This week I read an article in the Health & Wellness section of the Wall Street Journal, titled, Badly Raised Kids? Sweden Has a Word for That. This article discussed a controversial book by Swedish psychiatrist David Eberhard (currently being translated to English) who is concerned that children have become the major decision-makers in many families, such as selecting the dinner menu, choice of TV programs and vacation destinations. He worries that Swedish parents’ hyper-sensitivity and unwillingness to discipline children in the early years may be harmful to their later social-emotional development. According to the Wall Street Journal article, Eberhard is concerned that Sweden’s child-friendly policies (e.g., long parental leave, state-funded infant child care, legal protection from spanking, and strict child welfare laws), may have created the grounds for an unwise transfer of power from parents to young children with dire consequences. Some think these policies may have also created a climate in which children do not learn empathy and respect for other people’s wishes. Apparently, the reactions to his book in Sweden have been 50% for versus 50% against.
Eberhard’s concern about Sweden’s children resonates with unanticipated outcomes of China’s One Child Policy, which according to a study published in Science “has produced significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals". Could be that public policies can relate to more permissive parenting? According to Diana Baumrind and other researchers, a “permissive”, or indulgent, parenting style may result in children who have difficulty with self-control, act defiant when they don’t get their way, and hesitate to accept responsibility.
The Swedish and Chinese examples remind me that when we convened family services practitioner focus groups to guide the development of the KIPS parenting assessment. The most common and emphatic message from these focus groups was that Setting Limits and Consequences was the most frequent and frustrating issue facing parents. Perhaps this is because we are all products of our own varied childrearing environments, as well as the competing advice of family, friends, professionals and current media. There’s quite a diversity of opinion about how to set limits and discipline children. That said, the commonly-accepted goal is to raise children who are safe, can self-regulate their behavior, can form and maintain social relationships and can function successfully at home, in school, and in the community. (To read more, see Parents, Kids, and Discipline.)
Anyone who has been driving and got lost can tell you that it can be a scary and disorienting experience. Without a map or GPS, it can be very difficult to find your way around. Limits and consequences are like a map or GPS for children. Many parents may not realize that setting limits and consequences for their children provide them with the structure and direction they need to navigate through life. Those boundaries and guidelines will help a child develop their abilities to be safe, direct themselves and learn responsibility.
Reasons for Setting Limits and Consequences
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has studied how early experiences contribute to the “Biodevelopmental Framework” for healthy development, whereas adverse experiences weaken that foundation. The three essential foundations for healthy development include 1) stable, responsive relationships, 2) a safe and supportive environment, and 3) healthy nutrition. All three of these essential factors are addressed by parents who set limits and consequences for their children.
Stable, Responsive Relationships are necessary for effective limits and consequences. When parents are consistent with their reactions to a child's behavior, it allows the child to feel secure in their relationship with their parents. The responsiveness and consistency of the parent builds a stable attachment and the child’s trust that their parent will support them and protect them. With a strong attachment and trust, limits and consequences gain maximum efficacy in guiding the child.
Safe and Supportive Environment – Parents who provide reasonable boundaries and rules, with consistent thoughtful consequences, give children the freedom to explore within safe boundaries. Children know that it is okay to take risks because their parents serve as a safety net to safely catch them if they go too far. That safe and supportive environment also gives them room to learn the fine lines between safe exploration and risky behaviors. It is through facing new experiences and addressing challenges that children learn, grow and gain confidence so they can eventually become independent.
Healthy Nutrition – Especially in the United States, where child obesity has reached epidemic proportions, limits and consequences are essential. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the last 30 years. Children have an innate, strong preference for sugar and salt, which makes the parent’s role of promoting healthy nutrition challenging. Beyond serving as good role models, parents of young children need to set the limits and boundaries, by preventing a child from unhealthy snacking, over-indulging, and developing poor eating habits. Parents need to be the driving force behind teaching children healthy eating habits that will affect the rest of their lives.
Assessing Parental Ability to Set Limits and Consequences
As you work with families, you have the opportunity to assess parents’ ability to set reasonable limits and consequences for their children. When observing a parent's interaction with his/her child, it is important to watch for times when a parent uses words or actions that change a child's behavior to keep the child or others safe, directs the child to appropriate use of toys, or teaches appropriate social behavior.
Some examples of parents' positive actions you can look for are:
A parent removing a toy that could be a choking hazard from a baby’s mouth and replacing it with a safe toy.
A parent explaining the results, if a child continues pulling a dog’s tail.
A parent offering the child a healthy alternative to candy for snacks.
Examples of parents who are struggling with setting appropriate limits and consequences may exhibit some of the following behaviors:
Yanking a toy away from the child impulsively or without explanation.
Threatening the child with unreasonable or unenforceable punishments.
Expecting the child to follow limits beyond their developmental level.
While every parent has occasional moments when they may set unreasonable limits (“You are not crossing the street alone until you are 18 years old”), extreme punishments (“I'm going to send you to your room for a year”), or offer extra treats (“OK, you can have another piece of birthday cake”). Within a strong relationship these inevitable ruptures are normally repaired. However, it is the consistent setting of limits and consequences that form the backbone of children’s worlds and teach them how to explore limits safely, as well as teach them self-control over their lives, including daily behaviors such as healthy eating, and relationship skills.
A parenting assessment can serve as a map or GPS, guiding parents on the path to improvement. As you work with families, you can help parents learn how to set thoughtful limits and consequences. Using a reliable assessment tool, such as KIPS, can guide you and the families you serve in accurately identifying areas of strengths and need. Once a need for improvement is identified, a parenting scale can document progress and serve as a guide to specific improvements that the parents can make. With an assessment tool, you can more readily help parents to raise safe, healthy children who engage in satisfying relationships.
What do you think? Do kids need limits? How should they be set? Don’t be shy; post your comments below.
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1. Documents evidence of parenting outcomes
2. Tailors services to individual parenting strengths and needs
3. Monitors progress and guides service planning
4. Reinforces parenting progress and confidence
5. Serves as a parenting check-up as children develop
6. Shifts staff focus from child to parent-child interactions
7. Offers a common language for staff , families and programs
8. Builds reflective practice during supervision
9. Informs continuous quality improvement for staff and program.