Setting limits is one of the hardest things parents have to do. And it doesn’t come naturally to most. It’s a learned skill that is acquired only after months, sometimes years, of witnessing the resilience of children who thrive with age-appropriate expectations, high standards and consistent boundaries. Good parents are fun, kind and loving. Good parents are also “mean” and “unfair”, at least in the words of their children.
Is it reasonable to expect toddlers to sit at a table while eating, wait 20 seconds before interrupting, walk without running away in a parking lot and fall asleep in their own beds? Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes. Will most toddlers naturally and automatically learn those skills? No. All the above require effort and learning.
It takes a confidant parent to stay strong through the guilt of asking “too much” of a child. Children don’t often know they are capable until someone shows them, particularly when the behavior requires delayed gratification. You can dissolve under the self-doubt or find your own sure footing to help your child move forward toward self control and helpfulness. Parents don’t want to be the bad guy, don’t want to see their kids cry, especially when their children are too young to understand the reasons behind it. Parents want to protect, comfort and remove every barrier and burden – except that they know that will in fact unintentionally harm the very child they love so dearly.
Act with Love
The first step towards successful limit setting is: acting with love. Too often, parents feel that the hard stuff – enforcing a bedtime, leaving the playground or getting to school on time – is acting un-lovingly toward a child. Developmentally speaking, children cannot make “big picture” decisions; they live in the moment. Children will eventually feel unsafe when they are the ones running the house. They need to feel the love and protection of predictable rules and routines.
Accept all Feelings
The authoritarian parenting of generations ago when children were to be seen and not heard, expected children to accept rules and restrictions quietly and submissively. The preferred authoritative parenting of today sets limits and compassionate responses. Today’s parent finds safe places for kids to fall apart in tantrums before the children understands all the troublesome emotions that come with challenging rules – anger, frustration, confusion, impatience, etc. By accepting all feelings, parents teach children how to think and feel at the same time.
Know what you want
Children accept limits better when the expectations are stated clearly and confidently. The best choices are rarely made under pressure or when children are most challenging. Decide in advance what you really want and if you are truly willing to stand by your decision. The uncertain parent undermines forward progress while a confidant parent leads a child to good choices.
Let go of false expectations
Unfortunately, young children rarely thank their parents for all the wise difficult decisions they make. Children live in the moment, celebrating spontaneous, never-ending fun. They don’t know that one piece of cake is enough or to get into bed before hitting their manic edge; their parents do but it’s a thankless job.
Other false expectations include: “perfect” kids who learn when and what you tell you to learn; children who don’t embarrass you in public or in front of in-laws; and children who never push your buttons. Sometimes parents have to separate wishful thinking from reality. Yes, your child’s going to run in the parking lot again and call you back for “one more” something at night. They will plead with you with mind melting sweetness – “please don’t ask me to do something I really really don’t want to do”. But you know that giving in today means escalating problems tomorrow.
Limits are meaningless without action. Wise parents move forward with a firm commitment to what they want and how they will accomplish it. Yes, parents-in charge are a positive force for good in the world. This is the step that reinforces all your beliefs and good intentions – knowing as fully as possible how you will teach acceptable behavior. Each baby step moving you and your child closer to the desired outcome.
There are no short cuts. Taking action means paying attention when you’re exhausted, losing 7 nights sleep in order to gain a year of peaceful bedtimes, and being strong you feel like giving up. Young children learn exactly what we teach them but sometimes it feels horrible to be the good parent.