One of the most disappointing things I hear from parents I consult with is that they aren’t enjoying parenting, especially when it comes to setting limits, which has become a source of confusion and often guilt. What’s most concerning to them is that they sense their children aren’t happy either. It’s usually because they’re both confused about boundaries.
These are parents who will never need to worry about being overly strict – it simply isn’t in their constitution. Like me years ago, they are drawn to Magda Gerber’s parenting approach and her recommendations to respectbabies as whole people, trust their intrinsically motivated development and encourage their self-directed free play.
Trust, empathy and unconditional love seem to come naturally for parents like us. Boundaries, not so much.
It can be easy for us to become so focused on giving our children trust and freedom that we overlook their even more crucial need to feel securely rooted. Too much freedom actually makes our children feel the opposite of free, and they often express their discomfort through limit-pushing behavior.
To experience true freedom and happiness, kids need gentle leaders who are clear about house rules and expectations. They need a healthy balance between freedom and boundaries. In my work with parents over the last twenty years (and as a parent myself), I’ve noted some of the most common reasons many of us struggle to find this balance:
- We’d prefer not to upset our children (who does?)
Discomfort with our children’s strong emotions is the number reason parents struggle to provide clear boundaries and can cause us to question and doubt every decision we might make:
Hmmm, I guess I could carry my five-year-old down the street after all, even though my back is aching.
Why not just give him back the blue cup? So what if he screamed, “No, I want green!” and then changed his mind again? Sure, I’m annoyed, but it would be so easy to try one more time to please him.
Since I’m really in no hurry, I might as well wait another fifteen minutes for her to decide she’s ready get into her car seat.
Our children’s age-appropriate resistance and intensely emotional reactions to our boundaries can make us feel guilty and worried, wear us out, ruin our whole day. For limit-setting to work and for parents to enjoy (read: survive) the toddler years, getting comfortable with this basic dynamic is essential:
We confidently establish a boundary. Our child expresses displeasure (which can include frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger, rage). We stay anchored during this storm, patiently accepting and acknowledging our child’s displeasure.
Children often push for our boundaries because they know intuitively that they need the safety of our calm, confident responses, and also to offload uncomfortable feelings simmering inside them. Our acceptance of these feelings eases the need to test and is one of the most profound ways we can express our love. It gets a little easier for us with practice.
- Confusing advice
Lately I’ve been disappointed by advice I’m reading from non-punitive parenting experts, especially when I notice how misleading, confusing and discouraging these suggestions are for the parents reaching out to me:
Only set limits with your children for safety reasons
This is a formula for insecure children and miserable parents. What about emotional safety and peace of mind – the relief of knowing that we’re not expected to call all the shots when we’re only 2 years old? And does this mean parents don’t have rights to their personal boundaries and self-care? What’s that line from “The Elephant Man?”: “I am not an animal!”
Don’t set limits that might feel like punishments to your children
This one could get us questioning ourselves all day long because it plays right into our doubts and fears about upsetting our children. As respectful parents courageously committed to non-punitive discipline, we need to grant ourselves permission to make the decisions we deem best for us and our children.
Yes, it’s okay to move to another room if our child won’t stop screaming at us, even if they find that upsetting. Yes, it’s okay to say honestly, “We won’t be able to leave for the park until you help me pick these toys”, or “Please come brush your teeth now, so we’ll have time for an extra book”, or “I see you want to play with the folded laundry, but I don’t want it unfolded on the floor, so I’m going to pick this basket up. Here’s an empty one you can use.”
If we decide later that a decision we’ve made is unfair or unnecessary, we can always apologize and change our minds. But to foster a sense of security for our children we must make these decisions from a platform of strength rather than hesitancy. To be gentle leaders with self-confident children, we must first trust ouselves.
When children push limits, make them laugh.
I believe it is asking way too much to suggest we can take the annoyance (or worse) we naturally feel when children push our limits and turn that into games and laughter. Yet this is exactly what some gentle, non-punitive parenting experts advise us to try first, even in response to our kids’ aggressive behaviors like hitting and biting. I see so many problems with this advice I don’t know where to begin.
It isn’t beneficial to us or our children to pretend to feel silly and perky when we are actually annoyed or angry. Shouldn’t we be modeling authenticity? And doesn’t this teach children that their negative feelings are not okay? They should laugh when they’re angry?
What if our children’s behavior angers or enrages us? Is this a healthy time to be rough-housing, tickling, blowing raspberries on our kids? Not in my experience.
Ironically, these are the experts who also purportedly advocate for allowing children to express their strong feelings, but rather than help normalize this challenging experience for parents, their advice is essentially saying, “Only let your children cry as a last resort, do a song and dance first and get ‘em laughing if you can.”
- We are afraid our limits might crush our child’s free spirit
Truly, this works exactly the other way around. Over the years in my classes, I’ve worked with many parents who have had difficulties setting limits. When they eventually figure this out and make changes, the transformation in their children’s behavior and demeanor is dramatic. Formerly clingy and demanding children are suddenly able to stop trying to control every situation with parents or peers. They are able to focus on play, socialize with their peers, participate in snack time, loosen up enough to laugh and express joy. This is freedom.