Trying To Set Limits For Your Child? Know Where To Draw The Line

As a parent, do you struggle with questions on where to draw the line when it comes to setting boundaries for your child? Are you being too strict or too lenient? Find out how to maintain a balance.

By Kavitha Shanmugam

Trying To Set Limits For Your Child? Know Where To Draw The Line

Seventeen-year-old Karun was keen on attending his friend’s late night party at a farmhouse in the city outskirts. His mother Sudha was uneasy and worried. “I knew there would be drinking and no adult supervision in the party. I did not want to disappoint my son either,” she confesses.

Sudha was torn between wanting to give her son freedom and her deep concern for his safety. She expressed her fears to her son and did not allow him to attend the party. Her friend, Benita, however, sent her teenage daughter to the same party in a car with a driver — on condition that the teen should return if things got out of control. Each parent handled the situation differently.

A fine balance

Neither parent was right or wrong. Yet they tussled with the same issue: How much freedom should be given to children? Sometimes, parents debate — Am I turning into a Tiger Mom (too strict) curbing my child’s sense of self ? Or, am I giving in too much? When do I stop hovering around my children like a ‘helicopter’, let them explore their own lives and make their own mistakes?

Take the case of a book editor and former teacher Indira Jayakrishnan who walks a fine line disciplining her son, 13-year-old Aditya. She resisted buying him a portable game console (PS 3) for a year, as she felt that such a toy did not merit ‘ridiculous’ investments. “I wondered whether I was too harsh with Aditya; he was under tremendous peer pressure’’, she says. The Jayakrishnans finally relented after he performed well in his final exams.

On a daily basis, as parents you end up grappling with various issues: how to stop your five-year-old from overeating chocolates; should you send your preteen daughter for sleepovers...so on and so forth. Usha Venkatesh, mother of a teenager, observes: “One may have to decide whether or not to allow a 12-year-old to open a Facebook account. A rational approach for the parent is to become her child’s friend on Facebook and keep a watchful eye without restricting her freedom to explore.” Counsellors, child development experts and parents admit that there is no formula to this balancing act. Each case is situational and each child has to be handled differently. Some broad guidelines exist, however.

Impose limits: To start with, the parents of today who want to be ‘liked’ by their children should stop feeling guilty about imposing ‘limits’ or boundaries: “Children need limits because it makes them feel better and secure when they live within a certain structure,” points out American developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg in a published interview.

Trying To Set Limits For Your Child? Know Where To Draw The Line

City family counsellor Brinda Jayaraman endorses this view. “As parents, make it clear to children the extent of freedom you wish to give them; why you are doing so and the consequences if a line is crossed. That is a balanced approach.” It is not something you can accomplish overnight in a dictatorial manner. Brinda speaks of Mina, a Chennai teenager and her mother, who came to her for counselling after communication between them had completely broken down. Mina used to spend hours chatting on Facebook even as her anxious mother tried to ferret out what was happening. Mina was chatting with a male classmate on Facebook and ended up sending him intimate messages from her phone. Her mother stumbled upon this and cut off Mina's access to the computer and phone. Mina was warned of dire consequences if she continued to talk to the boy. The frustrated girl withdrew and secluded herself.

At counselling sessions, Brinda explained to Mina that she had to respect her parents’ belief systems. The downside of an infatuation was laid out threadbare. Her freedom was removed because she had misused it and now she had to rebuild her parents’ trust. The mother was also made to understand that she had overreacted. Natural hormonal changes in teenagers could trigger such situations. After all, the daughter had obeyed her mother and not met the boy. This was reason enough for the mother to return her daughter’s freedom to her.

Give reasons for the limits: The mistake the mother made was to fly off the handle, without trying to meet her daughter halfway. Brinda Jayaraman says “Parents fail to patiently explain the logical outcome of their children’s actions to them.”

Empower children: Children should be made responsible for their actions and learn to think for themselves from an early age,” she adds. However, parents treat children like porcelain, do not let go, and end up frustrated when children do not toe their line. For example, a child should be made to face the outcome of not completing his homework instead of having a concerned mother nagging him all the way. “He will learn once he is chastened a couple of times at school,” advises Brinda. 

Indira, another mother, gives an example of letting go. Her son recently pestered her to allow him to cycle down to his friend’s house in the neighbourhood. He had to cross two crowded traffic signals and she was understandably anxious. He was stubborn and she allowed him. Indira reasoned with her husband that the boy had to learn from his own experience. She says, “My heart was in my mouth till he returned.” The episode ended well with the son confessing that the traffic had petrified him. He would be extremely cautious taking that road again!

Promote independent thinking: Aruna Raghavan, a respected child educationist, believes that a balanced approach to parenting involves questioning the child gently and helping him reason for himself what he should or should not have done. She gives the example of how to handle a 12-year-old butting into a serious conversation between adults. “Make the child understand that he has broken into a serious train of thought. Point out the effect of his thoughtless behaviour. Question him and help him arrive at the inappropriateness of his behaviour,” advises Aruna. “Children are smart and can think for themselves, even if they are kindergarteners,’’ she says. Once, when two little children were fighting with each other, Aruna told them to resolve their own battles. They did. “As adults, we tend to undermine their capability,” she says. “A child can become an independent thinker when he is given age-appropriate responsibilities,” suggests Brinda. Even at the age of two years, a child can be taught to keep his toys and shoes in place, once play time is over. Adults would find it easy to reason with children habituated to thinking and questioning within. In turn, parents should hear out their children. “Never pass a judgement or a scathing remark when children are arguing with you. You know things are going wrong when your voice is rising and your child is on the defensive,” says Indira.

Choose your battles: Parents have to give way when an issue does not have serious ramifications. “Sometimes my son will dress up in worn-out jeans and a drab shirt for a wedding but I don’t create a fuss”, says Indira, who knows when to let go. She got rid of her son’s habit of thumb sucking when he was a baby by explaining the consequences. “I would explain at night in bed that if he continued to suck his thumb, the spit would make it twisted and ugly. Would he like an ugly shaped thumb forever?” Soon after, he stopped that habit.

Parenting role: Another important aspect of balanced parenting is to make sure you do not lose yourself in your role as a parent. Usha points out, “A child has to see you beyond parenthood.’’ You need to nurture your intellectual side and your relationships with other people. “If the child believes that the sun shines only on him, he may turn out to be an attention seeker all his life,’’ she warns.

Trying To Set Limits For Your Child? Know Where To Draw The Line

Sometimes working parents end up neglecting their children altogether, leading to severe repercussions. Again, spouses need to share parenting responsibilities, even if one is not working. 

The cardinal rule is never to contradict your spouse when he or she is disciplining the child. Often, diametrically opposite parenting styles, like a strict father and a lenient mother may also balance it out for the child. However balanced you might be as a parent, you fail if you do not walk the talk. “You cannot berate your child for not reading, if you yourself do no reading at all," observes Aruna.

Often parents harp on scholastic achievements and forget to enjoy being with their children. “Children are not lumps of clay to be moulded; they are highly intelligent and sensitive beings. Treat them with respect,” adds Aruna. That’s true, isn’t it?

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