The Reticent Parent’s Guide to Limit Setting

I struggled a bit over the title of this post.

Limit Setting for People Pleasers?  Well, that’s a whole lot of us, isn’t it.  Not quite right.

The Wimp’s Guide to Limit Setting?   I mean, name-calling, even in playfulness, is the clickbait way of the internet, after all, right?  No, best to leave that word in the realm of playful self-deprecation.

Limit Setting for People Afraid to Make Their Kids Sad?  Kinda.

The Empath’s Guide to Limit Setting.  Also kinda.  Except there are some kickass empaths who set limits like a champ.

Limit Setting for Women?  Yikes–did I say that? For someone who is as all about avoiding gender stereotypes as i am, that would be kinda outrageous…even if it is what I see happening more often than not…I mean, socialization is socialization.

In the end I settled on…well, you know.  I’m hoping it encompasses all of the above in a kinder, more respectful way.  But hey, if you identify with any of the others, this is for you, too.

Whatever you call yourself, however you see it, I’m talkin’ to you.  We’ve got to talk about this.  Because you’re having trouble, many of you.  I’ve had this trouble myself.

The thing is, we know what to do.  We’ve read the books. We’ve read the articles. We know what words to use.  We know that kids test limits and its our job to set limits.

We know.  We know.  We know.

But we can’t.  Or we’re “not good at it.”  Or we feel guilty.  Or we apologize.  Or we’re afraid that we’re harming our children.  Or we’re afraid that our children will be angry at us, or not like us.  Or we’re traumatized by our own childhoods, possibly full of restrictions, and determined to do things differently.  Or we’re compensating.  Or we can’t reconcile being kind and respectful with being firm.  Or we are waiting until we need to.  Or we are afraid of our own emotions and frightened that if we are firm, we will become too rigid or strict or punitive or authoritarian, and we don’t want those things.  Or we don’t know.  Or all of these things.  And more.

So let’s talk about it.

But first, let’s talk about my little highly unusual sojourn into sex role stereotypes.  I know, it’s odd territory for me.  But not talking about it just leaves it the elephant in the room, and that’s not good either.

So here’s the issue.  As a parent coach and a child development consultant, I work with a lot of families.  I talk to them on the phone, I talk to them online, I visit their homes.  And I see a lot more women than men who are filled with angst about limit setting.  It may not be politically correct to say so, and I wish it weren’t the case, and I trust that it’s not true for everyone.  There are many of you out there who are moms who have no trouble at all with limit setting.  That’s fantastic.  The thing is, if you’re one of those moms who’s got it down, who sets limits confidently and without guilt, this article probably isn’t for you.

This article is for the other ones.  The ones who worry.  A lot.  The ones who know what to do, but can’t seem to do it, or are able to do it, but then feel like they’re awful moms.  The ones who set limits and then cry, or set limits and then give up, or don’t set limits at all until they wind up yelling.  If that’s you, take heart–there are a lot of us out here.  And really, in a sense, it’s not sex role stereotyping (I rationalize with the best of ’em.)  It’s simple socialization, and the great majority of women know what I’m talking about (and a lot of men don’t.)

Be nice.  Apologize.  Don’t make anyone mad at you.  If people are mad at you, fix it–fast.  Take other people’s feelings into consideration.  Speak softly.  Be polite.  Be the good mom, the fun mom, the easy going mom, the mom that has cupcakes.  Don’t make waves.  Defer.   Empathize.  Sympathize.  Give them a hug.  Make them feel better. Nurture.  Soothe.  “Poor Baby.”

You know the drill.  This is how women are socialized. So it is it any wonder that it shows up when we become moms?  Not to me.

I talk with so many moms who recognize that they are deeply uncomfortable when their children cry.  I watch so many parents who think they’re okay with children’s emotions who squirm like nobody’s business–or give in–when those emotions get too high.  And–not to harp on the gender socialization stuff, but I see a lot of dads who, although they may struggle to set limits, do not have quite the same struggle.  Although I am admittedly generalizing, I have not observed many fathers who seem as deeply uncomfortable with boundaries–and their kids seem to know it, because, ya know, kids are omniscient. Once again, socialization.

I’m gonna suggest that what is needed–whether you are male or female or otherwise, whether you are a parent or a caregiver or a grandparent or a conscientious observer–is a reframing.

I’m sure you’ve heard it before.  Children need limits and boundaries.  Children seek limits–that’s what testing is about.  Children want to know how far we will go.  Children are driven to find out where our breaking point is, and whether it always happens at the same point (fun times).  We know these things.  But we still see it as a chore, a task.  Fine, so children need boundaries and limits.  I can accept that.   We do it because it’s necessary, or because they’re making us nuts, and we need to be able to go to the bathroom by ourselves.  Self-preservation.

And right there, right off the bat, we miss the point.  They don’t need limits “for their own good” or “so they’ll grow up right” or “so they won’t embarrass us with their behavior at Thanksgiving” or “because they need to learn right from wrong.”  I mean, yeah, those things can also be true.  But I would argue it’s the wrong “frame.”

So what’s the right frame?  I’m glad you asked.

Children need limits because they feel safe and secure when they know that the people who take care of them know what they’re doing.  And, as luck will have it, when children feel safe and secure, challenging behaviors decrease (that’s the good part for us.)  Setting limits and having clear boundaries with children–even in infancy and toddlerhood–helps children to feel relaxed and confident that “everything is going to be okay.”  They want to know that we’ve “got this.” Of course, It can often appear otherwise, but I promise you, that’s what it does.  This is the frame that I’m inviting you to consider:  Limit setting not as a necessary evil, but as an act of love and respect.

No one has explained this as beautifully as Janet Gonzalez-Mena, a one-time teacher and colleague, and a passionate and exemplary leaguardrailbridgeder in early childhood education, especially with infants and toddlers.  To paraphrase (I’ve taken the liberty of elaborating a bit):  Janet uses the analogy of going over a bridge in the dark.  If the bridge does not have rigid railings–or no sides at all–we must be extraordinarily vigilant as we cross.  Some of us might choose not to cross at all–that would be too frightening.  When we know there are rails or sides–not only visible ones, but ones that we are absolutely certain will hold us and prevent us from falling–we can relax, we can enjoy the night sky, conversation with people we are with, perhaps the sound of the rushing water below.  We feel safe.  Secure.  This is what limits provide.  To offer that security to our children is a gift, not a burden or something that we should approach reluctantly.

So what gets in our way?  Let’s look at a few of the things that trip so many of us up:

We are afraid of our children rejecting us, and we seek to avoid that helpless feeling at all costs.

Yes, it feels terrible when our children get angry at us.  The question is:  what is the alternative?   Children are human beings.  They get angry.  Just like we all do sometimes.  Gradually learning how to manage our actions when we feel angry is a critically important lesson for our children to learn as they grow.  But far more importantly, when we allow our children’s emotions to overwhelm us or to impact us in powerful emotional ways, we are sending a message to our children that they have immense power.  They are three or four years old, and they are in control of an adult’s emotions?  That is an overwhelming feeling for a young child, one who is so utterly dependent on us for their health, safety, and well-being.  The feeling that they take from that experience looks something like this: “Wow, I am so powerful.  If I have control over her emotions, then she is not as in control or as powerful as I thought.  And if she’s not in control, then how can I rely on her to take care of me?  She’s supposed to be the one who knows what to do, who handles things, who is in charge…but now it seems like maybe I’m in charge…and I’m only four, and I don’t know how to take care of myself!”  Can you see how that would make a child feel insecure and frightened?  Understand that when children are insecure and frightened, they amp up their efforts to make sure that you are in control–in other words, more limit testing, more trying to make sure we’ve “got this.”

Children need us to be their rock.  They need to be able to be angry–yes, even at us–and know that we are stronger than their emotions.

We become overwhelmed with our own emotions when children’s expressions go on longer than we think they “should.”

Children’s emotions take as long as they take.  The only tools that I’ve ever seen help children to process things more quickly are acknowledgement, empathy, and calm presence.  They need to know that no matter what they throw at us, we are strong enough to not let it rattle us.  Please do not misunderstand:  this is NOT about “don’t give in or they win” or “when you support them in a tantrum, they learn that it’s acceptable to scream to get what they want.”  A tantrum is an emotional and a neurological overload.  As adults, when we are genuinely outraged or upset about something, most of us would be offended, if not enraged, by someone shushing us, or telling us that the thing we are upset about is insignificant, or by trying to distract us or getting us to shut up.  Our children deserve the same respect.

Sit with them (if they allow it).  Say very few words (no one likes to be talked at when they are out of control).  Acknowledge their emotions and let them know that you are there and not rattled: “You’re really upset.  I’m here.”  If they do not get those feelings out of their body, they will come out in behavior.  Let them have their feelings.  If the screaming is too much for you, make sure they’re in a physically safe space, and walk away and take a break, explaining that you need a break and will be back, and then come back when you are able. You are not abandoning them–you are modeling self-care and self-control. Tantrums are not something to be punished–they are expressions that deserve our respect and compassion.  Yes, they’re hard for us.  They’re harder for them.

We allow ourselves to be shamed into choosing bribery or punishment when our children get upset in a public place.

Yes.  Sometimes children get upset in public.  Often, that is more likely when we take them to places that are overstimulating in some way, especially when they are tired or hungry or otherwise depleted (like after a long day at day care).  In that way, every public tantrum is a learning opportunity for us as parents.  If it’s possible, maybe we need to do grocery shopping at a 24 hour market after they’re asleep or when someone can relieve us.  If we need to go to Target, maybe we need to try to do that at a time of day when our kids are at their best. Maybe we need to find a way to actively involve our children in shopping and slow down the experience so that it is engaging for them.  Maybe we need to keep healthy snacks in our pockets.  Maybe at this particular age, restaurants are too much for her to handle.  Maybe the carnival, which we think would be tremendous fun for the whole family, is too overstimulating for this particular child at this particular age and stage–maybe it will be different next year or the year after.  This is our opportunity to take responsibility for the situations we put our children in, and the way it does or does not match up with their developmental capabilities and temperaments.  And yes, sometimes there will still be public meltdowns.  This is a test.  Tantrums cannot be stopped, should not be stopped.  Take the child out of the store.  Abandon the trip if need be–yes, it’s a sacrifice, that comes with parenting.  Or take  a break in the car.  And when you are removing them from the store, carry or walk them out with compassion–even if they are screaming–and with the confidence and awareness that removing them from the store is not a punishment, it is giving them the gift of privacy, allowing them to keep their dignity in the midst of an emotional overload.  None of us would want to fall apart in the mall, with people looking at us and shaking their heads.  Our children don’t want (or deserve) that, either.

We are afraid of our own power, afraid of being “authoritarian” (for some of us, that equals fear of being “like our parents”). 

As a result of that fear, we ask when we need to direct, we apologize (assuming a position of deference), we beg our children for compliance, we resort to bribery, and we let behavior go on for too long, until we are too angry to deal with it constructively.  And in doing so, we prolong or intensify the behavior that we are trying to stop…and then we say that our kids are “turning into monsters!”, as if our approach has nothing to do with that.  There is a difference between being authoritarian and being authoritative.  The second one is the one you’re after.  Calm.  Confident.  Certain.  Compassionate.  Firm.  Gentle parenting is not permissive, it is firm.  If you find yourself begging, or repeating, or apologizing–“I’m sorry, we’re not going to buy any toys today”–take it as a sign.  Why in the world should you be sorry that you’re not buying toys on that day?  Do they need toys?  Do you want them to feel deserving of sympathy every time something doesn’t go the way that they want it to?  Do you know what that looks like in the long run?  Here’s a tip–I’ll save you the time: that’s not what you want.  And going back to what I said before, why should we be sorry about erecting the guardrails that keep our children safe?

We believe that a child who cries represents failure.  The mark of successful parenting is happy children, so if our children are not happy, we are failing. 

“It is our job to comfort our children, to soothe their upset, to dry their tears, to ‘kiss the boo-boo’, to ‘make it all better.'”  Yes, sometimes that is our job.  But not here.  It’s not our job to make our children happy.  It is our job to raise children who can identify, process, express, and manage the full range of emotions in mentally and socially healthy ways.  How can they learn to do that if they don’t feel them?  Crying is okay.  You cry.  I cry.  We all cry when we feel sad, or disappointed, or frustrated, or confused, or overwhelmed, or frightened.   Welcome it in your children, don’t try to stop it or shut it down.  Yes, be there as a support when they are ready and they want to be comforted; trust that they will let you know when that is what they want and/or need.  We don’t have to decide that for them.  Expression is healthy.  You’re not failing, you’re succeeding.

We come to believe that we our children have–or should have–as much say or control as we do.

What does this look like?  It looks like power struggles.  It looks like “she just argues and argues.” (Who is she arguing with?  It takes two to tango.) It looks like explaining things over and over again, and still “they don’t get it” or “they’re not impressed.” (They don’t have to be impressed or “get it.”  We’re not trying to convince them.  We’re taking charge.)  It looks like putting a sweet “ok?” or “ok, honey?” on the end of every sentence.  “Time to get your jacket on, okay?”  It’s hard not to do that, especially for women.   (My cardinal rule: Any time you put “okay?” on the end of the sentence, you are required to abide by whatever answer they give, no matter what; you asked, you have to accept their answer.   That’ll nip it in the bud.)

We compare. 

Oh, comparison.  If I believed in the devil, I would call comparison the work of the devil.  I don’t believe, so I don’t call it that, but you get the gist.  We compare our children to other children, and in doing so, attribute the challenges solely to our children, as if these behaviors are sign of organic disturbance that is beyond our control:  “None of the other kids have fits like that. My kid is the only one who takes things from other children.  What am I doing wrong?”  Listen up.  Yes, the other kids have fits like that.  You just haven’t seen them.  You don’t live in their house.  No, your kid is not the only one who takes things—all kids do that.  What are you doing wrong?  You are comparing your child to others–you are jumping down an endless rabbit hole that leads to..well, nowhere.  Or nowhere you want to be, anyway.  Every child develops at her own rate and in her own way.  If your friends’ perfect children are not in a testing stage now, they will be in that stage later, when you child is not.  And if the wunderkind are perfectly behaved, I hereby give you permission to be suspicious.  Maybe it means they are very tightly controlled or punished–which looks great in the short term and does not bode well in the long term.  That’s not what you want.  Maybe it means they are very easy going kids–even easy going kids have their moments.  Maybe it means the family really has limit setting all figured out, in which case they’re potentially great moral support.  Maybe you’ll never know what it means.  In any case, it doesn’t matter.  Our job is to parent the child we have, not someone else’s child.

So how do you do it?  You print out these Top 10 Limit-Setting Tips for Reticent Parents, you stick ’em on your refrigerator with a magnet, and you get to work!

Top 10 Limit Setting

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3 thoughts on “The Reticent Parent’s Guide to Limit Setting

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I really relate to the comparison bullet point. I don’t often have a hard time with setting limits and enforcing them, but I do have a hard time balancing enforcing limits with an older child and a baby in the house. It’s overwhelming and stressful, and much of the time, I feel like I’m not doing anything significant in life.

    Thanks for this, it was a good reminder that limits are necessary and purposeful.

  2. This is a great article, thanks. Would you recommend a similar approach to limit setting for tweens?

    • Limit setting with teens is a very different topic, in many ways. If we have laid the ground well, limit setting is rarely needed by that age. If we have not, we need to honor their increasing abilities and involve them more as active collaborators.

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