Setting limits during a seemingly limitless summer


Your 7-year-old misses his friends.

Your 12-year-old thinks 13 hours of screen time is an acceptable daily limit.

Your 16-year-old is pushing back on your family's quarantine rules.

Welcome to Summer 2020. Thank you, Coronavirus.

To be sure, parents who are doing their best to hold themselves together while continuing to adhere to the country's social-distancing guidelines are looking down the barrel of a long summer.

So what's to be done?


Well, a lot actually. But for the purpose of this blog I'm going to focus on one: Setting and upholding your summer limits in a heart-centered way. Because setting wishy-washy limits, upholding your limits inconsistently or harshly, or failing to set or uphold them at all have the power to turn your summer from a little challenging to a goddamn nightmare.

Whether you are setting bedtime routines, screen time limits, or quarantine guidelines, follow these tips, and you'll be golden.

1. Be sure your limits are reasonable.


Reasonable limits are those that are:

  • Age-appropriate: A 3-year-old requires 12 to 14 hours of sleep. A 10-year-old needs only 10 to 11.

  • Explainable: "Getting too little sleep is unhealthy for your body and your mind. We have to make sure you get enough to keep you healthy."

  • Stated in advance: "Bedtime is at 9 p.m., so you have one hour left to play."

  • Stated respectfully (as you would to a friend): "It's time to rest your body so you can sleep," versus "If you don't calm down and get in bed, you'll be in big trouble."

2. Be sure your limits are actually limits, and not just personal boundaries.

The heart-centered process for setting and upholding personal boundaries is different than it is for limits, so you've got to know which you're dealing with.

  • Limits are guidelines that parents impose on their children based on what the parent thinks is best. (Ex."My child is only allowed to swim with a lifeguard on duty.") Limits can be placed on adults, as well, of course; my city's requirement that residents wear masks in public is a limit placed on me.

  • Boundaries are personal guideposts that you set for yourself. They dictate what you are personally willing to do or tolerate. ("I am unwilling to be touched without my consent," or “I am unwilling to let people into my house without a mask.”) Both parents and children set boundaries.

Make sense?


3. Set as few limits as possible — and focus on health and safety.

Remember, you want to be out of a job by the time your child turns 18. That means making them responsible for their own lives little by little. An infant relies on us for everything, so their limits will be abundant. At 5, kids will have far less limits. At 10, even less.

But what limits, and how many, are appropriate for each age group? This is not a science, so there is no magic number. And your limits will differ from mine. That's okay! In fact, it's necessary. We have different lives and circumstances.

That said, to ensure you are setting as few limits as possible, always be questioning the limits you've set. (Or listen when children question it for you — they are so very good at this!) Be sure most of your limits are set around health ("My four-year-old will brush his teeth twice a day") and safety ("My seven-year-old will wear a bike helmet.")

4. Uphold the limits WITHOUT "logical consequences."

Yep, you heard me right. I said without. Some really great parents and psychologists and experts still advocate the use of logical consequences to uphold limits, but here's the truth: Parent-imposed consequences don't work. They don't teach. At best, they manipulate children into obedience. More often, they just make kids furious — which damages the parent-child relationship. You may see the consequences as "logical." (Kid won't get off the iPad, so the iPad goes away for the rest of the day.) But kids see them as mean. And the worst part: You are missing out on a great opportunity to teach your kid mature problem-solving skills.


Parent-imposed consequences don't work. They don't teach. At best, they manipulate children into obedience. More often, they just make kids furious.

4. Be willing to remind your child of the limits.

Your limits may be reasonable, but your child wont' always remember them, or want to remember them. Remember, they have kid brains. So be willing to kindly remind them of the rules. "Screen-free time started five minutes ago, buddy."

5. Talk kindly to the child who is pushing back.


I know, I know. “Talk kindly to the child” sounds like snowflake advice. Like something you'd do if you had — as my cousin once put it — "a strong sidecar of woo-woo." But, dude, trust me on this. No matter what kind of maddening stuff your kid is doing, he's not doing it because he's bad or spoiled or defiant. Or because he needs to be put in his place. Or because he needs to learn some respect for you.

If your child is pushing back, he is trying to get some underlying need met. (We cover all seven of the emotional needs in ParentShift, but in this case, my guess would be he trying to meet his need for play or power or both.)

Yes, those needs can come out in some truly unpleasant ways — but instead of losing your shit, do your level best to treat your child with the respect you would afford a friend. Like this:

  1. Slow down.

  2. Take a deep breath.

  3. Acknowledge the child's feelings.

  4. When the child feels "heard," ask an empowering question. (One that puts the child in charge of his own situation.)


Let's take an example.


You: Screen-free time started five minutes ago, buddy. (Reminding child of the limit) Child: I don't want to get off the screen! (Pushing back) You, taking a deep breath and joining him on the couch: It looks like you are so happy playing that game. I bet you’re mad I interrupted, huh? (Feeling acknowledgers) Child: Shush it, Mom! I'm trying to play this. (Pushing back) You: You're still playing, and it's time to start screen-free time. (Reminding child of the limit) Child: I'm not going to get off until I'm done with this game! (Pushing back) You: You are really frustrated that it's time to take a gaming break, aren't you? (Feeling acknowledger) Child: I don't have anything else to do! I'm bored! (Engaging you) You: Are you worried that you won't find anything as fun to do as this? (Feeling acknowledger) Child: Yeah. (Sign that he's feeling heard.) You: What can you do to make getting off the screen easier for you? (Empowering question)

At this point, most kids will begin to make peace with reality, find a path forward and eventually put the screen away. If that doesn’t happen, though, it just means the kid hasn’t been heard. Go back to the beginning: Slow down, deep breath, feeling acknowledgers.

6. Uphold the limits with mutual agreements.


Another option is to discuss the limits at a later time. Put a note on the fridge. (I did this all the time when Maxine would go through difficult periods, and I wasn’t in a mindset to “talk it out.”) Then sit down together when you and your child are both in a good mood, and make a mutual agreement.

(I’m sorry I don't have room to get into mutual agreements here, but ParentShift has truly wonderful advice about how to set really effective mutual agreements around limits.)

7. Don't ask 'why.'

Want to know why your child shirked her chores again? Don't ask. No, seriously. Don't ask. Kids don't know why they do stuff, or they often can't articulate it anyway. So asking them "why" they violated a limit is usually just asking for defensiveness, or even dishonesty. Skip the questioning, and just move on.


8. Expect that they'll work your last nerve sometimes.

It's probably a good idea to set some reasonable expectations. Maybe don't insist you kids have a "good attitude" or always treat you with "respect" this summer. They won't. And, let's be fair: You probably won't either. We're in a pandemic, and you're human, after all.

It's just good to remember that they are, too.


Idea for a post? Shoot me an email anytime at parentshiftbook@gmail.com.

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