Several months ago, I wrote about my journey into respectful, punishment-free parenting. If you haven’t read it yet, you might find it helpful to click here and read it first.
A large amount of my writing focuses on honoring a child’s need, hearing the child’s voice, and respectfully guiding children’s behavior in developmentally appropriate ways. In response to these articles, I receive wonderful questions and feedback sharing legitimate concerns:
But children need boundaries, right? What about safety – you can’t negotiate with a child who’s about to run into the street? How do they learn to behave?
Oh, do I ever understand! At Abundant Life, I work daily with 6-8 children from birth to age 5. If I was preoccupied with questions of safety or behavior that allowed everyone’s needs to be met, my work would be impossible!
The answer is respectful, clearly-articulated limits. Limits and boundaries provide the framework for freedom and growth. A young child’s strong behavior is often a result of fuzzy limits (which, by the way, sounds like it would be delicious served icy cold!). Either children aren’t yet clear about the expectations (no matter how many times we think the expectation was clearly stated) or they are checking to verify if those limits remain constant with changing variables. You said I can’t run. Can I skip? How about hop? What if I run backwards? What if I run this afternoon instead of this morning? What if I’m wearing my running pants? What if I’m wearing no pants? (Rick Ackerly wrote a wonderful article a few days ago about a child’s scientific process when it comes to learning behavior. I strongly suggest you read it.)
Be clear. Say what you want. In as few words as possible, but with as many words as it takes. Keep your body language in line with what you are asking. (Read Janet Lansbury’s excellent post on the matter.)
Ask “why?” Children might have a valid reason for resisting the limit, and frequently, asking why can help us find a solution together. Why acknowledges that a child’s perspective is valid, even if it ultimately must be overruled. Why allows us to respond to a child’s real concern
Offer as much choice as possible. Human beings are hard-wired to resist when our autonomy is threatened. Offering children real choices under the umbrella of a clear limit allows them to keep some power and control while still guiding their behavior to meet social expectations.
Use statements when “no” is not an option. Very often, when adults try to limit a child’s behavior, they ask. Can you please sit at the table? or Would you please stop hitting your brother? You can still be polite, and you can still model manners, but don’t be fuzzy. If you need a child to sit, or stop, then say, “Please sit.” or “Please stop.”
Evaluate the limit. As a child resists, you might consider whether the limit was necessary in the first place. Sometimes, there is room for flexibility. If safety (broadly defined) is not immediately in jeopardy, allowing children to share their perspective and offer alternatives might help to find a true middle ground. (I wrote a while back about compromising, and it explains this idea in more detail.)
Empathize, and restate the limit. When a child resists the limit, empathy communicates our respect for their emotions, honoring their right to feel strongly about the limit while still insisting that the limit is necessary.
Change the environment. Consider what stimuli exist in the environment that contribute to a child’s inability to work within a limit, and consider making a change.
- Music (on/off)
- Lighting (bright/dim)
- Clothing (too warm/too cool)
- Place (change rooms/go outside/leave a public place and go home)
- Activity (loud, full-body/quiet, small-body)
Step in and help. Children want to do well, and they do well when they can. If they are unable to accommodate a limit, they need our help. Some examples of this type of intervention are listed below.
EXAMPLES (assume the adults have prepared children for upcoming transitions, and paved the way for the following dialogues)
Child refuses to clean up when it’s time
Adult: “It’s time to clean up before lunch.” (clearly stating the limit)
Child: “I don’t want to.”
Child: “I just don’t want to. I’m not hungry.”
Adult: “I understand. You don’t feel hungry.” (empathy)
Child: “No, and I want to keep playing.”
Adult: “Oh, and you don’t want to stop what you’re doing.”
Adult: “I see. Is there a way we can save it for you so we can eat lunch as a group?” (looking for middle-ground)
Child: “Let’s put a note on my tower so no one will knock it over.”
Adult: “Okay. Then, would you like to start with the dolls or the puzzles?” (offering choices, keeping the limit in place.)
Adult: “Great. Thanks for your help. It makes a difference when we work like a team.”
Child refuses to get dressed.
Adult: “I see you are still wearing your jammies. We need to leave the house, so you need daytime clothes.”
Child: “I don’t want to go.”
Adult: “You don’t want to go.”
Adult: “Because you want to keep your jammies on?”
Adult: “I wish I could let you. Jammies are for bedtime, daytime clothes are for running errands. Do you want the brown pants or the jeans?”
Child: “The jeans.”
Adult: “Okay. When you finish, we’ll be ready to leave.”
“You can’t make me!” Difficulties leaving a friend’s house (my real-life example when our family was visiting with friends, and my children were not ready to go home when it was time.)
Me: “Okay, it’s time to go.”
Child: “I don’t want to.”
Me: “Why not?”
Child: “I want to stay and play.”
Me: “I understand. You wish we could stay. We have to go now. Would you like to put on your shoes by yourself or should I help?”
Child: “No. You can’t make me.”
Me: “I’m not trying to make you, but to leave, you must have shoes on. Would you like to put them on yourself or should I help?”
Child: “But I don’t want to go.”
Me: “I know! It’s such a bummer to have to leave something you love. Will you do your shoes yourself or will I help?”
Child: “I DON’T WANT TO GO!”
ME: “You are feeling very strongly. I will help you with your shoes. Let’s put this one on first.”
Child: (still crying, hands me her foot) “I don’t want to go home!”
Me: “I know. You feel really upset. Would it help to write a note about how upset you are?”
Me: “What will you write?”
Child: “Dear Mom: I am so angry that you made me leave. I don’t want to go. I am so angry. I will be so angry when I get home.”
Me: “Okay. Let’s find some paper to write that note.”
I learned the power of writing feelings in a note from Heather Shumaker in her book It’s OK Not To Share. What a powerful tool to help children capture the intensity of their emotions! Younger children dictate, older children can write it themselves. I try to keep paper and pencils handy for impromptu notes as needed.
Younger, non-verbal children:
[toddler pulls the hair of another child]
Adult: [coming close, placing a hand on the shoulder of the toddler] “Ow! When you pulled her hair, that hurt. See her tears? She’s sad. Ow.” (This helps to draw the young child to the effect of her actions.) “Let’s see how we can help.” [Directing the attention toward the hurt child] “Simone? How can we help?”
Simone: “I want my blanket!”
Adult: [to the toddler] “She wants her blanket. Would you come with me to get it for her?”
A few moments later, the toddler reaches for Simone’s hair again, but I am close, and gently pull back the toddlers grasping hand.
Adult: “I won’t let you pull. That will hurt. If you want her attention, you can tap her on the shoulder, like this.”
More with younger, non-verbal children:
Adult: “Desmond, keep the door closed.”
Desmond: opens the door, and smiles
Adult: “You want it opened. It must stay closed.” (The adult can use gestures to help communicate open and closed)
Desmond: opends the door, and smiles again
Adult: “I will help you keep it closed.” (Moves to the door and holds it closed.)
Looking for more? Here are some of my favorite articles about setting limits with respect:
- Darci Walker of Core Parenting write about coping during intense moments with children: “Sit Down and Breathe“
- Suchada of Mama Eve shares fabulous language to use with children when setting limits: “The Most Powerful Parenting Phrase After I Love You“
- Kelly Bartlett of Parenting from Scratch gives very practical suggestions for limit setting: “Tips for Holding and Setting Limits with Kids“
- Janet Lansbury of Janet Lansbury – Elevating Childcare has a great detailed account that walks a parent through a specific example: “Set Limits Without Yelling“
- Lisa Sunbury of Regarding Baby writes a wonderful article for the younger crew called “Stop! 5 Easy Steps To Effective Limit Setting With Toddlers“
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