“I’m so tired of parents who can’t say No to their
child and let them rule the roost. No wonder kids today don’t have any
Most parents assume that not punishing means
permissive parenting. But resisting the urge to punish doesn’t mean we don’t set limits!
In fact, neither permissive parenting nor authoritarian parenting work
to raise self-disciplined kids.
Kids raised permissively may not have the opportunity to develop self discipline, which is about giving up something we want for something we want more. Kids raised with authoritarian parenting, however, don’t develop self-discipline either, because they aren’t choosing–they’re being forced. Often, they stop cooperating, rebel, and become very good liars.
So yes, in my view LIMITS are an essential part of raising great kids. But not
just any limits. EMPATHIC LIMITS Which means we:
Set limits in a way that empathizes with our child’s feelings and helps him to process them.
Stay connected while we set limits.
Resist the urge to make our child suffer or feel bad while we set limits.
Parents often ask me for a “script” so they can see this in action. Here’s a situation posed to me by a parent.
Mommy: “Avery, it’s time to walk home and make some yummy peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. Would you like to walk or ride in the stroller?”
Avery: “No Mommy, I’m sitting on the swing.”
Mommy: [verbally empathize with her and acknowledge how she must be feeling] “You’re having so much fun on the swing. You wish you could stay and swing for a long time. [Setting the limit] AND we need to fill our hungry bellies with a yummy lunch! So we need to go home now. Let’s race to the stroller!”
Avery: “No Mommy, I sit here on the swing.”
Now, we all know this can go on and on and on. The two and a half year old will get hungrier, and the mom will get more frustrated. So far, Mom has done an amazing job of empathizing. She stated a limit. The child did not cooperate happily with the limit. Since Mom is clear that her limit is non-negotiable, it’s time to show that to her daughter.
Mommy: “Avery, you wish you could stay in the swing, all day, don’t you?” [Wish fulfillment]
Mommy: “I wish you could, too. That would be so much fun, wouldn’t it? [Finding a point of agreement.] But now it’s lunchtime and we have to go home. You have a choice, you can jump down and walk with me, or I will pick you up and you can ride in the stroller.” [Mom gives a choice, either of which is palatable to her. This helps Avery save face and gives her some control.]
If Avery doesn’t select one of these choices:
Mommy: “Ok, Sweetie, I see it’s too hard for you to leave the swing yourself. I will help you down and into the stroller.”
Notice Mom doesn’t make Avery feel like a bad person because she couldn’t “obey.” Mom acknowledges that it was just too hard for her.
Let’s assume Avery howls as Mom picks her up. Most parenting advice says to wrestle her into the stroller and ignore her crying, so we don’t “reward” her crying with attention. But that breaks our connection with our child. What’s worse, we give her the message that her emotions are bad, and we will only attend to her if we like what she is expressing — in other words, that our love is conditional. She’s all alone with those big scary feelings.
So should we try to distract our child from her upset? “Wow, Avery, look at that cute doggie right there!” If she’s not very upset, there’s no major harm in it. But the bigger the feeling, the less likely she’ll go for the distraction. And really, what message does distraction give her? Your feelings aren’t important? They’re dangerous, so we’ll pretend they don’t exist? In general, we want to listen to our child, not imply that her emotions are too unimportant or too scary for us to deal with. (Does this mean never distract? No. Distraction is a very useful tool at times. But if it’s your only tool, notice that, and notice whether your child is getting the message to stuff her feelings.)
What works best is Empathic Limits. That means we go ahead and insist on a limit that is non-negotiable to us — after all, the two year old should not be making all the decisions for the family. But we offer empathy for our child’s upset in response to our limit.
Avery: [Begins to howl as we pick her up from the swing.]
Mommy: “You are crying. You don’t want to leave the swing. You are so sad and mad that we have to leave. I’m sorry you can’t swing all day, but it is lunchtime. Let’s sit for a minute on this bench; I will hold you while you cry.”
Despite the fact that the other parents at the playground are staring at us, we are not failures because our daughter is crying. In fact, crying is good, and helpful, for a two year old with big feelings. She needs to express them and show them to us, not to “stuff them.”
As she cries, if we can hold her and help her to feel safe (instead of strapping her into the stroller and pushing her home, sobbing), she may even begin to cry about other things — her new baby brother, or the way Daddy snapped at her when he was in a rush, or that big dog that barked at her this morning, or how much her knee hurt when she fell yesterday but she didn’t cry because she was with Grandma who told her what a brave big girl she was and big girls don’t cry. What a great opportunity to get all this off her chest!
In fact, often kids “pick fights” by resisting our limits, exactly as Avery did with the swing, precisely to get the opportunity to cry like this. So holding our child while she cries is a tremendous gift.
As she cries, we stay connected by holding her. We keep the tears coming — yes, on purpose! — by empathizing and reassuring her that she is safe: “You are sad, you are crying, I am right here, you are safe.”
If she is angry and twists away, we stay nearby and stay connected with our voice: “I’m right here. I won’t leave you alone with those big feelings.” We breathe deeply to stay calm. We ignore the curious looks from passersby.
Finally, she begins to calm. She is snuggled in our arms. We give her a big hug. “You were crying. You were sad. Now you feel better. Let’s go home and get those yummy sandwiches. Do you want a drink of water before you get in the stroller?”
After a good cry in your loving presence, your child will be free of whatever feelings were making her stick to her position at the expense of getting along with you. She will feel relaxed and cooperative. (When kids are rigid and insist on getting their way, that’s a red flag that they need to cry. Just like with adults! :-))
The first time you do this, your child may cry for a long time. That is never a bad thing; she’s showing you her pent-up upsets. Or she may think that her crying will convince you to let her swing more. If you can, it’s best to start setting limits like this at home, when you actually have the time and energy to sit with the meltdown. This preventive maintenance will make your playground meltdowns much shorter or non-existent.
Is this permissive parenting? No. You’re sticking to your limit. Empathizing with her feelings doesn’t mean you rescind a limit that is important to you.
Before long, your child will climb reluctantly from the swing and into her stroller when you say it’s time for lunch. She will have learned from experience that:
- Your limits are firm, even if she can’t understand why they’re important. Because of your empathy, she will ALSO have learned:
- Disappointment can be weathered, with your help. That’s the beginning of resilience.
- You really do care about her happiness. That keeps her seeking guidance from you and cooperating.
- Feelings are manageable. That’s the beginning of emotional regulation.
And what if you have to leave the park to pick up your other child, or you’re on your way to work, or you just don’t have time for the meltdown? That’s our next post!
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