by Allan Shedlin
Dad, Granddad, and Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group
Close your eyes and picture yourself driving across a very tall bridge such as the Golden Gate or George Washington Bridge. Really picture it.
Now imagine how you would feel if the protective guardrails were suddenly removed. I’ll bet that when the railings were in place, you felt safer and more comfortable proceeding to your destination.
When limits are consistently and clearly in place, they provide a sense of freedom that doesn’t exist when boundaries are unclear, inconsistent, or nonexistent. On the other hand, when there is a freedom from limits, children (and adults too) often test what the boundaries are in order to discover where the limits are.
During the current pandemic – and leading up to it – we have been living in a country where limits seem to be in a constant state of flux, and those nominally in charge, seem regularly in disagreement about whether there should be limits at all. The concomitant uncertainty makes this a time when “worry” often seems like an understatement and when the ambulance sirens we hear sometimes feel like they are coming from inside our head.
After conducting 28 daddying focus groups with more than 160 children (5-21 years old) in three countries, and halfway through more than 190 individual daddying interviews with fathers and grandfathers (16-104 years old) from 20 countries, one of the many things I learned is that the area most likely to be a parenting clashpoint is establishing limits.
As Hannah, a 14-year-old in Connecticut, told me during her discussion group, “It’s my parents’ job to set the limits, and it’s my job to challenge them.”
The goal of establishing limits with our children is not to control them, but to help them learn to control themselves. Hank, an 11-year-old in Michigan, put it another way: “I need my dad to make it clear what the rules are and what his expectations are – kids need to know the parameters.”
Parents, however, often view setting limits and establishing rules as sources of conflict with their children rather than as valuable tools to minimize conflict and demonstrate parental concern and protection.
The good news is that kids "get it," and parents have no need to fear.
When talking about how his dad enforces limits, Mario, an 8-year-old in New Mexico, told me, “He needs to be strict for my sake, not just ‘cause he wants to show who’s boss.”
During these covidious times, when the world sometimes feels like it’s coming apart at the seams, it is well for us to remember there is a big difference between freedom of limits and freedom from limits.
If there is any doubt, we can just listen to the children.
Order a copy of The Freedom of Limits
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, a “bonus” son, five grandchildren, and three “bonus” grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, policy development, and advising. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, and now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up!programs. He earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D the most important “degree” of all.