How Recognizing Limits Can Save Your Day


Sometimes, as a mother, I get so focused on things that need to get done that I forget the most important goal—my kids and their well being. Beds need to be made, clothes changed, shoes on, breakfast eaten, teeth brushed, lunches made. In all the hustle and bustle of a busy morning, it can be easy to forget the people involved and their real needs.

epicantus / Pixabay

epicantus / Pixabay

My kindergartner son wanted to go to the zoo to look at the ocelot because he was doing a class project on ocelots.  He’d been asking to go for days and I’d told him we would go Saturday morning. So when it was time to get ready on Saturday, I told both of my children that I was going to take a shower; if they had their shoes on when I finished, we could go. When I got out of the shower, I peeked downstairs and they did not have their shoes on. I reminded them that they had about five minutes before I would come down and that their shoes needed to be on.  Their dad offered to help them and I went back in my room.  A few minutes later, Dad came in frustrated about the shoes and got in the shower.

I went downstairs to see what had happened. My son told me that his dad used a mean voice with him, that he was having a hard morning and nobody was being nice. I listened and asked what happened.  He told me that his dad couldn’t do his socks right and Dad got frustrated and went upstairs.

The Limit

I tried.  I didn’t do it right.  I kept trying.  I kept doing it wrong.  I started to feel frustrated. I went upstairs to my husband and said “OK I get it. The shoes aren’t going on today.”  “ I know.” He said. “What should we do?”  Then it clicked. I said, “Oh man. We missed the point here. He wants us to say no. He needs to not go to the zoo. His behavior is telling us that something is off and he can’t handle it today—if we go, it’s going to be awful.”  My husband agreed. So I went downstairs and told my kids that we had run out of time and that we would go to the zoo another day.  Then I went to work in the yard and no one followed me! (Well, not for about 10 minutes, anyway.)

The Emotion

Finally, my son realized that we really weren’t going to the zoo. He became upset.  He asked me why everyone was being mean to him today. He told me we liked his sister better, that we don’t spend enough time with him, that we use a mean voice with him.  He then started bargaining—if we didn’t go to the zoo he wouldn’t come inside all day, he would never put his shoes on again, he would hate me forever. I listened and nodded occasionally.  Anytime I said anything to him, it fueled him with further proof that I was using a “mean voice.” There was nothing I could say, so I said nothing, and pretty soon….the tears came. At first they were about the zoo, the shoes, and the mean voices, but soon he was really crying and then eventually—the real cause. “It’s just that yesterday; it was such a bad day.  Grandma left and my really good friend moved away.  Yesterday was a terrible day.”  I agreed. “Yesterday was a really hard day. It’s sad when people leave and move away.”  I suggested to him softly that maybe today was a good day to just be home and be sad, that the zoo might be better another day anyway.  He nodded through his tears and put his head in my arms.

jill111 / Pixabay

The Freedom

Limits are not just ways to make sure children behave well. When done with empathy, limits are much more—they provide children with a firm railing to push against when they need to let some emotion out.  Limits also ensure that tomorrow, there will be less push about shoes, because they know that mom really won’t go if shoes aren’t on in time.   The bad morning yesterday paid off today in the form of the best morning we’ve had all year.  My children put their shoes on as soon as they were dressed this morning.  It was almost comical how cheerful they were getting ready for school. For the first time ever, we were ready to go 15 minutes early and they were rewarded by the natural consequence of playtime in the morning.

I am learning to catch these situations more quickly and it is liberating! My boy needed me to say no—to set a limit so he could grieve.  We were so focused on our objective of getting to the zoo that we could have missed the signs. I’ve learned that catching the need for a limit quickly feels really good.  My husband and I were dreading the zoo because of the way the morning was turning out. But once we had decided not to go, we felt free.  We realized, “Hey, this is not good for anyone. What are we doing?” We gave ourselves permission to change plans, and it felt good. We slowed down, worked in the yard alongside the kids, and had a nice family day.  A different day than we had planned, but a very nice day. So we continue to get better at recognizing and and setting effective limits. Who knows, one day maybe every morning will be as nice as today’s-but I won’t get my hopes up too high just yet.

Other posts on limit setting you may like:

Why “Choosing Your Battles” May Not Be an Effective Parenting Strategy – Kelly Meier

Setting Limits Without Yelling – Janet Lansbury, Elevating Child Care

Be The Grown-Up Your Child Needs – Janet Lansbury

One Sure Fire Way to Stop Yelling at the Kids – Peaceful Parent, Confident Kids


2 thoughts on “How Recognizing Limits Can Save Your Day

  1. Oh my gosh!! I just had a “Eureka” moment.

    I have a small play group in my home, which does naptime right after lunch. Each day, I tell the older boys of the group (3 and 4), “If you can quietly look at a book in your beds while I finish up the dishes, we can have a story before nap.” I’ve taken great pains to give them “extra chances”… I pretend that I don’t see them up running around (they see me, though, pretending not to see) because I don’t actually want to have to enforce that limit – I want them to have story, because I loved being read to right before bed when I was a kid.

    Usually we do end up having story, even though they rarely stay in their beds the whole time I’ve asked them to, because of the extra, extra chances I give and because I pretend not to see them running around. A few times we have had to skip story because they got toys out, which made the younger toddlers want to get toys out (which we then had to clean up).

    But today I realized this: most of the time, everyone wiggles and talks during story anyway, and I end up spending more time managing each child’s behavior than I do actually reading from the book. It just now occurred to me, why am I putting us through this? Perhaps they don’t actually want story! If they really wanted to listen to story, wouldn’t they be quiet and attentive as I read? Perhaps what they actually want is back rubs, lullaby, and sleep!

    In any case, thank you for writing this. Tomorrow, I will enforce the limit confidently, quickly, and honestly, so they will have the answer to the question of “How do we need to behave in order to have story?”

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