More About Limits

Years ago, at a conference on censorship, the discussion touched on the need to protect children from exposure to certain material – an even more pressing issue in today’s world of the internet and cable television. Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, reported that when she was growing up her mother censored Horatio Alger stories because the grammar was bad.

Mead went on to say that she used to read the prohibited material under the quilt at night with a flashlight. Her point was that children will always find a way to subvert adult rules, but that this was far different than a newsstand displaying magazines with sexual material on its covers that children passed on their way to school every day. The distinction she made was that in one instance a parent’s values are made clear, in the other society seemingly gives approval to those kinds of displays.

I thought of this in connection with the question of parents setting limits on children’s behavior. So often the issue becomes one of parental authority, concern about enforcing limits that have been set, how to do this and whether failure to do so will diminish parents’ authority.

Of course, the question becomes more intense when possible safety issues are involved. Little children who are bent on exploration will often reach for that which is beyond their grasp with limited understanding of the dangers parents perceive. Parents may have to intervene physically when young children’s limited impulse control makes attempts at verbal control inadequate.

The situation is more complicated when children get older and may rebel, disagreeing with the parental assessment of danger in what they want to do but are beyond the kind of physical control that was appropriate when small. Parents search for effective responses and often consider the threat of punishments as a means to limit behavior. When children seem undeterred by such threats the situation can escalate with full blown confrontation as a result.

A more familiar outcome often is parents setting limits on children’s wished for plans and children grudgingly seeming to accept the ground rules but then finding ways to circumvent the parental limits. A familiar example is a child being told to call home or return home at a certain time which then doesn’t happen, followed by a range of excuses such as the bus was late, my phone’s battery died, it wasn’t possible to call, etc. etc.

Children’s evasive behavior in response to parental limit setting is part of the normal process of growing up, spreading one’s wings and testing the parameters of independent functioning. Parents may find it hard to start letting go as children get older and children pushing back is part of a process that ultimately leads to independence. It is in this regard that Dr. Mead’s point is relevant.

Through this process children are learning parent’s values even when they seem to be ignoring them. While seeming to rebel, they nevertheless internalize the standards for behavior that are being set and hopefully, at some point those standards will become their own.

Not fully appreciated when children appear to be defiant, is that many times parents are saving children from themselves. Particularly in adolescence, young people can get caught up in a plan with peers about which they themselves feel some anxiety – an activity that seems a little threatening even to them. If parents disapprove and refuse necessary permission, the young person can vent his fury at a parent while feeling relief at being prevented from engaging in a somewhat scary course of action.

Parents can take heart in knowing that “mean” parents can mean safe children.