Setting limits while “Raising the Bar”

Dr. Haim G. Ginott in Between Parent and Child, Three Rivers Press, New York, N.Y., 2003 provides an excellent starting point for setting limits by grouping behaviour into three zones of discipline:

  1. Encouraged: behaviour that is wanted and sanctioned;
  2. Allowed: behaviour that is not sanctioned but tolerated for specific reasons such as: leeway for learners, leeway for hard times; and
  3. Forbidden: behaviour that cannot ever be tolerated at all and must be stopped

Before using Ginott’s zones of discipline to establish limits. let’s step back and review what parents want for their children. Many blogs ago “Parents with Purpose“ enumerated several objectives that parents have for their children. Some of these desires are too general to be of practical use. For example, “to be happy, successful, and feel good about themselves“ need to be more specific about the behaviours that will cause these effects. And so the list of expectations gets longer, more specific and includes behaviours and attitudes such as:

  • to be a good person, or, more specifically, to have an awareness of what constitutes appropriate behaviour; to have a sense of right and wrong;
  • to be independent,
  • to always try to be the best they can be,
  • to be true to themselves, first,
  • to be reliable and responsible,
  • to be respectful of themselves and others,
  • to be loving, demonstrating a capacity for warmth and intimacy,
  • to never give up.

Stanley Greenspan, in Building Healthy Minds, Perseus Books, Cambridge, Mass., 1999 suggests that many parents and educators are searching for ways to “raise the bar“, or their expectations as well as their children’s. They are hoping to maximize their children’s potential, without undermining their emotional vitality and well-being. Limits must be stated in a manner that is deliberately calculated to minimize resentment, and to save self-respect.

Greenspan introduces additional items for our list, such as hoping that our children will:

  • become able learners who can master academic challenges,
    become curious about the world,
  • enjoy many rich and rewarding relationships,
  • be able to make wise judgements in unfamiliar situations.
  • be flexible, and
  • be creative.

Each new expert or author includes more new characteristics or traits that are desirable and admirable in our children. Consider the following quote from Martin E. P. Seligman, The Optimistic Child, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1996

“We need more for our children than healthy bodies. We want our children to have lives filled with friendship and love and high deeds. We want them to be eager to learn and to be willing to confront challenges. We want our children to be grateful for what they receive from us, and to be proud of their own accomplishments. We want them to grow up with confidence in the future, a love of adventure, a sense of justice, an courage enough to act on that sense of justice. We want them to be resilient in the face of setbacks and failures that growing up always brings.”

Seligman new items are that our children should be:


  • grateful,
  • just,
  • courageous, and
  • resilient.

Is there no end to the laundry list of desirable and admirable behaviour? Maybe not, since humanity is unbelievably complex.


So what are parents to do? We need to simplify the complexity. This long list of behaviours, attitudes, and qualities can be simply called “character”. The first step is to recognize that, as parents, our role with our children is to help develop their “character“.

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