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Limits are Love

By Nicholas Chan, M.D., Rady Children’s Hospital, LJCDS wellness partner
Rady Children’s Hospital doctor reflects on parenting and enforcing rules lovingly.
I suspect that many of you, like myself, had your fill of parenting over the holiday break. With the children out of school, parenting around the clock was likely filled with joyous memories and bouts of physical and mental exhaustion. Now, as we try to return to our daily lives amid unanticipated quarantine and isolation disruptions, I hope that this article helps you and your family transition as smoothly as possible back to your routines.

Maintaining our family’s functioning requires us to enforce schedules and rules. This is no easy task. Enforcing limits is a taxing effort, followed by inevitable moans, groans and arguing. Sometimes we might ask ourselves if it is even worth the conflict. These are the times to remind yourself that limits are love. Unlike a big hug, this isn’t the sweet and heartwarming kind of love, but it is love nonetheless. You create and enforce rules and limits because you love your children. Hopefully, this subtle reframing of your views about discipline will help you persevere through a few more weeks until some form of normalcy has returned. 

The importance of setting expectations and rules lies in creating a system that allows family members to utilize their mental energy where it is needed most. Like physical energy, our cognitive abilities are a limited resource that can be exhausted each day. Whether it is to focus on a test, learn a new concept in class, or calm yourself during a disagreement, we use this reserve throughout the day.  

When routines and rules are set well, they can help us conserve our mental energy by removing the decisions we would have to make in their absence. For example, if a child knows that the bedtime routine always begins at 9 p.m., they can avoid deciding if they have time for one more video game or even thinking about how to justify to you the need for another round. Additionally, as routines are established, the behavior eventually becomes automatic and requires even less cognitive energy. This energy can then be utilized toward better focus, self-regulation (fewer tantrums), creativity, etc.

Consistency is an integral part of this process. Some practical tips to help establish these expectations include:

  • Setting achievable expectations at first, knowing they can be raised over time.
  • Utilizing positive reinforcement to try to ensure success on the first few attempts.
  • Focusing on one behavioral goal at a time.

Keep in mind that there is no perfect parent. My colleagues and I, who work with children daily in education, counseling and administration, know a lot about children and how to manage them. However, even with our experience and textbook knowledge, we are not perfect at raising our kids. Parenting, in general, is tough, but parenting during the pandemic is a great challenge. Give yourself credit. What’s important is that we strive to be good enough and aspire for excellence when our lives allow it.

As a community, we share in each other’s accomplishments, efforts and struggles. It takes a village to raise a child, and you are a part of the LJCDS village. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for help when needed.

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