Setting Limits Is An Act Of Love
Special To The Jewish Week

One of the most dramatic changes I have observed over the course of my 35-plus years practicing psychotherapy is that when a phone call interrupts a therapy session nowadays, it is most often the patient’s phone that is ringing and not the therapist’s.

Trying to resist the urge to tap my foot to the lively beat of the ring tone, I could not help smiling as a patient of mine recently retrieved her blaring cell phone from her purse.

Glancing first at the caller I.D., she then flipped open the phone and whispered to me apologetically, “It’s my daughter. Maybe it’s important. I’ll only be a minute.” After listening to the request, my patient then gave her teenaged daughter detailed directions to locate an item the girl was unable to find in the refrigerator at home.

The search was apparently unsuccessful. So my patient finally instructed her daughter, “I’m still at that meeting that I told you about before I left. Please take something else to eat and I’ll find it for you when I get home.”

The woman politely apologized to me for the interruption and then asked if we could continue the session from where we left off.

“You don’t have to apologize to me,” I replied. “But maybe you should apologize to yourself.” We then went on to discuss how much she feels her children (and her husband) walk all over her and what she can do to get them to respect her needs.

Unfortunately, today, many parents believe that they are doing a disservice to their children by setting limits. They believe that loving children means satisfying their wishes all the time. According to these people, frustrating children’s desires causes irreparable psychic trauma. Consequently, their children expect to be able to reach these parents by phone for any reason, whenever they wish, regardless of what the parent may be doing at time.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Loving children means empowering them by imposing proper limitations. When parents fail to set limits for their children, however, they emotionally cripple them for life.

Examples abound today of the devastating consequences of overindulged parenting. We see many dysfunctional adults whose current difficulties in life can be traced back to their unstructured childhoods growing up in homes where there were no restrictions.
The following are but a few illustrations.

* Those who are so incapable of controlling their impulses that they have fallen hopelessly in debt by having maxed out on their credit cards and now can barely make the minimum payments each month;

* Those who feel such an exaggerated sense of entitlement that they truly believe they are above the law and will not get caught if they speed, drive under the influence or commit “white collar” crimes;

* Those who are so accustomed to having decisions made for them that they are paralyzed by indecision and fear of commitment when confronted by choices of clothing, jobs and/or marital prospects.

* Those who are so used to having things their way that they alienate coworkers, friends and spouses by their rigid unwillingness to cooperate, collaborate and compromise;

* Those whose expectations for gratification are so unrealistic that they have practically lost their ability to feel and express appropriate appreciation to others.
The first Book of Kings begins with the tragic story of Adoniyahu, the elder son of King David, whose unsuccessful attempt to usurp the throne ultimately led to his execution. There it records that King David never reprimanded his son for anything (I Kings 1:6). Commenting on that verse, the classic commentator, Rashi, noted, “This comes to teach that whoever holds back reproof from his child will contribute to that child’s premature death.”

We all want our children to grow into independent, successful and contented adults. In order to help them reach those goals, we must not abdicate our responsibility to set appropriate limits for them as they mature. This will enable them to learn self-control, build frustration tolerance, develop self-reliance, respect the needs and feelings of others and appropriately postpone gratification.

And this will also enable us to enjoy uninterrupted therapy sessions.

Dr. Meir Wikler is a psychotherapist and family counselor in private practice in Brooklyn, New York. His most recent book is, “Partners With Hashem II: More Effective Guidelines for Successful Parenting” (Artscroll/Mesorah, 2006).

Loving children means empowering them by imposing proper limitations. When parents fail to set limits for their children, however, they emotionally cripple them for life.