How many times have you heard someone say that you should be setting clear limits for your child, as if this was the solution to most of the difficult problems that parents face? Many parents believe that if they aren’t setting limits, or they aren’t working effectively, that they are somehow failing.
There are at least 7 reasons why setting limits may not be ideal for your family.
- You may have a spirited or determined child who reacts strongly to having limits imposed on them. Some children are strong-willed by nature. They resist their parent’s attempts to control or limit them. This can lead to a great deal of yelling and fighting between parent and child and lingering bad feeling and resentment. No-one knows your child as well as you do. You will intuitively know if a top-down, parent-in-authority approach is not working well in your family.
- You may not enjoy the role of rule-maker or authority. Even though many of us were brought up to think that this was an essential part of being a parent, you may have other goals. You may want to be a parent who doesn’t try and control children with limits, consequences and boundaries. You may want to focus on respect and co-operation and finding solutions in partnership with your children.
- You may want your children to learn effective problem solving skills. If parents step in and set limits and rules there are missed opportunities for involving children in a problem solving process. When children are introduced to problem solving early in life they gain skills that they can apply throughout their lives. To show your children that there is always a way to find a win-win solution in any conflict is a very precious gift to give them.
- Some children appear to comply with limits but then act out in other ways. They may take their frustration out on a sibling or friend, or even start to harm themselves. There are many ways that children react to having power exercised over them and some of these can take years to surface. The fact is that most children hate to be restricted and controlled by their parents. There is a high probability that they will respond by lying, hoarding, sneaking or “acting out” at some stage.
- You may think that you love and accept your child while you set limits, but does your child see it this way? Whether a child feels unaccepted or unloved will be a determined by their personality, sensitivity and how many of their behaviours are deemed unacceptable by their parents. Do you want to take the risk that your child ends up feeling unloved when there are other, more peaceful ways of dealing with the issue?
- You may question the way that you were brought up and the values behind mainstream parenting. You may even be questioning your own ideas about how children “should behave” and traditional ideas about what behaviour is “right” and “wrong”. You may want to have a more heart-centred and intuitive relationship with your children that allows space for your child to explore, make mistakes and learn from them in a safe and supportive environment.
- Perhaps you simply don’t know what else to do. You may have resorted to setting limits because of your own frustration, resentment and overwhelm. Maybe you were feeling controlled by your child and that your own needs were not being met. You may have fallen into the trap of accepting behaviour that you really couldn’t handle. The good news is, it isn’t true that you have to opt for either setting limits or being overly permissive. There is another way.
Many parents want to reduce the number of limits they impose on their children. If limits and boundaries are dropped without thought being given to what will take their place, then chaos and confusion can result. It can be particularly confusing and unsettling for children if their parents oscillate between setting limits and allowing a free-for-all. That’s why I suggest the gradual introduction of a new, clear process for sorting out conflicts.
The process that we have adopted in our family is called creative problem solving. It is a process that takes the power struggle out of family life. It can be used to solve daily disagreements over things such as food, cleanliness and personal hygiene or more complex, chronic issues over screen time, bedtime, relationships with siblings or aggressive behaviour. The core principles of creative problem solving can be applied to an enormous range of situations.
Creative Problem Solving
Creative problem solving involves finding a solution to a conflict that everyone is happy with or can at least accept. The process involves everyone who is affected by the problem, including children, to help find the solution. Everybody is treated with respect and listened to. Nobody gets priority or special treatment. No threats, manipulation, punishment or bribery is used.
Every process of creative problem solving is unique. When the process is working at its best a creative solution will appear that is not limited by what has happened before. This is why I call it creative problem solving. It opens family life up to fresh inspiration and new ideas. I encourage you to give the process a try and see how effective it can be to promote harmony and peace in your family.
Creative problem solving works best if a number of conditions are in place.
Acceptance: If you have been struggling with your child over limits it can be helpful to pause and simply accept that you have a problem. Every single family has a few problems and most of them are not life-threatening. Acceptance allows you to take a break and step back from the issue for a bit. Good solutions don’t emerge from an energy of strife and exhaustion. Creative problem solving works wonders, but you have to relax a little first. Give it some time. It takes some practice.
No blame: Most parents have challenges with their children. You’re probably the same: you want to be treated with more respect, you think that some of your children’s behaviour is unacceptable and you’d like them to learn some better habits. Most parents are in the habit of thinking that their children are the problem and they speak in the language of blame and judgement. They complain that their child is rude, won’t listen or behaves badly. One of the biggest shifts necessary for creative problem solving is to see that if you are reacting to or complaining about your child then it’s you that have a problem.
One of the easiest ways of making the shift out of a culture of blame and judgement is to develop the habit of asking directly for what you want. For example, if you observe a pile of dirty clothes on the floor of your child’s room, instead of saying “You’re so messy! Your room is a pig sty!” try telling your child how you feel and make a request. That may sound something like this: “When I see dirty clothes on the floor of your room, I feel annoyed because I want our home to be nice and clean. Would you be willing to pick the clothes up and put them in the washing basket?”
This approach is both more kind and more honest. It also dramatically improves the chance that you will get what you want.
Someone to facilitate and listen to everybody: Creative problem solving can’t work unless everybody is heard and their point of view respected. In order that everybody gets to speak and to offer their solutions it’s necessary that someone facilitate the process and model good listening. This might as well be you. As family problems often involve intense emotions it is very helpful if someone is able to be the calm eye of the storm. Stepping into this role doesn’t mean you don’t get to have your say, but a little detachment goes a long way.
A willingness to think outside the box: Creative problem solving involves finding solutions that everybody is happy with or can at least accept. You are never going to get stuck with something you really don’t like. Having said that, the range of potential solutions opens up enormously if you are willing to question some of your own beliefs. So, for example, If you have been struggling with your child over the amount of time they spend playing video games you might have a strong belief that the gaming or “screen time” is harming them in some way. It might be time to look for some new perspectives on this issue. Is it possible that the conflict and strain on your relationship is harming your child more than the gaming? You may also want to seek out some new information about the benefits of gaming and the type of learning that happens when children play video games. The more you are willing to think outside the box the more likely you are to find the solution that restores harmony to your family.
An openness to intuitive guidance: Sometimes an intense mental focus makes a problem only seem more solid and real. It’s more effective to open yourself to receiving intuitive guidance. Set your intention to find a solution that everybody is happy with and then let your mind pull back. Aim for a very relaxed, trusting openness to ideas, gut feelings and inspiration from any source. In her book The Intuitive Spark, Sonia Choquette calls this fishing for solutions: “I focus on my heart, cast my mind into the universe like a fishing line, and ask it to catch an answer or idea for me.” If you are open to your intuition you will know when the solution is right. It’s a matter of finding your own truth in that moment.
When your family has found a solution that everyone accepts it’s good to check this. You could say Do we have a solution? Or Do we have an agreement? An agreement that arises out of trust, respect and equality can bring a great feeling of achievement to everyone involved. Each problem resolved, however minor, strengthens the skill and the empowerment of all family members. It is a process in which everyone learns more about themselves and what they want. Ultimately, the solution is not as important as the process itself. The shift from parent-imposed limits to equal participation in creative problem solving is worth making for its own sake. It changes the family dynamic in wonderful ways.
This is a process that can take some time for everyone to get used to. It can bring up fears that you won’t get what you want, or that it will take to long. It’s only when you have experienced the deep satisfaction of finding great solutions together that you will be convinced. Believed me, there will be no going back.
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Are you ready to learn more about creative problem solving and how you can use it in your family? I invite you to read my book Joyful Parenting. You may also like to explore one of my other offerings to support you in your parenting journey: