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posted: 1/4/2013 8:10 AM

Parents must help their children set limits

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A pastor friend of mine tells a story about treating her young granddaughter to ice cream.

As she took the carton from the freezer and placed a bowl and spoon on the kitchen counter, she inquired of the child, "Now, how much would you like?"

Her granddaughter paused, considering how to answer such an intriguing question. Finally, her eyes lit up and a smile touched her lips: "Too much!" she exclaimed.

Now, this little girl didn't really want so much that she got sick, or so much that she wouldn't be hungry for dinner. What she really wanted was to be allowed to have as much as she wanted -- no limits, no controls, no boundaries.

When she'd approached such limits in the past, she'd likely been told it was "too much." Not having limits, then, meant from her perspective being able to have "too much."

In a lot of ways that's probably what we all want. We want as much as we want. And we also likely want as much as we want of everything we want. That just seems to be a part of human nature. None of us like externally imposed limits, controls, or boundaries.

If we are fortunate, we are raised by adults who help us understand that sometimes having too much -- not having limits or controls or boundaries -- can be harmful, even destructive, to ourselves and to those around us.

Such limits might involve food and drink, or how much sleep we get, or how much "stuff" we accumulate, or even how much relaxation or stimulation we have in our lives.

These adults teach us that when we exceed our limits we can do damage to our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. And they help us to see that our excesses ultimately involve some sort of loss for those around us.

Such responsible adult caregivers also help us to understand that there seems to be a limit to the resources in this world -- whether food, or energy, or opportunities for fun. They help us to understand that we can't all be entitled to all we want of everything we want. There's just not enough to go around.

Most of us are not especially grateful for such lessons, at least not when we are children. And it is common that, when we finally do get the freedom to set our own limits, we experiment for a while with living a life with few, if any, limits at all.

We frequently realize as adults, however, that the lessons about limits are important to our health and happiness, let alone the future of our planet. Knowing how and when to set limits, having some self-control, and recognizing that there are real-world boundaries we need to live within are part of what it means to be an adult.

So where am I going with all this? Well, just as my pastor friend did not give her granddaughter "too much," the rest of us, especially we parents, need to teach our children about what it means to have "just enough." We need to help them learn about, and eventually develop their own limits, controls and barriers.

We won't be particularly popular for that, and it will be a difficult, unpleasant jot at times. Then, again, so is a lot of being a parent.

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