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Getting Rid Of Arbitrary Limits

My parenting style went through a lot of changes from the time we adopted our children to when we started unschooling. A lot of it stemmed from the fact that my children (I’m speaking about my two daughters only, not my son) have changed and my parenting needed to reflect those changes. During the first year of unschooling (in 2004) we let go of a lot of “rules” and “limits” and replaced it with respecting their choices, trust and freedom.

This is an exchange on one of the unschooling email lists I belong to and i thought it might be helpful to anyone who wanted to start loosening up their control. It’s between a new member, Ren & Joyce.

Member: If there are no limits what so ever, how do you keep your children from running out into the street? from jumping off a high building or a bridge? I’m thinking there has to be some limits? How will they learn they have to follow the rules to keep a job? or even to follow the law?

Ren: Not ONE post said “there are no limits”. What we’re advocating, is equal freedom for children that adults have. What we’re talking about is CHOICES and freedom, not no limits. LIFE has limits. Society has limits that actually make sense. If they don’t, I ignore them. Like the idea that children have to go to school to learn…that’s an idea (a limiting one) I choose to ignore.Smile

Why would a child WANT to jump off a high building or bridge? None of my children have ever wanted to harm themselves knowingly. If they’re too little to be aware of the dangers, it’s your job to keep them safe. That’s what they’d WANT you to do if they understood the potential for harm.

You’d keep an adult safe that was unaware of dangers, right? Providing safety is a parent’s job. Nobody is saying “no limits”. We ARE saying “rid yourself of ARBITRARY limits”. Arbitrary limits are there only because an adult chooses to impose their will on a child. They don’t necessarily make sense. If a limit makes sense then by all means, impose it!!

When I’m truly exhausted, truly needing some quiet and calm, there are limits to what I can assist my children with. That’s a real limit and children are pretty understanding about that if you’re generous with them.

When one of my children chooses to ignore personal boundaries and hit or otherwise try to harm someone, I stop them. There are a load of good reasons to limit a person from doing harmful things.

Public places have limits. If my children want to scream and run up the aisles at the grocery store, making other people miserable, there will be some creative problem solving to figure out ways to avoid that problem. I wouldn’t take my child to a restaurant and expect the other patrons to put up with whatever my child felt like imposing upon them. They have a right to peace also. One persons freedom ends where another begins….we need to honor other human beings space and sanity too. That will create natural limits.

Limits for real reasons that make sense….well, make sense. It’s our job to help our children figure out how to work with, and be creative or honor those limits. Limits that are decided for the child because the parent has a set of values that aren’t very flexible, aren’t helpful. The child can’t figure out their own balance, feel what THEIR body needs and learn in their own way if the parent decides
when they’ll sleep, what they’ll eat, when they should learn certain things.

Member: I also feel that realistically in life the majority of people have limitations, things they can and can’t do on the job, in public, etc.

Joyce: Is that a reason to impose more limitations? Kids will come up against gravity, appointments, rain, rules about running in grocery stores. Life is full of limitations. We can help them learn to deal with natural limitations by helping them deal with natural limitations. We don’t need — as school does! — to create artificial problems for kids to practice on. They get to try out the real stuff (while we’re there to keep them safe from onrushing buses and out of situations they aren’t ready to handle).

Member: But I have a different take on it, especially for young children. I view them as a safety box, if you will.

Joyce: You can view limits and safety that way. But it won’t help you see how helping kids get what they want — like not get hit by a car, not getting shocked by a knife put in an outlet– is different than putting a fence around them because of what you fear will happen.

Limits say “I don’t trust you. You’re not competent enough.” For many kids that’s a challenge! They want to test themselves even against things they wouldn’t want to try. When the world is divided between what you can and can’t do, it’s natural to want to test yourself on what others believe you aren’t capable of handling.

But when the world is divided between what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy, there isn’t a reason to do the things you don’t enjoy. Life is risky. But we can be there with them to keep them from imminent death, to help them figure out situations as they arise.That’s how people learn

Principles work a lot better. If the principle is safety and a child knows mom will help them do what they want, there isn’t a reason to try to sneak to do something risky. When they’re younger, of course,we can’t depend on them understanding the consequences of every choice. Our presence is what’s needed then, not rules and limits as a substitute for our presence.

**originally posted 12/06**

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