The Empathy Foundation Network

Growing empathy for a peaceful world

My belief is that throughout life we need limits that serve our growth. In the beginning these are set by our parents. As adults we need to set our own limits that serve our growth - that's what self-discipline is. So the way limits are set ( and released) in childhood is the foundation for our limit setting throughout life. Ideally our childhood teaches us how to set limits for ourselves that are growth nourishing. This has mostly been a little understood process and most of us don't have a well developed capacity to set our own limits and release the ones that are not serving us well any more.

One reason that child rearing is such an important topic for the evolution of humanity is that studying how limit setting nourishes children's growth is a good way to understand limit setting throughout life.

Some principles which serve the growth of children are the same as for people of all ages. Here are some first suggestions for these particularly relating to limits and growth:

o Connection with caring others is essential for children’s growth
o Limits or boundaries need to be in place to allow growth within a safe space
o Boundaries will be outgrown – they will change from supporting growth to limiting growth
o Limiting boundaries must be let go and new expanded ones set, for growth to continue without stunting
o The role of the parent or caregiver is to support and nourish the child’s growth
o Deep welcoming of the child’s existence and trust in the child’s nature as a beautiful being unfolding is the foundation of their healthy growth
o Heart to heart connection is the conduit for the supportive energy which nourishes a child’s growth
o A child has limited ability to set limits; to begin with most limits must be set by the carer.
o To set appropriate limits which are growth nourishing is the challenge of child raising
o Limits which are too large or too narrow or simply beyond the child’s comprehension are damaging to growth.
o Setting growth nourishing limits is a heart and mind process, a whole being experience; the more engagement between child and carer the more the intuition about limits will be active. Intuition is the best guide. Connecting deeply with the child triggers intuitive response.
o Knowledge of the growth stages of the child helps with the setting of appropriate limits
o The way limits are set is at least as important for growth as the nature of the limit itself.
o Shame stress is likely to be experienced when a firm limit is set. Firmness needs to be quickly followed by reassurance of the carers love. This supports the neurological process called shame repair.
o The child who is protected from shame stress learns to do their own shame repair when life provides negative feedback about their actions.
o The capacity to shame repair is essential for healthy growth throughout life. .

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Alice I love what you have said about limits. Your points display that wonderful energising tension between limits and freedom that so often confounds parents, carers and educators. In the practical world of setting limits the first thing to remember is that it is always a work in progress.
Some things/ideas that have worked for me in early childhood settings are
1. Base limits on clear observations of the child's behaviour, developmental stages and needs
2. If limits block a need that the child has, find another way to satisfy that need. eg No you cannot play with the pot plant in the lounge room but I will take you to the garded/sand pit and you can play in the dirt all you like there.
3. Once you decide on a limit know that the limit is not you. The limit or rule is not about how much you do or don't care for the child. If you can view the limit like a third party in the relationship, then you can collaberate with the child and help them to respond and find solutions to their developmental needs within that limit, and also give support, empathy and comfort when the child is pushing strongly against the limit. eg I know you want to do this thing but the rule is that we do not do x. I know it's hard for you right now. Can I give you a cuddle? Can we think of something else you would like to do? etc
4. Be really clear with the child which parts of the environment are "free" and which are "limitted" eg No you can't go out the gate but you can play anywhere in the yard.
5. Have as few rules as possible. I use - care of self - care of others - and care of the environment - as my basic values that can then inform my limit setting.
6. When we set limits, so much of our own childhood experience influences our behaviour, for better or worse. The clearer we can be the easier it is for the child.

As an educator I have always had a classroom with very clear boundaries. Within those boundaries there was lots of freedom. So it was an absolute delight when one of my ex students (at the age of 27) said that what he recalled of the classroom was that he could do what he liked. Now, this was definitely not true but what it says to me is that within the limits and boundaries that were set, he could still meet all his needs in an atmosphere of freedom
Hi Girvani ,
This is so well said! I love the energizing tension between limits and freedom.The process of setting limits that you have described is clear and simple and profound - and backed by long experience of it working. How great that the ex-student felt so much freedom. I think the birth metaphor is so true about growth in general. In the womb the child swims freely at first. It uses all the space to grow into then it has to be born in order to grow more. The child must leave behind the safe, warm, cosy environment of the mothers' womb and it's a very intense and often traumatic. Birth can be eased so much by the supporting adults and by knowledge and letting go on the part of the mother. By allowing the natural process to unfold. Midwives can make such a difference. Really life and growth is a series of births on many different levels. We reach a state of constriction and we thrash around trying to get more comfortable in our confined space, then we take a leap into a new uncertain but larger space. It's always a leap into the unknown. The difference is that we can hold back these growth spurts in way that we can't hold back birth into the world. Though we don't know that do we, there are many birth obstructions and the role of the baby or mother holding back in that is beyond our knowledge at this point.

About Early Limits and Adult Self- Discipline

I would like to explore the connection between our early childhood experience of limits being imposed with the experience of self-discipline later in life. How much are we ever taught how to remove limits? How do some of us become effective at limiting ourselves to support out growth - and some don't. How do some learn to tune into the natural cessation points - when they have had enough. How do we learn moderation? Surely moderation is about limits and the recognition of enough is a key trigger to avoiding excess, with all its detriments. What is it about our early childhood experience that makes us want more and more? What makes us want to resist limits and cling fiercely to our power to over indulge, despite knowing that we are destroying ourselves? What did we learn about how to set and release limits? Where do we learn about clearing away old outgrown limits and creating new ones that support our growth? What kind of lessons on this topic have been the norm? How effective have they been?

Rita Johnston said:
Alice I love what you have said about limits. Your points display that wonderful energising tension between limits and freedom that so often confounds parents, carers and educators. In the practical world of setting limits the first thing to remember is that it is always a work in progress.
Some things/ideas that have worked for me in early childhood settings are 1. Base limits on clear observations of the child's behaviour, developmental stages and needs 2. If limits block a need that the child has, find another way to satisfy that need. eg No you cannot play with the pot plant in the lounge room but I will take you to the garded/sand pit and you can play in the dirt all you like there. 3. Once you decide on a limit know that the limit is not you. The limit or rule is not about how much you do or don't care for the child. If you can view the limit like a third party in the relationship, then you can collaberate with the child and help them to respond and find solutions to their developmental needs within that limit, and also give support, empathy and comfort when the child is pushing strongly against the limit. eg I know you want to do this thing but the rule is that we do not do x. I know it's hard for you right now. Can I give you a cuddle? Can we think of something else you would like to do? etc 4. Be really clear with the child which parts of the environment are "free" and which are "limitted" eg No you can't go out the gate but you can play anywhere in the yard. 5. Have as few rules as possible. I use - care of self - care of others - and care of the environment - as my basic values that can then inform my limit setting. 6. When we set limits, so much of our own childhood experience influences our behaviour, for better or worse. The clearer we can be the easier it is for the child.

As an educator I have always had a classroom with very clear boundaries. Within those boundaries there was lots of freedom. So it was an absolute delight when one of my ex students (at the age of 27) said that what he recalled of the classroom was that he could do what he liked. Now, this was definitely not true but what it says to me is that within the limits and boundaries that were set, he could still meet all his needs in an atmosphere of freedom
Hi Alice
A technical question first. Why is my comment repeated after your reply? It means I have to scroll up and down as I reply, to see what you have written.
Anyway here goes. The birth metaphor is so great, particularly after our phone conversation yesterday. I am reminded of the butterfly story. When the butterfly was helped out of the cucoon the wings never spread out and became uselful because it is in the struggle to burst from the cucoon that the blood flow is pumped to the wings so that the wings have the nourishment and energy to spread out, to dry out and then to be used. Another metaphor - muscles actually need to tear a little in order to grow bigger and stronger.
So we are so afraid of the struggle and of the pain of growing out of our various "wombs" through life. We fear that unknown step into the future. We want a plan and clarity all the time. We fear uncertainty and particularly ambiguity. We feel must get it right straight away.
Some responses to this - and these apply as much to us adults now as to early childhood.
1. We need to observe the child and have knowledge of the child's needs and developmental stages
2. We need to be infintiely patient in giving the child the information and experiences they need to grow and learn and that stage (it may take 10,000 repetitions - not "I've already told/shown you that four times")
3. We need to be mentors and supporters when the going gets tough. We don't need to protect children/adults from the hard stuff. Protecting gives the message that you are week and dependent, that you can' do it. We need to give the message that you can do it and show the steps you need to go through to get to where you need to go.
4. We need to release the black/white, right/wrong dichotomy.
5. Chldren learn limits by being allowed to meet their developmental needs in a safe and contained environment that expands as needed. We want more and more as adults because often we have spent 12 years in education/family life delaying the meeting of our childhood developmental needs. (All adults need to have some time in preschool again).
6. The developmental needs of childhood don't disappear, they just go underground. So we can't go back to breast feeding, thumb sucking etc as an adult so we suck ciggarettes, drinks, etc. How much is the need for the hydrating bottle of water close at hand, really about childhood oral needs?
So where to from here as adults?
A topic for further discussion.
hello

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