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Episode 20

How to set limits on screens, sugar, and all the other stuff!

February 28, 2022

[Kyle]: Hello and welcome to episode 20 of The Art of Raising Humans podcast. I’m Kyle.

[Sara]: And I'm Sara.

[Kyle]: And today, Sara, we're going to talk about a big topic that we get asked a lot about, okay? We're going to talk about how to set limits with kids when it comes to screens, sugar.

[Sara]: Anything [Laughter]

[Kyle]: Anything, what else?

[Sara]: Those are really hard; those are tough ones.

[Kyle]: Because this is a constant source of power struggles in a lot of homes is, people-- The kids and the parents are constantly butting heads about these, I pick screens and sugar, but there could be other things, right? As you get in the teenage years, there's a lot of other things like homework, like even some kids when it comes to pot or other things like that, you know?

[Sara]: How long they can go out and stay out later, do what they want to do.

[Kyle]: Exactly, yes, curfew, chores, all of these, yeah.

[Sara]: Those things increase as they grow up.

[Kyle]: Exactly, yes. So, in this episode what we want to do is, I want to give you a different wording. I want to help change the verbage from setting rules and trying to figure out just the perfect rule, to talking about how is it different when you set limits or set boundaries with the kids. Why is that important? Is it just a change in vocabulary or is there really something that is transformational in that approach? I think it is and that's why I don't use the word rules, I instead want to help parents set limits and boundaries.

[Kyle]: Okay. So, let's start there, what is the difference between a rule and boundary for you, Sara? Why would you use that word?

[Sara]: Yeah. So, I think when you and I think about it and I feel like this is so pretty universal or at least, in our world of where you see rule, is something that's just been imposed upon you, right?

[Kyle]: And you had no say in it.

[Sara]: Yeah. There's a lot of laws, right? The government lays down laws, it's not like I get to go and say “I’m gonna take these five laws, but I don't really agree with these five laws”. So, rules are-- I think are similar, there's rules at the classroom and rules at our house and there's these things this outside person came in and said “this is what you get to do and there's no discussion about it, there's no collaborating on it, this is just here it is, here's the rules and laws of the land”.

[Kyle]: And typically, whether it's meant to be perceived this way or not, it's typically presented and received as “these are put in place to keep you from doing bad things”, you know?

[Kyle]: So, we're going to set a rule and that rule, if you keep it, will make you a good person, you know? That's the inference.

[Sara]: That’s the underline, yes, that is the current, right? We do these things as “this is good, this is bad”. The rule follower, the keeping of the laws that says “now we've got you in the good category, if you're breaking the rules, where do you go? The bad category” [Laughter]

[Kyle]: Yes, yeah. If you're speeding, then you've done something bad. If you keep the speed limit, you are now good, yeah?

[Sara]: And often linked with punishments and consequences.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah. So, lots of times whether parents intend to send that message or not, I think sometimes they are sending that message, you know? I mean, I think they do intend to, but sometimes they don't even know they are doing that, but the kid perceives the message from the parent is, because kids are in general in these moments seeing it kind of black and white, especially when they're little, but even into the teenagers, they do it, they see it as “you are telling me how to stop me from being bad, because of course, that's probably what I would want to do, I’d probably want to go do that”, you know? So, we're going to set a rule, we're going to make a rule, typically this is the result of something that's happened and the parent doesn't want that to happen again. So, we're going to make a rule that says you can't do that thing anymore, right?

[Kyle]: And so, I think I was a great kid [Laughter] I really didn't do a lot of things, but if someone did that for me and I think it resonates with the kids I see at the counseling practice, it feels like-- Okay, either one of two things, either “okay, this is how to please you and how to become, you know, accepted and loved by you, if I just follow the rules” and you'll see kids get really anxious about that like, “got to follow the rules, got to know the rule, got to know what the rules are, so I become a good kid” or the other kid says “I’ll find a way around that”, you know? So, I don't know how many teenagers I’ve had in session who had burner phones, who parents took away one phone, because the rule was X, Y and Z, and the kid knew “if they take my phone, I got a backup phone”, you know? Or you got to be on this time of night, so the kid says “cool, I’ll come in at that time of night and then I’ll sneak out later when you're sleeping, because then you don't know”, you know? And what you don't know, can't now make me bad or good, right?

[Kyle]: So, instead, I stuck with the rule, you think I’m good, but I just did the bad thing, you know? So, it becomes this kind of game of either you follow the rule and you please me, you don't follow the rule because you're trying to get around, you know, being controlled by the rule.

[Sara]: Yeah, I think you see kids sneak, you know, they lay low and just sneak or sometimes you have the kid who just challenges and said “oh, you're going to give me a rule? I’m going to break that rule”, you know? “Don't do that” and then they go and do it and otherwise, yeah, I would say the flip side of that same is “look at me, I’m this great kid. I’m good, I am lovable, I can love myself and feel good about me and you love me and feel good about me”, but it's not this internal, right? It's just, I’m jumping through all the hoops and following the rules.

[Kyle]: Well, we won't get into this today, but you typically see that in families, where you'll have one kid who is considered the perfect kid, the golden child, the responsible kid who's learned the rules and is following all of them and the other kid says “huh, that's already taken. So, I don't want to be just like them, I think there is something unique about me and the only way to show that is by going against the rules”, you know? And so, you'll see a lot of times in siblings, when you set up rules like this and believe that rules actually control behavior, then you have these kinds of dynamics that happen, you know?

[Sara]: I think this is the theme of a lot of movies [Laughter]

[Kyle]: That's right, yes! [Laughter]

[Sara]: You know, even Grease and these really big-time movies, if you look is like “oh, that's what that movie was about”.

[Kyle]: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, I want to change the wording. So, what does it mean to set limits about-- Let's say-- If we're saying “let's move away from setting rules as a way to control behavior” and I love how Dr. Becky Bailey says this, she says “rules do not govern behavior, relationships govern behavior”. So, you can set all the rules you want, but if you have no relationship with that person, it doesn't govern behavior. So, I want to go back to the relationship and then use the relationship as a way to discuss limits and boundaries. So, what's the difference if I’m setting a boundary or a limit with a kid?

[Sara]: Well, yeah. I mean, in some ways, they're just words, right? But when we're talking limits and boundaries, it's not something I’m imposing upon a child, I’m not just hammering the list of rules to the wall, the list of boundaries and limits, but it's something that is done with the child and the child's interest and honestly, even if that's just my heart when I’m approaching the child with “oh, I love you, I’m going to take care of you, we have this relationship and I know this thing could harm you. So, let's create some boundaries around this”. That's sort of the approach, the attitude I have when I’m-- When this is my mindset, I’m approaching the child with some things that are going to guide their behavior, are going to put limits on what they can and cannot do and it's from-- It's just the intent, the coming out the child is different.

[Kyle]: Well, I would say what's different is the intent isn't to stop them.

[Kyle]: You know, the intent is actually to help them, you know? So, I think there's a huge difference in that, so if I’m going to set a boundary, the boundary is to help you and not to say some parents will tell me “But the kid doesn't see it that way”. That's okay if that's the story they're believing, probably because that the story at school isn't that way, typically the rules are not there to help them, they’re to stop them or in the past, the parent has said a bunch of rules. So, if I’m setting a new story and I’m trying to tell them this is what it is, the kid may not believe that, but that's okay, I know my intent in setting it. So, the example I-- The metaphor I like to think of, Sara, is and I may have shared this in another podcast, but like, the kid is this plant that's been given to you as the parent and it's gonna grow, this plant is gonna grow and the way it's gonna grow best, is with some good water, some good soil, but also a really appropriate size pot for it to grow in and so, I see boundaries as the pot the kid is growing in. If I just take that kid and give no boundaries and put that kid out in the yard, it's going to get trampled, you know? Dogs are going to come by and step on it, people are going to go “oh, this thing is so--”, it's not meant to be there.

[Kyle]: When a plant is very little, it needs a very small pot, right? So, you and I would follow the little baby around the house and try to guide them away from things that could hurt them, right? We wouldn't just let them go and “see you, baby, have fun!”, yeah? We'd be near them, if they went up the stairs, we would be close by so they wouldn't fall down. That wasn't a rule, we weren't saying to the two-year-old “the rule is you don't get to climb the stairs, because you can't do it”, it's a boundary to say “hey, if you're going to climb the stairs, I want you with me”, you know? So, then the kid can say to me “can I climb the stairs now?” and I might say no, but I’m going to do that in 10 minutes, I’d love to do that with you, you know?

[Kyle]: So, there I’m putting boundaries about how the kid can explore that. It also might look at the kid, the teenager. So, a teenager may have a phone and I could say “the rule is you need to do--”, you know, “do all your homework before you get on your phone”, okay? So, the problem with that, is lots of kids then find ways to get around that or they tell them they don't have homework, so they can get on the phone. So, there's all types of things that the kid does. Instead, I would want to come with the kid and set that boundary that, in order to be successful at school, doesn't it seem to work best that you do it before you get on the phone? And the kid might say “yes, great”. “Okay, so how about we do that? How about when you come home, you--” and the kid is now collaborating with you to decide the size of that pot.

[Kyle]: Now, some parents will say “but what if he does get on his phone?”. Okay, then maybe the pot was too big. Let's pull it back, let's pull in the boundaries. I don't need to come up with a new creative rule or consequence, I just go back and say “yeah, remember we said we're going to do it? It doesn't seem like you're doing that. Maybe instead when you go home, you just need to give me the phone right away so there's no temptation”, right? You know, so that's kind of how I would see the difference in that. Is there examples you might have at all about boundaries and limits?

[Sara]: I was just thinking how you're coming in and it's different than just coming to the child and say “this is what's going to happen”. It's that discussion that you're having with, you know, a common one for our kids right now, would be maybe around sugar. And it would be--

[Kyle]: Sugar!

[Sara]: Yes, and we all know sugar honestly grips you, right? It does.

[Kyle]: So good. Chocolate is so good. [Laughter]

[Sara]: It's not just, you know and so, to sit down with our kids and talk about healthy bodies and taking care of our bodies and “oh, sugar's so great”. So, I’m not just saying, you know, I don't just come and say “you can have one thing a day” or whatever my rule might be, but we talk about that and say “how can we take care of our bodies? What's that going to look like?” and if my five-year-old were to say “10 candy bars a day!” [Laughter] And I would say “well--” and I come in, right?

[Kyle]: You guide it, yeah.

[Sara]: Yeah, I have to guide that a little more, but hopefully we'll come together and we'll settle on “this would be how we would take care of our bodies; this is what we could do” and she may still come and say “I want more! I want more! I want more!” and we can point to back to that and I can empathize. The limits are hard, limits on ourselves are hard and so, you can empathize in those moments where the limit is hard, but you can come back to the “hey, we discussed this”.

[Kyle]: I think as you're saying that, I’m thinking with a lot of parents going back to phones or screens or video games is--

[Sara]: That’s a tough one.

[Kyle]: Those are so tough, because a lot of times the parent isn't putting boundaries on themselves, you know? So, the kid sees the hypocrisy in the rule, that there's these rules that apply to them, but don't seem to apply to the parent and that's the problem with rules, because really the parent is the one dictating the rules and a lot of times, they don't apply them or they think they're above the rules, because they are the rule giver. When it comes to the boundaries though, I love the example, what you said, is I would say the same thing. “What's a healthy relationship with sugar look like? What's a healthy relationship with my phone look like? What's a healthy relationship with video games look like?”, right? And then we create together as a family, we don't have a laissez-faire attitude were we're like “well, whatever, we'll see where it goes”. We don't have a controlling attitude, but we have a collaborative attitude that says “hey, you're right son or daughter, I’m on my phone way too much. If you see me distracted a lot by my phone, you let me know”, you know?

[Kyle]: So, how about we all agree upon this many families that you and I’ve helped, is they'll go on like a screen fast and it isn't like “you all been really bad with your screens, so we're all off!”. It's like “hey, as a family I want to get healthier, just like sugar. Let's do a fast from sugar for a couple weeks, let's see how we feel and then kind of noticing how much healthier we feel and then let's come back to the table and decide what kind of relationship we want to have with sugar going forward”. That to me is all an example of making the pot the appropriate size for the plant to grow in a healthy way, because you need to have the right size, Sara, so the roots can really go deep. If it's too small, if I’m too controlling, the roots get stifled and it's going to stifle the plants growth, right? If it's too big, it gets overwhelmed with all the water and all that stuff to make it-- It can get almost like drowned, you know? With too much of that.

[Kyle]: So, instead I want to get the appropriate size, so it's getting the healthy amount of nutrition from the soil and the water and all that kind of stuff. So, I love the idea, I think you and I found the most success, when we invite the kids into these conversations and they're not about “this is the rule for you and I don't have the same rule”. I remember even going back to sugar when kids noticed how many frappuccinos we were having, you know? [Laughter] For the kids to point out. At first it was like “that's a coffee drink, that's a mom and dad thing”, but then they realized how good and tasty the frappuccinos were and so, we had to put a boundary on ourselves on that, to go “you know what? Yeah, I don't think that is appropriate for us to drink it and keep saying «you can't have that thing» and we're probably-- Maybe we need to cut back on that and just have a healthier drink that all the kids could participate in”.

[Kyle]: So, just even those are examples of collaboration that we want to do with the kids and I want to point out this, Sara. If they continue, if I saw the kids continue to push, because this will happen a lot, the parents will set the boundary, they'll try to do this, set a boundary or a limit, the kid continues to push for more and more and more and I just think “that's a misunderstanding”, you know? The kid is misunderstanding what the limit was there for or what the boundary-- The kid is thinking the boundary is there to control them and I just need to go back and make sure the kid understands that's not what the boundary is for. So, if the kid keeps-- So, then I go back and realize the kid never thought they collaborated at all with me, they think I just impose this on them, okay? 

[Kyle]: So, I think the end goal of this, Sara, is to help the kids instead of-- I know we hit this a little bit about another one, instead of having the external control that rules may do, it's to help them have what?

[Sara]: That internal control.

[Kyle]: Self-control, right?

[Sara]: Yeah, yeah, it's that, it's coming from inside of them instead of something always just enforcing you or making you do something. There's a sort of a buy-in, something in me that is invested in the outcome. So, I’m doing this because I want this outcome and this is going to help me get there, even when it's uncomfortable for me and I mean-- And as you were talking, I thought too “this is going to look very different if I collaborate with my five-year-old”. You collaborate, “I’m going to give her a few choices and help her join in that”, you know? Where if-- I’m going to say “okay, you know what I’m thinking? We want to take care of our bodies and sugar is so delicious, how can we do that? Do you think if we had two small things or--?” and I would give examples and let her kind of choose from that.

[Kyle]: Help her envision what that looks like, to have that, yeah.

[Sara]: And she'll need more of that guidance, you know? “Oh, if you're gonna watch tv, how much tv can we watch to take care of ourselves?” and so-- But I will give examples and let her choose from the examples, versus having this conversation with our teenager, older kid, that's gonna be a lot more “what do you think?” And I really want to invite them in to that conversation, what do they think healthy looks like? What have they seen among their friends? Just get their brain going on it, to be really--

[Kyle]: What's their perspective? What's their world view on it? Yeah.

[Sara]: Yeah, you really-- Have they seen someone who's overused their phone or had a--? And have they seen someone they feel like, has a good relationship, what does that look like?

[Sara]: And so, I think I really want them to collaborate, almost as much as they can create it on their own. Because they're headed out into the world, so the more I can let them give some dry runs to these practices, so that when they're out there, they've already had the experience of owning this part of my life and how do I--

[Kyle]: Setting the boundaries on themselves, yeah.

[Sara]: And holding those boundaries and we all break our own boundaries, right? [Laughter] And we might say “we're not gonna have sugar for 30 days” and then two days into it, we're eating some chocolate.

[Sara]: So, give your kids that same grace that you would give yourself, but then also, you are there to help them with their limits and their boundaries, so it's not just handing over “okay, your turn now, you do it”, but coming in there and helping them co-create, but you really want to kind of let them do a big part of that, if they're ready and like you said, if they're not ready, if you see that not happening, pull it back a bit, but don't just snatch it away. Just pull it back a little bit, come back into the conversation, because they're going to be very resistant to that control. We don't like being controlled, kids don't like being controlled, teenagers especially don't. They're trying to practice being a grown-up and so, they're very resistant to that control, as they're supposed to be developmental.

[Kyle]: Yeah, and I think what happens too often is, maybe a parent will try to go “okay, I’m gonna do-- We'll collaborate” and then like you said, the kid messes up and then “okay, fine, the kid can't do it”. So, now we gotta come in and do it for him, but like you said, I wouldn't appreciate you doing that as my wife, you know? If you and I set a boundary. What if we said “we're gonna exercise three times a week” or “we're going to eat healthier” and all sudden, I cheated a little bit and had something, I wouldn't appreciate you walking and saying “you messed up! Okay, fine, no more ice cream for you” and just taking it away [Laughter] And I say “what!?”. Because even if I did stick with that, because you did that, I don't have a healthy relationship with it, right? I just now had you become like my mom-

[Sara]: Just controlling it for you, just outside control, which won't last, it won't, you can't continue that outside control.

[Kyle]: Yeah, and I think what we're wanting, Sara, is we want kids that leave our house and know how to go to sleep, get a good night's sleep. [Laughter] I mean, I remember one time a teenager I was seeing, who her parents were very specific and very rigid. Like a lot of parents can be about the phone because it's scary, you know? They don't want-- They feel like the kid isn't controlling the thing and I remember this kid said something very, very eye-opening to me, that she said she knew she was on the phone too much. She was scared that maybe the phone controlled her too much, she even admitted it. “I bet if I had the phone at night and my parents didn't take it from me every night, I’d probably stay up all night with it and be super tired the next day”, but she said “you know what scares me the most? Is I think if I don't learn how to do this now in high school, I’m going to go to college and I’m going to flunk out, because I don't think I’ll be able to put my phone down”.

[Kyle]: And it was just really interesting the insight she had, that she wanted self-control, but she was scared to death she could never get it and her parents were obviously noticing she didn't have it and were scared to death she wouldn't have it, so that's why they were being so controlling. So, in that process, I think we as the parents have to believe they can get it, they can develop it, but I’m going to need to be patient and need to give them the space to practice and fail and try again.

[Sara]: Be safe, yeah, within our safe boundaries.

[Kyle]: Within that boundary of the pot, yes, yes. We're both Sara and I are both doing this pot, we're both holding pots in our-- [Laughter] Looking at it, but yeah, if it's too big, it means we-- “Okay, we're not ready for that”. It's not that you're bad or you're not enough or any of these kind of shaming things. Bring it back in, it's okay, we're just-- So, even some kids might-- I’ve had kids actually say “I almost would like to on Saturday or Friday when I come home, just hand my phone to my parents and say «will you take this all weekend?», because then I really think that would be good for me” and I said “will you do that?”, “no; I don't think so”, because they're so scared of letting it go [Laughter] But there's something in them that says “oh, I wish I had the freedom to do that. I wish I had the freedom to just hand it off”.

[Sara]: And that's where our goal is, which we won't always do this perfectly, but if we can build that collaborative relationship with our kids and teenagers, then hopefully they'll feel safe enough to have those conversations of “oh, I set this limit and then I didn't keep the limit” or “mom, I’m struggling with this, will you help me with this?”. You invite that because you're safe enough, to sort of fail with, succeed with, create these new ideas and limits with and it's not this rigid “I’m gonna disappoint you” or “you're gonna give me this rule and lay down the law on me if I, you know, if I mess up or don't quite get it right”. So, we want to have this, you know, you often say “open hand”, but it's kind of coming in with open and allowing them to be open and create this collaborative relationship and it's not that it's easy, it's hard and you're gonna have to restrain yourself [Laughter] But if you have that goal in mind, you'll get there.

[Kyle]: You know, the example comes to mind when we first did this and we were really successful, Sara, was around Halloween. When the kids would get candy and we we're like “hey, what if we talk to the kids about a healthy limit when it comes to how much candy we're going to have?”, you know? So, the kids agreed with us, you know? That-- Was at three or five pieces maybe? They're gonna pick five?

[Sara]: I don't even [Unintelligible]

[Kyle]: So, maybe three? But they were gonna pick a certain amount, they were gonna pick the three to five best and they were-- And we thought there'd be tons of pushback on that and sure, there was a little bit of the “ugh” and we just showed them, but--“I know it's really hard, all that candy sounds great, but yeah. So, which three are you gonna pick?” and then they got excited about the three and then they started to like, sharing with each other and then they were excited about what they were gonna do with the candy, where it was gonna go and I even think there was a thing we agreed, with just one piece a day, right? So, they didn't have more than one candy a day.

[Kyle]: And so, I loved seeing the kids own it and I’d know as a kid, I never would have done that [Laughter] I totally-- When I got the candy, it was “how much can I eat tonight without throwing up?” and I was looking forward to just, destroying that candy for the next-- I mean, I had pillowcases of candy, you know? [Laughter] And so, for the kids to willingly say “I’m only gonna eat this much candy”, so it was like this cool like, collaboration of “yeah, the candy's great, we love it! But you know what? If we ate all that, good lord, that'd be so bad for us”, you know?

[Kyle]: So, going back to the words, I’m wanting to get this, okay? So, I’m wanting to change rules to limits or boundaries, I like those better, but the end goal in all of this, is to help the kid have a healthy, helpful and positive relationship with whatever we're talking about. Whether it's sugar, screens, video games, friends, you know, whatever it is.

[Sara]: Bedtime

[Kyle]: Bedtime? Yes, yeah, all of that, I want them to have a healthy relationship with sleep or a healthy relationship with food, a healthy-- So, be thinking that I don't-- The rules don't grow that, the boundaries and the limits grow a healthy, healthful, positive relationship with these things and then, the kid now, there's no longer this energy around it because the kid knows it isn't about stopping them from being bad, it's helping them have a healthy, healthful, positive relationship with that. With whatever it is, you know? So, I like to use that collaboration of even, let's say for instance it was the phone or let's say it was social media, you know? Something like that. Sit down with the teenager like “what does that look like to have a healthy relationship with social media? A positive one. Can you give me examples of people who don't?” and like you said, they'll have them! They've seen people not have those. So, “okay, that's the picture of what we don't want”, right? And the kid doesn't want either. “What kind of picture do you want?” And that's typically the problem is, we think by setting the rule, we stop the bad stuff from happening, instead it's by creating a vision with the kid for the kid to go “that's what it looks like, I want to go there”.

[Sara]: Yeah, you want them focused on where they're going, not what they're avoiding. You know, it's like “don't think about purple elephants, don't think about purple elephants” and you think about purple elephants. Instead, you want to point them-- You want to get them to create their own vision. “This is my goal, this is where I want to get” and if they're moving towards something, that's so much better than trying to move away from something.

[Kyle]: So, if you do have this-- If you're needing help with this, we do have a fantastic course on our website called “How to stop power struggles and resolve conflict”, that really dives into this and so much more, so much more video content. You can go to the website of and you can see that there with other courses we have and other kind of podcasts we have. In summary though, I want-- I just want to emphasize that setting boundaries and limits isn't about controlling the kid, it's about not trying to get them to get off things, but instead setting boundaries in place that help them be successful with those things. So, I want them to start practicing and cultivating self-control, because that is one of the key indicators of almost any study, for people to be successful in life, is the ability to have self-control. So, we're trying to give them a chance to practice that skill and then be successful with it.

[Kyle]: So, please go to the website, go to the-- You know, I’d love for you to give us five stars because you think this podcast is awesome. We'd love your comments to come out, we'd love you to share this, all those things really help us reach more people and thank you so much for listening to us and would love to hear how it goes with you and trying to set boundaries and trying to move away from rules and any questions you might have on that that we could discuss for the podcast. So, thank you for listening and have a great day.

[Sara]: Enjoy the snow if you got any. 

[Kyle]: The Art of Raising Humans podcast should not be considered or used as counseling, but for educational purposes only.

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