When a puddle turns into a mud bath

A four-year-old boy obtained permission from his father to wade in a driveway mud puddle. After a few moments, however, the boy returned to the house with mud on his pants, his hands, and his face. ``I gave him an inch -- and he took a mile,'' the father thought as he began cleaning his little boy.

Through the course of daily parent and child interaction, we find there are many occasions where we need to set limits with our children, or as in the case above, we experience situations in which we defined no clear-cut limits and later wished we had.

In our own home we've found that children respond well to routines, rules, and limits set by us, especially when we are consistent with them. The following thoughts might help other parents deal with setting limits for children.

Explain why you're setting a limit. Most children don't reason to themselves or try to figure out the necessity of a rule. Our boys have a hard time remembering not to jump on the couch, but when the rule is explained, they agree that such an action could damage a couch that the entire family needs. It's wise to remember, too, that some limits and explanations need repeating from time to time.

Prepare the setting. With young children in particular, parents can help children abide by limitations with a little preparation. The antique vase can be set out of a child's reach, or at snack time each child can be given one cookie instead of setting the entire cookie jar on the table. Even mud puddles can be enjoyed with proper clothing and supervision.

Be sure children comprehend. Ask children if they understand the restriction just discussed. If they exhibit doubts, try explaining it again, perhaps using a simpler vocabulary. It helps to have them repeat the information in their own words.

Make use of audible signals. Often children will respond more readily to an audible signal than they will to a parent's voice. Getting our three-year-old out of the bathtub is always a challenge, but when told he has five more minutes until the oven timer rings, he comes out willingly, perhaps because a buzzer is something he can't argue with.

Talk less -- act more. After one or two reminders to children, parents often can be more effective by physically moving themselves into the area and dealing with the problem there. This creates more physical exertion for parents, but it also generates a sense of immediacy and importance in children's eyes.

Keep an open mind for revision. Sometimes parents set unreasonable limits without intending to. One grade school child insisted he didn't need as much sleep every night, so the mother agreed to chart his disposition for a week with a later bedtime. She discovered he was right, and they were both satisfied to make the amendment.

Be fair with limits. Children at various developmental levels can often require different limitations. It might be fair to expect all children in the family to swim inside the ropes at the beach. However, expecting older children to wear life preservers may not be necessary if they are properly supervised.

Trust children. Once limits have been set and children know where they stand, it's time for parents to step back and show trust in their children. Gradually loosening our rigid surveillance as children mature is a difficult task. But this is a necessary step if we expect them to someday become responsible, self-reliant adults.

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