I have been thinking a lot about limits over the past few days. After a week of being a single parent while DH was on vacation with friends, things with J were running pretty smoothly. I went the entire week without losing it once or even really ever getting frustrated. That was a real accomplishment for me! At first, I attributed it to having no one to fall back on and having to just make it work. Over the last couple of days though, I’ve realized that it probably has more to do with the fact that I’m finally really feeling confident in setting limits. J is 20 months old and not particularly verbal, but very communicative. He is also extremely physical, inquisitive, and persistent. Those are all wonderful qualities in a person, but in a toddler, they can be exhausting! It means my little guy is constantly climbing something, messing with the dogs, pulling everything out of a cupboard or box or off a shelf, and doing it over and over and over again.
This post was inspired by a fellow Tongonti who said, “I often wonder why so many people hate children.” My response to her, which I didn’t think was particularly enlightened at the time was, “Because they don’t understand that if you say it once, enforce it, and relax, it’s not nearly so hard!”
It was inspired by all the times I’ve heard a parent say to their toddler, “We don’t hit!” “We don’t throw toys.” “We don’t pull the dog’s tail.” “Ouch! We don’t hurt people!” Does this sound like you? Read on!
It was also inspired by my husband, who I will pick on for a moment for the sake of example. (Honey, I want you to know I do it sometimes too and so do the vast majority of peaceful parents I know, so this is not personal and you’re a wonderful daddy!) The other day, my sweet husband was taking J for a diaper change upstairs. He gathered the necessary supplies and told J, “Let’s go upstairs and change your diaper! Come on!” then went on his way up the stairs. I watched J go off to do something else. DH called again, “J! Come on upstairs so we can change your diaper!” Still no movement from J in the direction of the stairs. I bit my tongue and watched. DH called again, still being sweet, but I could tell he was getting a little exasperated – Why isn’t he listening? He knows he needs his diaper changed and I’m being so positive about it, but he’s just not listening! I called up the stairs and asked if I could share something I learned. “He’s not coming!” I said, laughing. So M came downstairs, picked J up, and carried him upstairs. The whole exchange took almost five minutes. It’s no wonder people don’t like toddlers – chasing them around, repeating yourself constantly, and talking to yourself all day – it’s exhausting work!
“If you say it once, enforce it, and relax, it’s not nearly so hard!”
Here’s what I would have done instead:
- Give a warning. I would say, “J, your diaper is wet and you need a clean, dry diaper on your bottom. I am going to pick up this laundry to carry upstairs with us and then we will go change your diaper.”
- Give a (simple) choice. Having collected the laundry as promised, I would make sure he is paying attention to me and say, “Alright, I have all the laundry. It’s time to go upstairs now. Would you like to walk or be carried? You decide.” The choice part is very important, because it supports J’s feeling of autonomy, which makes him feel good, which in turn makes him more likely to cooperate with me in the future.
- Acknowledge and follow through. I usually give about ten seconds for him to make a choice; you will have to see what interval is appropriate for your child. Another mommy friend once told me she counts to ten in her head more to shut herself up than because the interval is particularly important. It really works to keep me from harping on it if I can’t say anything else for a full ten seconds. If he chooses, I move to Step 5. However, it’s most likely that he will not make a choice, or will try to go in the opposite direction. In that case, I would say, “I see you don’t want to go upstairs now. It’s time to change your diaper, so I will carry you.”
- Empathize, but keep moving. If he accepts the limit, I move to Step 5. If he becomes upset, I acknowledge his feelings, but I keep moving toward the goal. In this case, hold him so he can’t throw himself too far or hurt me. I like the example Dr. Jane Nelsen gives in Positive Discipline: The First Three Years (affiliate link) when she says, “Imagine a tree, its roots anchoring it deep into the ground… When the wind blows, the tree’s branches sway in gentle arcs but its grip on that small nest remains firm.” This is the image I conjure in my head while I am holding space for J’s upset – firm, but flexible – I sway with him to allow for his emotions, but I do not break in the storm.
- Let it go. Finally, I would move on. His feelings do not reflect on me, because they are his. He has his feelings, I set limits, no grudges are held, and we move on. It’s easier not to bear resentment when the whole interaction took less than one minute and very little energy on my part. No punishments were doled out, I didn’t nag, he got to express himself and maybe even work off some pent up negative feelings, and his diaper got changed. The next time I set this limit will be new and I will not carry any negative feelings from this moment to the next.
This is the image I conjure in my head while I am holding space for J’s upset – firm, but flexible – I sway with him to allow for his emotions, but I do not break in the storm.
This formula works in many situations. Magda Gerber talked about discipline and different situations where limits are necessary: “Those things a child is expected to do (non-negotiable areas), what she is allowed to do (negotiable areas), what is tolerated (“I don’t really like that, but I can understand why you need to do it.”), and what is forbidden.” I will give examples of how each one works in our house.
Non-Negotiable: Washing hands after using the potty
“It’s time to wash hands now… I know you want to go get your diaper back on so you can play. We will get your diaper after you wash your hands. Would you like to walk to the sink by yourself, or do you need help?”
Negotiable: Climbing on Mama (Sometimes I let him, sometimes I don’t)
“I don’t want you to climb on me right now… I see you really want to climb, but I don’t want to be climbed on. Please find something else to do (or If you want to climb, you may climb your slide).”
Tolerated: Banging his fork on his tray or making other annoying sounds
Say nothing. This is the best response, because the more opportunities you can find to allow tolerated actions, the easier you will find it to set limits when necessary. If you must say something, make it as unexciting as possible, so as not to encourage repeat performances for the sole purpose of eliciting the same response.
Forbidden: Pulling the dog’s tail or legs, climbing on the dog, poking the dog’s face; climbing the furniture; hitting mama
Try to stop these from occurring if at all possible. If you can prevent it, “I won’t let you” is appropriate. If you catch it too late, “You may not” is more authentic.
“<block his hand> I won’t let you pull D’s tail. She doesn’t like it. <Help him move away> We will let her have some space now and she will come back when you are being gentle. <Offer the dog a chance to go to another room behind a gate> Thank you for giving her space.”
“You may not climb on the speaker. You may come down yourself or I will help you get down… I am going to lift you down now… Please find something else to do. Thank you for cooperating.”
“<block his hand> I won’t let you hit me. Hitting hurts. You may rest your hand on my chest. If you hit me, we will be done nursing.” ← I really will stop nursing if he hits me again. This is a big one. No more warnings, no second chances, no excuses or thinking “Well, it’s been awhile since I warned him” or “He was just excited”. One more hit, and nursing is done for now. I have been doing this for many months, so at this point, if he hits me on purpose, nursing is done immediately, without any warnings. He knows this, so it doesn’t come as a surprise.
With each of these situations, it is important to have an awareness of normal toddler behavior. Toddlers have little or no impulse control, so you will have to set the same limit over and over again. The point I want to make here is that each time you do set a limit, you say what you mean (in as few words as possible), mean what you say, and do what you say you’ll do (firmly, gently, and with love). If you are confident in yourself, your toddler will be confident in you and will be more likely to trust you and cooperate with future limits. This type of limit setting feels like it will take more time, but for a relatively small investment of mindfulness up front, you will actually save a lot of energy in the long run. So when especially when I’m feeling tired and run down, I try to make the effort to set limits effectively the first time so I don’t have to do it 30 times. Who ever thought being firm and decisive would be the easy way out?
How do you set respectful limits?
I highly recommend starting here for some additional reading on setting respectful limits with toddlers:
- Magda Gerber Uncut- Discipline is Learning & Nurturing Combined
- The Key To Your Child’s Heart (7 Ways It Works)
- No Bad Kids – Toddler Discipline Without Shame (9 Guidelines)
- Biting, Hitting, Kicking And Other Challenging Toddler Behavior
- How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Eileen Mazlish (affiliate link)
DISCLOSURE: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I receive no benefit from other links not marked as affiliate links.