Setting Appropriate Limits
Somewhere between the '50s, and the '70s, someone came up with the idea that it was wrong to tell a child "no". And even parents who know the need to do so now feel guilty for saying it!
Saying no is not harmful. It is a word that has a meaning. The meaning can be conveyed no other way! It is only damaging if it is always used in anger, or if it is used in a verbally abusive way (to criticize without regard to the child's feelings), or if the child never hears the word "yes" in their interactions with the parents.
We establish leadership during our children's infancy. That leadership must continue as the child becomes more capable of doing things, but is not yet aware of the implications of using their capabilities in certain ways. A two year old knows how to slip out of Mom's grasp and run across a parking lot. But any thinking parent will hasten to stop them because they know that the child does not know how dangerous it is. Setting boundaries, and giving a child reasonable limitations is not a shameful thing, quite the contrary, it is an evidence to the child that you love them enough to protect them, and wisdom in teaching them to protect and care for themselves responsibly.
Children feel secure when they feel that the parent provides a structure and boundary for their lives. They want to know that when they start to feel scared that they are overstepping the boundaries, that Mom or Dad will be there to help them if they should get into trouble. When a parent fails to set boundaries, a child cannot feel that the parent would protect them in dangerous situations.
It is necessary to begin to set limits verbally with a child as soon as they can move enough to grasp things that can harm them. We take it away, and sternly say, "NO". This is the most basic of concepts and language skills. The baby already knows when you are pleased with them, because you smile and congratulate them in a way that tells them unmistakably that they did something good. Telling them "no" is not a bad thing, it just starts the process of teaching them that they must control their own actions and learn that there are some things that they must not do. It must be said sternly, or the child will not understand that it is a correction, because they learn first by tone of voice.
At this age, many many sets of repetitions are needed to reinforce a concept. A baby will need to hear the word "no" perhaps a hundred times before they understand the wide scope - that it applies to anything that they must not do, and not just to one single item, and that there is a consequence that they do not like if they do it - it is appropriate to redirect a baby at this age, but eventually they become persistent, and you have to have a consequence that lets them know that something they don't like happens when they persist. The simplest thing to do is to take the hand that offended, and hold onto it firmly, for about ten seconds after the baby tries to get away, and repeat the word "no". You don't have to hurt them, just stop them from using their hand for long enough that they don't like it. This tells them, "the first time I say 'no' you must stop, because if I say 'no' a second time it will be while I am limiting your freedom". This is how a baby learns what verbal limitations are, and that they have real meaning.
We provide not only the boundaries and structure, we also set other limitations. When children ask for things, we have to decide whether the thing is in their best interest or not. Psychologically, giving a child too much is as harmful as neglect. Either course fails to teach a child that they are valued and capable, and either course can leave them ill equipped to handle problems later in life, leading to failure of relationships, lack of job responsibility, abuse as a parent, and worse.
Children need to learn that things are not the important feature of life. If they are given everything they ask for, they do not learn the value of material goods. Our family has certain things that Mom and Dad provide - food, housing, basic clothing, a bicycle, etc. And there are certain things that the kids have to earn for themselves – soda, replacement of items they damage (within reason), clothing that is over budget, bicycle tubes and repairs (we provide the bike, they are responsible for maintaining it), music CDs, games and toys just for themselves that are other than Birthday or Christmas presents. We provide for needs and growth, they provide for wants except for when we give gifts. We do this to help them learn to care for things, to learn the value of money, and to learn that special items require prioritizing your choices, and sometimes sacrifice. Our children generally have ample opportunities to earn money, so these requirements are not unreasonable. There are different ways to teach this, we choose to do it in this manner.
Giving kids time and taking interest in their lives is far more important than giving them things. If they don't have the most popular brand of clothing, or the latest toys, it teaches them to stand up to peer pressure and to think as an individual, rather than blindly following the crowd (I don't think parents should set their kids up for teasing by sending them to school in tacky clothing, but clean and neat but inexpensive clothing is no shame).
Popularity is not an important criteria in teaching a child to be self confident. Confidence does not come from popularity. In fact, quite the opposite can be true. A truly confident person knows they have value even when they are NOT popular. You cannot instill that in a child if you do not teach them that expensive clothing and expensive things are not an acceptable means of "buying popularity".
Children need to learn to cultivate good character traits such as kindness and consideration, and to come to understand that no matter how nice they are, some people will always dislike them. They further need to be taught that if someone wants you to compromise your principles as a condition of friendship, what they are offering is not friendship, but ownership. Giving in won't make you popular. It might make you appear to be for a short time, but it is not real. Real friendship is based on mutual respect, not on compliance or exterior appearances. Failing to teach them that will set them up to be either a manipulator, or to become a victim in an abusive relationship because they do not have the confidence to believe that they are worth enough to expect better out of a relationship.
Self esteem comes from doing what is right. Integrity is the real secret to self esteem, because it allows a person to feel that they can like THEMSELVES, even if others are offended by their stance. When we are honest with ourselves and others, and when we attempt to treat others with respect and kindness, without giving in on principles that we believe to be right, then unshakable self esteem develops which can help see a person through the worst of challenges. Instilling that in a child means loving them unconditionally, setting reasonable limits and consequences to their misbehaviors, teaching them to be as capable in work as they can be for their age and abilities, and teaching them to think of others. If children are given all that they want without being required to give anything in return, none of those things are learned, and what appears to be over-confidence, is really just arrogance. Arrogance admits no wrong because it does not know how to correct a fault in itself, and it is totally inconsiderate of others because it has never learned to think of anything but its own wants and desires.
The scene in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye is singing about being a rich man has always struck me as a bit of a reality check. This man wants a big house, a fat wife, some chickens, and the ability to worship God in a more restful way. And what he considers to be a big house is really quite humble by today's standards. It always makes me feel how blessed we really are that we fuss about eating too much, not about not having enough to eat. We worry about how to replace the television set if it breaks, not about how to figure out where to sleep tonight. Americans, by and large, are very pampered, and if our children are given everything, they will never clearly understand the blessings that they receive.
One of the harder things to learn in this world, and to teach children, is to be unselfish. Many parents feel that when they give their kids things, even when it hurts to do so, that they are demonstrating unselfishness and the child will learn by example. If it is something very important, this has some truth. But when you are just giving them things that have little long term importance, and giving them with no requirement for earning them, then the child learns to be selfish instead, because they never learn that what they want costs someone else something. As in all things, there must be balance, and a way of determining what is truly important, and what is not. Selflessness can better be learned by experiencing work, helping others, and making special things for people around you for whom it might make a difference.
Saying no with reason, and then sticking to it is very important. If your children are to learn to set limits in their own life, and to make good choices in the face of peer pressure, they will look first to your example of whether or not you abide by what you say. If you tell them they cannot have something, or do something, and then let them wear you down with begging, then that is the behavior they will learn to emulate. If you are in the right about your choice, then stick to it. If you are provided with further information which changes the options, then make sure you explain why you are changing your mind.
“No” is one of the more visible limits we place on children. If we wish them to be able to place that limit on themselves in the future, then we must provide a good example of wise limits, and firm decisions..