and eventually, when faced with some challenges at his first place of employment, he attempted suicide. After a stint in a psychiatric ward, he was able to get another good job, but so far he has never had the discipline or follow-through to have another serious relationship or move up the corporate ladder.
Carly and Peter may have been from different socioeconomic backgrounds and raised in different countries, but they had the same kind of parenting—their need for reasonable limits was not met when they were growing up.
Everyone Needs Boundaries
Limits and boundaries provide markers and guides so that children know what is acceptable and what is not. In a very real way, both children and adults need boundaries to live in a world with others. Of course, every family is different—some parents are comfortable with loud voices, messiness and spontaneity, others will more naturally opt for “inside voices”, keeping the house tidy, having a strict schedule, etc. The important thing is that parents should have conviction about their personal values, and their boundaries and limits should reflect their beliefs consistently.
There is no one in the world who likes to be around smart-alecky, whining, ungrateful children. Dr. Phil, an American TV talk-show host and self-help guru, says that kids without limits become entitled. Instead of feeling guilty for giving children boundaries, Dr. Phil says, “If you want to feel guilty, feel guilty for not teaching them to understand how the world works, that everyone goes on green and stops on red.”2 Psychoanalyst Dr. Ruth Sharon co-authored the book I Refuse To Raise A Brat. She says when it comes to helping people have breakthroughs in therapy, the most difficult clients are not those who have been disadvantaged and abused; rather those who as children were pampered, over-indulged, and spoiled.3 Every day on the news we witness the fallout from the rise in entitlement—not mentioning any names, but more than a few famous athletes, entertainers and politicians could have done with some reasonable limits when they were growing up!
Meeting this core emotional need by teaching our children limits and expecting them to live within these limits is a very loving thing to do as a parent. Children are not born programmed to learn to follow rules and to respect limits. In fact it is the other way round—they are born without any knowledge of limits and rules. Children come into the world thinking that they are the centers of the universe. They love to explore, investigate and test the world, which seems colorful, fun and inviting. However, at what point is it fine (or even safe) for them to “explore” without consequences? When is it not wise to do so? Modern culture is confused on this point—society mocks limits and sees restricting children as old fashioned and cruel; those with more common sense do want to set boundaries but seem at a loss as to how to do so. Children are certainly not going to learn reasonable and healthy limits on their own; the only way parents can make sure they learn is by meeting this core emotional need.
Just as important as ensuring that they convey limits is how they convey them. On the one hand, parents must take care to meet this need in a respectful and healthy way, lest they end up causing frustration and exasperation. (When parents correct their children with harsh and disrespectful words, it leads to exasperation. This complicates the process of learning and awareness because the exasperation is separate and apart from the original act of misbehavior and lead to resentment and rebellion in the adolescent years.) On the other hand, not conveying reasonable limits with appropriate seriousness brings problems of its own. Whatever happens, our children need limits if they are to become healthy adults—children who are not able to follow simple rules, be it in the classroom, in public, or at home, will face huge problems in life. They will cause burdens for others as well as bring heartache to the people who love them the most.
The Benefits of Self-Control
Ancient wisdom literature contains many references about discipline and self-control, and modern research concurs that we are better off when we practice curbing our appetites. A study out of Stanford University in 1972 found that “. . . young children who were able to resist grabbing a fluffy marshmallow placed in front of them for 15 long minutes in order to get two of them later scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT [an entrance exam for American universities which the kids took 12 years later] than kids who could not wait. About one third of the four to six year-olds studied were able to withstand the sweet temptation. Follow-up was done 18 years later, and the kids with more self-control in the marshmallow trial had better life outcomes across the board.”4 A more recent study reveals that self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than intellectual talent, and contributes more than “IQ” to positive report-card grades, standardized achievement-test scores, and school attendance5 (RR12.1).
Parents often vacillate from one extreme to another. Some are very strict and rigid, while others are permissive. Many also have a mixture of both styles. As a result, mixed signals are sent and both parents and children enter into a “Vortex of Conflict Escalation” where they trigger and re-trigger one another (see Chapter Fourteen). When this gets repeated multiple times, many parents end up losing their patience and resorting to exasperation interactions, throwing their arms up and giving up altogether, or tightening the screws and mandating strict obedience regardless of the state of their relationship, only to see animosity and a loss of connection down the road.
Our children were both fairly strong-willed and opinionated, so it is no surprise that we had to start saying “No” early on in their lives. We doubted ourselves as young parents do, wondering if we were being too strict at times. But we noticed a difference whenever we got soft and backed down from boundaries—chaos reigned, and the kids did not seem any happier for it! Limits and boundaries give children security and comfort because they know what to expect. They may try to fight them; they may even temporarily “hate their parents”, but they are secretly grateful. (And when they get older, they will tell you so!) Dr. Gary Solomon calls it “CPR”: parents who are consistent, predictable and reliable are more likely to produce children with good mental health.6
Limits help kids to see that, contrary to every fiber of their young beings, the world does not revolve around them and they must respect others if they want respect. Limits are a way of teaching children how to live out “The Golden Rule”—to treat others as they would like to be treated. Unfortunately this does not fit the direction the world is moving. The enlightening book, Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism reports that entitlement is widespread and that an ever-increasing percentage of Americans are narcissistic!7
One caveat—when parents are helping children follow limits, they must ensure their children are not just obeying out of “approval seeking” but that their children genuinely understand the limits and why they are important. This will help them understand “why”, which enables them to eventually adopt the parents’ values as they grow, and to fully benefit from having this core emotional need met.