Choosing a gentle approach to parenting that doesn’t rely on coercion and punishment is very often the easy bit. The tricky bit begins as your innocent baby turns into a curious toddler. All of a sudden, you realise you need to find peaceful ways to keep them safe and guide an internal sense of respect for their environment and community, as well as themselves and other people.
I am increasingly convinced that the less control and the more freedom we can give our children the better. But as much as children need a calm, kind leader who respects their rights to independence of thought, feeling and action, they also need to know that they are safe and cared for.
If we do not help them manage their emotions and set some basic behavioural limits, they will end up feeling insecure and uncomfortable. Limits around respect and safety are also vital in order for our own needs as parents to be met.
THINGS TO BEAR IN MIND BEFORE SETTING A LIMIT:
1. Make thoughtful decisions about which limits you will enforce.
Try and ‘pick your battles’. If you can, consider freeing them from as many arbitrary rules and restrictions as possible. Overly controlling and managing our children tends to be counter-productive and a better aim is to focus on helping them learn to be independent and trust themselves.
Will it teach or help them with something rather than being a random rule that you want them to follow because ‘you say so’?
Do you feel they ‘need’ this boundary for safety reasons? For health reasons? To show respect for the boundaries of others? To help them feel your calm leadership and release emotional tension or big feelings?
Here’s two examples:
For safety reasons (potential glass and sharp objects) I do not let my kids go out of the house without shoes where we currently live. But I’m much more relaxed about coats; I trust that they will know if they are cold and will put it on when they are.
If my three-year-old demands a different cup to the one I’ve given, some days I’ll comply and other days I won’t. If I’m not in a rush and neither of us are overly tired or hungry and I sense there is something he is holding onto and needs to release, I will maintain a gentle limit; ‘You’d really like your red cup, but I’m giving you the Thomas cup today’.
Doing so will allow him to cry and let go of whatever emotional tension he’s holding onto and needs to get out (see below). His request for a different cup is not about manipulation or stubbornness; it is the only way he knows at that moment to tell me he has big feelings about something (from earlier in the day or built up over time) that he needs to express in order to heal. But if I sense it’s not a good time or I don’t have the energy to listen and support the emotional fall-out, it doesn’t matter. Kids know how to heal themselves, and you can guarantee that he will find another opportunity to do so very soon (see here).
2. Do not worry about being religiously consistent
In-the-moment confidence and rational explanations are much more important than always feeling you need to enforce the same rules and limits (as in the cup scenario above). Things change, moods change, everyone is different – and this is okay and a good thing, in fact, for our kids to learn.
Here’s an example:
Some days you might be up for supervising high energy bouncing games across the sofas and feel confident you can join in and keep everyone safe. On another day, not so much, so just say it how it is; ‘sorry guys, no kangaroo games today, I’m feeling too tired to join in and keep you all safe. How about you play on the trampoline or we play a board game instead?’
You may also choose not to set and enforce limits if you have guests or you are out in public, to avoid (as much as possible) making your child feel embarrassed or disrespected. I’m not saying you should let them run wild, but if there is another way or another time, why not take that option.
I would advocate behaving this way even with very young children as they are absorbing much more from your daily interaction than is sometimes obvious. Behave just as you would with a partner or friend; for example, out of respect, most of us would wait until we got home to point out or discuss something we didn’t like or felt was inappropriate rather than publicly shame them.
3. Is it a behaviour that could be re-directed rather than quashed?
Consider if you could avoid saying ‘no’ or setting a limit by re-directing the impulse. A child who is throwing things around may simply need space to practise their lob. This is particularly the case with younger children as their impulse control is so very immature and underdeveloped.
Rather than yelling and point blank shutting the behaviour down, could you try something like, “No I can’t let you throw that ball in here as there are breakable things. Shall we go outside and throw balls in the hoop instead?”
4. Can you use playfulness to turn things around?
If you have asked your child to do something you consider you ‘need’ them to do (e.g. put on their shoes) and they are ignoring you, could you try being playful or humorous before getting firm with a limit?
Be as creative as you can; use silly voices, pretend you don’t know how to put them on and keep doing it wrong, make it into a race, be a shoe monster who eats any shoes that are not on feet – you get the idea. It’s surprising how much more fun the whole process becomes for you too, and your kids will feed off your relaxed playfulness and respond accordingly.
I try to only do this with things we ‘have’ to do, that are perhaps a bit tedious or dull – daily routine stuff like brushing teeth or tidying something away, for example. It is usually not appropriate if your child is already cross or frustrated. Trying to chivvy them out of a feeling is akin to trampling on that feeling and the opposite of being heard. It would be similar to telling your friend how sad you are that your dog has died, and for them to respond with a ‘knock, knock’ joke to ‘cheer you up’!
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT WHILST YOU ARE SETTING A LIMIT:
1. State your limit warmly but decisively
You want to aim for a ‘calm and kind, but firm’ stance – think ‘unruffled’ or picture someone you know who represents this state. It can take a bit of practice to hard-wire, particularly if you’ve previously only set limits when you are already annoyed or triggered or exhausted from the repetitiveness of a testing behaviour.
Imagining it is somebody else’s child can also help (because they don’t tend to emotionally trigger you in the same way). Or try viewing your child as if they are in physical pain (from a deep cut or something) as this helps distance yourself from irritation or thoughts that they are purposely being annoying or difficult.
2. Try not to shout, ‘act’ cross, get worked up or irritated
You can still set and hold a limit just as effectively without doing these things. In fact, if you are feeling frustrated and have lost access to your own rational brain, then addressing this first (if safe to do so) is a priority. You will not be thinking clearly and will be unlikely to hold a limit with any degree of warmth.
We now know that shouting and yelling at a young brain doesn’t ‘work’ anyway; it activates their primitive fight-or-flight response causing them to become further enraged and disconnected from their thinking brain (see here),
Bear in mind that even if you are not yelling or puffing smoke, a strangled huffy tone or a despairing, fed-up one will also send clear signals that you are not calm and centred. As will towering over them, glaring, with hands on your hips! Sorry, I know it does seem like it requires an impossibly unrealistic level of zen. But this is only what you are aspiring to, it won’t happen all the time and neither does it matter. It will gradually get easier and more automatic the more you practise.
3. Show that you understand their perspective
Not always possible I know, but if there is time and you can, showing empathy helps remind your child that you are not the enemy and you are on their side. It is a natural response of all humans to resist being controlled, but knowing that we are understood helps a great deal to soften the blow.
Here are some examples:
I know you are having a lovely time, and now we have to leave
I can see that you are cross, and I can’t let you hit your brother
I know you would really love an ice-cream, and we are not having ice-creams today.
4. If necessary, physically hold them
If you’ve clearly stated a limit as above and they continue to do something you deem unsafe or that you cannot allow (e.g. hurt someone, run away), you may have to physically step in.
As Harvey Merriam says, “Controlling our children should not be the first choice for intervening in their lives, but, if we do have to control them against their will, direct physical control is the way to go.”
If they are trying to hit you (or others), block and hold their hands to gently restrain them. Face them away from you on your lap if possible. Let go as soon as they are no longer hitting, even if they are still angry. You are only there to ensure safety, not to teach them a lesson or punish. They are not hooligans or being ‘naughty’, they are in pain and not in control of themselves.
Speak minimally, if at all. Gently murmuring that they are safe is the most you need to say (they won’t be able to absorb anything anyway) as your calmness and body language will do the rest of the talking.
5. Expect and welcome tears
Be prepared for your limit to unleash big feelings (or more big feelings). This is not only okay but a normal part of the emotional healing process (see here for more on this). Kids are allowed to have and express feelings in the same way as adults; they will undoubtedly be upset if we say they can’t have an ice cream, and that’s fair enough! If their feelings are not allowed they gradually learn that there is a ‘bad’ part of them that is not acceptable which they learn to suppress. These buried, unacknowledged feelings can be carried for many years and are often at the root of any number of later mental health issues.
So your job is just to listen with kindness and empathy to all these feelings. Without, if possible, interrupting the flow by distracting, fixing, diverting, leaving, ignoring, soothing or shushing. Sounds pretty easy? It’s not! At first, anyway – it’s amazing how habitual trying to eradicate or avoid tears becomes. Again, just keep being aware and practising and it will gradually become your new normal.