In parenting education, we use a lot of similar words to describe different ideas. Some parents use these words interchangeably, which redefines the words into what they may understand them to mean. For these reasons, it can be confusing when discussing the topic of parenting and effective discipline. For example, some people would equate limit-setting and discipline as the same. Not so!
What is limit-setting?
For clarity, it is helpful to discuss differences in terms we use for varied aspects of parenting. So, when we define, describe or gain a skill in parenting, we know exactly what is meant and how to use the concept or skill to encourage our children.
Two terms that can be easily confused are discipline and limit-setting.
Usually, limit-setting is used when a child is incapable of being responsible. It is when a parent needs to impose structure, when a parent creates a boundary or otherwise causes a child to comply. Because the child is not expected to have self-control, the parental authority provides the necessary control.
Contrary to the concept of limit-setting, discipline requires interactivity and involves teaching. In disciplining, there is an assumption that the child is capable of participating, that he or she has some degree of self-control, and therefore, can be held accountable.
Ages and stages of development help determine which is best to use
If we understand limit-setting as when an adult provides outward boundaries or restrictions for a child who is not yet mature enough to understand, we then can grasp why most children up to the age of three need limits. In this time of life, parents decide what their child is or is not allowed to do. So, when a young child is acting out, parents should typically create the necessary boundaries by changing the environment and moving the child to a safer location.
Discipline involves an attempt to teach or guide a child. To use discipline, we make two assumptions, 1) that the child is capable of understanding the expected behavior, and 2) there is hope that the child will soon be gaining more self-control.
I think all of us parents have had the exasperating experience of repeating our commands…like, “Don’t touch the glass!” Then, our two-year-old takes one finger and touches the glass or knocks it off the table. At two-years-old, the child probably cannot grasp what you mean. However, one year later, when the child is three, he or she may be able to listen and comply.
Being mindful of where the child is developmentally will help parents know how to respond. Sometimes a child may not be developmentally capable of some of the things a parent thinks he or she should. In this case, both parent and child are better served by simply setting limits so the child can be safe until he or she grows and is more capable of self-control.
Clear and mindful expectations
It can also be valuable for parents to be clear in the expectations they have both for themselves and their children as it is so important to the health and emotional and relational security of a child to have the structure that loving parents can provide. Limit-setting is that structure, and it also begins the lesson for children that as they grow, other limits will be placed on them–even as adults.
It is important to understand that both limit-setting and disciplining each have a place in the process of effective discipline. Both limit-setting and discipline are helpful, but remember to be intentional. Know when to use both skills as you explore what your child can understand.
Determine whether he or she is ready for discipline, or whether setting and enforcing boundaries must still be a constant process. These issues are great to discuss with your spouse and with a seasoned parenting educator.
It is quite a journey, but a delightful one, as we grow our children into responsible individuals.
Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
Some information taken from Preventing Violence through Effective Discipline, 2006, Diane Wagenhals. Licensed Materials. All rights reserved.