Imagine: A traffic light approach for coaching skills in children

It is only when they feel valued, loved and safe in a relationship that children can even be open to coaching. A red light is for behaviours that need a zero-tolerance, non-negotiable approach. The yellow light could be for habits the child is still learning to master.

I am asked a lot of times if it is okay to say ‘No’ to children and if parents can insist on boundaries despite the pushback. Children thrive in homes where there are clear, non-threatening boundaries and parents step in to establish limits to keep their children safe or to help them build muscles of responsibility and self-regulation. So let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of what I prefer to call coaching and how we can build these at home. But before I do that, I would like to add that an essential prerequisite to coaching is our strong connect with our children. It is only when they feel valued, loved and safe in a relationship that children can even be open to coaching. If we try to do it on a strained relationship, then there are chances that they will fight it tooth and nail and we will be just stuck in a vicious cycle.

What are the areas that children need limits? There is no prescriptive list here as it is different for each child and for each family. I like to take a “Traffic Light Approach” for limits and boundaries: A red light is for behaviours that need a zero-tolerance, non-negotiable approach. This could range from clarity on issues like violence, abusive language, bullying to stipulated screen time. The yellow light could be for behaviours or habits the child is still learning to master, like sitting down for homework, packing her bag at night, etc. These are skills that the child needs training in with your support. The green light is for behaviours that are all right with you or the ones that you do not want to address right now. For example, you might not want to make an issue of the fact that your child is still coming to your bed in the middle of the night once or twice a week. This approach gives us clarity, lets us choose our priorities and helps us choose our battles. We are not aiming for perfect children after all, as that is a total myth!

These boundaries are just not for children but for everybody at home, including parents, grandparents and domestic help. Children will respect them if they know that there are no double standards about them.

Some crucial points to keep in mind as far as boundaries and limits are concerned:

Avoid words like ‘rules’ and ‘routines’

Some children are allergic to the use of words like rules and routines. Let’s admit that these are very emotionally loaded words. If you were to start working in a new place, which communication would you prefer? ‘There is a rule that everybody has to report by 9 am’, or ‘Our practice is to be at work by 9 am’. So, depending on your children and what you would prefer, I would say that we interchange rules with words like ‘procedures’, ‘This is the way we do things in our home’, ‘practices’ or even ‘boundaries’.

Everyone should understand the boundaries clearly

It is important that all the family members and domestic help understand them clearly. Some families might reach the acceptable procedures after an open discussion with the children, ‘We are all getting late every morning for our school bus and work. So maybe we need to sit down and have a clear idea on what time all of us need to get up every morning. Any ideas?’

Clear guidelines which are able to give them an optimum stretch

We have to start where the child is at and not where we want her to be and also discuss the logic to them so they are on the same page. If you are concerned about your child being physically unfit then it might be better to have a chat with him and together you might plan fifteen-minutes of running in the park in the evening rather than insisting that he has to exercise for one hour a day.

You need to be convinced first

It is important that you convince yourself before you insist he stick to a limit. If you think it is alright for your child to hit the domestic help when he is angry then your ‘don’t hit her, it is a wrong thing to do’ will be water off a duck’s back. You need to be convinced yourself and your ‘No’ needs to be conveyed with 100 per cent conviction. Children have very sensitive radars to check if you really mean business or you can be overlooked. Conviction also means that you do not feel guilty about establishing these boundaries and that you do not take the child’s protests personally. Children will push and protest and try to break non-negotiable/red-light rules — that is part of their wiring but that should not make you doubt your conviction.

Empathise with their discomfort, anger and annoyance at these boundaries

They will protest, ‘Everybody in my class has a phone’, or ‘My friend can watch as much TV as he wants in his house’. Listen to them, empathise with, ‘I can understand that you must be upset that you get less TV than your friends.’ I find it best not to take their resistance personally, get into long arguments or discussions around these boundaries. I have found that children do listen and respond positively if you tell them calmly, ‘I know you are upset but this is something I have to do as your mother as it is my responsibility.’ It sends the message across that you love them enough to lay down tough boundaries.

7 important tips to manage aggression in children

Try to stand united

If the mother has made it very clear to the children that they cannot get any screen during weekdays but the father brushes it off as the mother being ‘too harsh’ then there are chances of the children making use of that divided stand (they are experts on this) and wriggle their way through the cracks to get what they want. For those living in joint families and having live-in domestic help, it becomes even more vital to get everybody on board. It can be really tough as we have very strong feelings about boundaries – for some it can rake up a lot of residual feelings of guilt, maybe pain or fears from their own childhood. So, for every boundary you impose, examine your own feelings and try to resolve them before discussing them with your children.

I once heard a very renowned and wise psychotherapist, Dr Salman Akhtar, use the Tarzan metaphor for parenting. He said that children are like Tarzans who have to swing from vine to vine, branch to branch, and that’s what makes them who they are. Parents are like the tree they are swinging on. They have to let them do the swinging but they have to stay grounded and firm, and not let the swinging uproot them. So true!

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