Ask parents what they want most for their children, and happiness will be among the most common responses. Of course we want our children to be happy, but in an effort to make them happy in the here and now, we may be threatening their future well-being.

Parents often think that if they aren’t indulging their children materially, they’ll avoid spoiling them. But spoiling children emotionally is just as problematic. It’s important to remember that when you delay gratification, allow your children to fail and accept consequences for bad choices, you’re equipping them with important skills they’ll need to succeed throughout their lives.

Spoiled children are used to getting their way, regardless of the potential implications of what they are requesting. Consequently, because these overindulged children have never, or rarely, had to deal with disappointment, they are less able to cope with stress. They often become self-centered, unmotivated, jealous, even angry or depressed. Later in life, they’re more at risk for drugs, alcohol and risky sex.

On the other hand, children who face disappointment and overcome challenges learn to take initiative, set and work toward goals and earn rewards. They develop healthy, character-building attitudes and habits that will help them throughout their lives.

One of the most effective tools to spoil-proofing your children is setting rules and limits. Realistic, fair, appropriate boundaries that are clearly explained create a healthy environment where children understand what’s expected. Such limits teach children what’s realistic and normal in life. They prepare your children to face situations and circumstances in other environments where there will be limits and boundaries.

When establishing boundaries, keep in mind that you’re striving for a balance between being too permissive and too rigid. Rules should be reasonable and reflect the values and mores most important in your family. They may include everything from caring for a pet and cleaning up after dinner to doing homework in a timely fashion and adhering to a curfew.

Be prepared to establish new rules as needed. It’s virtually impossible to anticipate every possible mistake a child might make. Once you note an area where your child needs some limits, determine a reasonable boundary and appropriate consequence for the behavior, then clearly communicate that to your child. For younger children, family meetings may be an effective venue for such communication. Older children, on the other hand, may respond better to one-on-one discussions.

Possibly the biggest mistake parents make in setting limits comes when it’s time to follow through. To be effective, you must enforce rules and consequences consistently. That can be especially difficult if you’re tired, looking to avoid a fight or feeling guilty about other aspects of your parenting. But rules are pointless if there’s no follow through.

Effective follow through applies to both adherence and noncompliance. Being equally or even more affirming when your children meet your expectations will likely limit infractions and increase your children’s cooperation.

As you set boundaries for your children, remember that good parenting requires more than discipline. Healthy parent-child relationships also include recreation, play, nurturing and nourishment. Too much time focusing on the rules and limits can erode the relationship. On the other hand, the more children feel secure in relationships, the less they’re going to challenge and test limits.

As published in the June 2006 Edition of the Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life.