Professional Development: Why Children Need Limits
- Grades: PreK–K
All learning, even of limits and structure, begins with nurturing care from which children learn trust, warmth, intimacy, empathy, and attachment to those around them, Limits and structure begin with nurturance and caring because 90 percent of teaching children to internalize limits is based on children's desire to please those around them. Children want to please for different reasons: because they love their caregivers and want their approval and respect, or because they are afraid of being punished for misbehaving. Generally, they are motivated by a combination of the two.
Children who limit their aggression and "bad behavior" strictly out of fear are likely to behave themselves in situations where there is an authority figure present because that's who will dispense the punishment. Fear tends to be situation-specific. Many children don't generalize well from fear. For example, a child who learns to be scared about hitting a sibling may not hit the sibling when the parent is present, but she may hit other children at school because she hasn't been punished explicitly for hitting other children at school.
When discipline is seen as teaching and is conveyed with a great deal of empathy and nurturing care, children feel good when they comply. It is a warm, nourishing feeling to know that you are the gleam in someone's eye.
Internalized standards have a number of levels. They begin with feeling nurtured and cared for by others. They then evolve into both feeling nurtured and cared for by others and feeling respected. Respect leads to the development of inner goals and eventually inner values. Meeting these inner goals and values can lead a child to feel nurtured and good inside, even in the absence of authority figures. When such a system is in place and children or teenagers are guided by inner values and goals, they can be in a variety of situations and make wise judgments about the appropriateness of their behavior. They will be abiding not just by their parents, their teachers, or society in general, but by their own inner sense of values and goals. In contrast to fear-based limits, which tend to be situation-specific and concrete, internalized limits lead to a much broader, finely discriminated set of guidelines necessary for children to operate in our complex, multifaceted society.
Respecting Individual Differences
Children who feel unique and special are much more likely to develop a set of expectations for themselves regarding relationships and learning that will feel fulfilling and meaningful. If they feel as though they are carrying out someone else's agenda, it can lead to rebellion, or a sense of compliance, or just passivity. Children also need to feel the sense of pleasure that comes from mastery in the areas of life that are important, or will be important, to them. This sense of mastery does not wait until a person is a professional athlete or a Nobel Prize-winning scientist; it starts with the small steps involved in the learning process itself.
As we learn about the steps leading to different capacities, we are often able to tailor approaches to individual children so that more and more children can develop a sense of mastery. By working on children's actual competencies and developmental steps, we are able to help the child associate expectations with an assertive, mastery-oriented attitude. Such an approach also teaches children to tolerate frustration and to deal with loss and disappointment. By giving children a chance to master the tools of learning in all the areas of life, we foster an assertive attitude and an ability to pursue and fulfill expectations.