While there’s no one ‘right’ way to parent children, over time research has repeatedly found some ways that increase the likelihood of children developing well.
‘Authoritative’ parenting (sometimes known as ‘backbone’ or ‘tree’ parenting) provides children with clear limits, and expectations that they’ll be followed, plus high levels of warmth and nurturing. Both aspects are important. Limit setting is explained below, and there’s a separate topic on Love and warmth. You might like to watch this clip on the Raising Children in New Zealand website which is based on the concept of conscious parenting called Being the parent you want to be (external link)
What is limit setting?
Limit setting means clear limits that use reasoning to explain to the child.1 Clear, consistent limits add to a child’s sense of security.2 Security might include ‘We always put on our seatbelt to keep us safe in the car’. Keep explanations brief and simple, keeping in mind the age and development of the child.
Focus on the positive
These expectations work better when they focus on the acceptable behaviour (what parents want the child to do) rather than the unacceptable behaviour (what they don’t want to happen).3 This sometimes means ‘turning around’ what parents might be tempted to say — so rather than ‘Don’t draw on the walls!’, say ‘If you want to draw, you need to use this paper.’
Responding versus reacting
Parents need to ‘react’ to their child’s behaviour sometimes, especially where their child’s safety is at immediate risk. However, ‘responding’ with a mostly positive approach is likely to work better.4 This involves looking ahead and trying to prevent difficulties before they happen. It includes parents catching their child ‘doing things right’ and letting their child know this.5 For example, ‘It looks like Rufus is really enjoying your gentle patting.’
Supervising and monitoring children’s behaviour is an important part of limit setting, and helps to lessen unwanted behaviour.6 Other important aspects of maintaining limits and boundaries include:
- giving the reason for the rules
- reminding children of what’s expected (this needs to be repeated, often many times)
- helping them to see how their behaviour affects others7 — for example, ‘John was upset when you knocked over his blocks.’
Firm but fair limits, suited to the child’s age and abilities, work best.8 It’s important to check out what children are capable of at different ages — without this knowledge, sometimes parents can expect too much from their children.
For small children, the physical environment is an important part of establishing boundaries. Given their natural (and desirable) curiosity and drive to explore, parents must make sure the environment is safe, and that precious objects are well out of reach. Setting limits is an important way that children learn what behaviour is acceptable — both within their family and in the wider community.9
What limit setting isn’t
Helpful limits protect rather than control the child, and stay fairly consistent — not changing from day to day.2 However, limits shouldn’t prevent a child from doing something they’re capable of.
Similarly, a focus on obedience, strict rules with punitive discipline, and failure to explain the reasons for rules are associated with poorer child outcomes.10 So, too, is physical punishment, which doesn’t teach children about more appropriate alternative behaviour.11
Consistent parenting styles
When there are two parents (or other whānau) raising a child, it’s best if they have the same parenting goals — which is likely to involve discussion, negotiation and compromise from both parents and others who have a role in caring for the child. It’s best if these discussions happen away from the children.4
Ideally, both parents have an authoritative approach. However, when this isn’t the case, it seems that having one parent with this approach is still helpful, even if it means parents aren’t being consistent with each other.12
All parents bring different strengths and experiences to their parenting role. Sometimes these are helpful, and other times they hamper what their child actually needs. Some parents may worry that setting firm limits means their child won’t like them, whereas in fact, if such limits aren’t in place, a child may end up feeling more disrespectful towards their parents.13
While it doesn’t always feel comfortable to parents, it’s an important part of the parental role to set appropriate limits. ‘We can shower our children with affection and still explain and monitor the rules.’14 Children tend to feel more secure when they sense there’s an adult making the adult decisions. The link between love and limits is explained further in this Brainwave article (external link)
A parent’s own upbringing has a big influence on how they parent their own children. If a parent’s upbringing was punitive or very strict, they may promise never to be like that with their own children, and risk swinging to the opposite extreme13 by not providing enough limits to help their child learn. Or, they may parent in the same way they were parented15 — perhaps with too many or unrealistic expectations (see ) (external link) .
Children are likely to develop well when the limits and boundaries they experience:
- are consistent but not rigid
- are firm and fair, and appropriate for the child’s age and ability
- focus more on what the child should do, rather than what they shouldn’t
- occur in the context of loving, warm relationships.
This material is written for the Parenting Resource by Brainwave Trust Aotearoa.
- Baumrind (1973), cited by Kawabata, Y., Alink, L. R. A., Tseng, W.-L., van Ijzendoorn, M. H., & Crick, N. R. (2011). Maternal and paternal parenting styles associated with relational aggression in children and adolescents: A conceptual analysis and meta-analytic review. Developmental Review, 31, 240–278.
- Ginsburg, K. R., Ginsburg, I., & Ginsburg, T. (2015). Raising kids to thrive: Balancing love with expectations and protection with trust. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics
- Honig & Wiitmer (1991), cited by Smith, A. B. (2005). Effective discipline and supporting change. Wellington, New Zealand: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
- Brooks, R. H. (2013). The power of parenting. In S. Goldstein & R. H. Brooks (Eds.), Handbook of resilience in children (2nd ed., pp. 443–458). New York, NY: Springer.
- Brooks, R. H. (2013). The power of parenting. In S. Goldstein & R. H. Brooks (Eds.), Handbook of resilience in children (2nd ed., pp. 443–458). New York, NY: Springer. (p. 456)
- Barber, Stolz, & Olsen (2005), cited by Luyckx, K., Tildesley, E. A., Soenens, B., Andrews, J. A., Hampson, S. E., Peterson, M., & Duriez, B. (2011). Parenting and trajectories of children’s maladaptive behaviors: A 12-year prospective community study. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 40(3), 468–478.
- Kerr, D. C. R., Lopez, N. L., Olson, S. L., & Sameroff, A. J. (2004). Parental discipline and externalizing behavior problems in early childhood: The roles of moral regulation and child gender. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 32(4), 369–383.
- Baumrind, D., Larzelere, R. E., & Owens, E. B. (2010). Effects of preschool parents’ power assertive patterns and practices on adolescent development. Parenting: Science and Practice, 10(3), 157–201. doi: 10.1080/15295190903290790
- Siegel, D. J., & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York, NY: Penguin.
- Kawabata, Y., Alink, L. R. A., Tseng, W.-L., van Ijzendoorn, M. H., & Crick, N. R. (2011). Maternal and paternal parenting styles associated with relational aggression in children and adolescents: A conceptual analysis and meta-analytic review. Developmental Review, 31, 240–278.
- Gershoff (2002), cited by Kerr, D. C. R., Lopez, N. L., Olson, S. L., & Sameroff, A. J. (2004). Parental discipline and externalizing behavior problems in early childhood: The roles of moral regulation and child gender. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 32(4), 369–383.
- Steinberg, L. (2001). We know some things: Parent–adolescent relationships in retrospect and prospect. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 11(1), 1–19.
- Sunderland, M. (2006). The science of parenting. London, England: DK Publishing.
- Ginsburg, K. R., & Jablow, M. M. (2011). Building resilience in children and teens: Giving kids roots and wings (2nd ed.): Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics. (p. 280)
- Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent–child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182–191.