As children grow and develop, changes in parent-child interactions and limits are also natural and healthy. These changes help prepare children to live as independent adults. Not only that, they are necessary if the parent-child relationship is to remain healthy in the teen years.
As catechists, one of the things we can do to help parents is to educate them on ways these changes can and should take place. Changes in parent-child interactions around limits naturally occur in two ways. First, there are changes in the ways in which limits are communicated to children. Likewise, there are changes in the rules themselves.
Changes in the quality of limit setting occur as a natural response to the child’s development of moral reasoning. Younger school-age children tend to make moral decisions based on either the immediate consequences to them or their desire to please adults. They are generally interested in doing things that will bring them instant gratification or things that will lead others to think of them as a “good girl” or “good boy.” Knowing this, we can see the need with this age group to clearly communicate consequences and to make them as immediate as possible. We can also see the value of clearly and succinctly communicating our approval or disapproval of the child’s behavior. Excessive discussion about why something is or isn’t allowed is often unnecessary and even frustrating.
As children get older, they become more aware of how their behavior affects others and more able to understand and internalize moral principles. Preteens and teens often learn a great deal from reasoning about the rules with their parents, but they are inclined to rebel if they feel like they haven’t had their say or if they do not understand the reasoning behind the limits that are set. This is an ideal time for problem solving together – discussing the parameters, then cooperatively arriving at a solution. Far from making a parent appear wishy-washy or ineffective, this approach, when used correctly, can elicit cooperation from the preteen or teen even when he or she does not agree with the parent. It also maintains the parent’s credibility in the face of the child’s growing sense of individual identity.
As children grow and become more autonomous, it is important that we help parents understand how to separate their own preferences for their children from the vital principles they will need as adults. We can help them focus their energy on what they are most concerned about passing on to our children. Rules related to safety and higher moral principles take precedence, while we might give children more freedom about other issues, even if we know they will make different choices than we would make for them.
When parents take this approach, they send a message that they respect their children as individuals, but when they set a limit, it’s for good reason. Doing this also prepares our children for adulthood by giving them opportunities to make mistakes in small matters while they still have our immediate support. They have opportunities to grow in their decision-making skills and are better able to handle everyday decisions when we are not there to guide”
Knowing which limits to set and how to set them is not always easy. A good rule of thumb is “flexibility within limits.” One of the greatest things we can help parents with is to encourage them to be aware of what is most important to them, and what matters may be negotiable.
Joseph D. White, Ph.D., works as a director of religious education and family therapist in a parish in Texas.