A Series on the 3 Things I Got Right as a Parent.
Part 3: A Line in the Sand
Giving my kids a taste of nature (read Part 1, “A Wood” here.) is one thing I feel good about as a parent, as is raising them in a great church (read Part 2, “A Community” here.) Another thing I’m glad I did was set limits for my children.
My role model for setting limits with my kids was a surprising one. My younger brother married a pregnant girl when he was still in high school. They raised her son and had a daughter together. When the kids were as young as 9 months old, he would admonish them, “Listen, there’s no need to whine! What do you want? That? Okay, I’ll get it.”
And guess what? They stopped whining and found another way to communicate with him. And they turned out to be really great kids! They weren’t damaged by these limits (that’s not to say they didn’t suffer in other ways from a life with poor teen parents, but that’s another story!). It never seemed like he was denying them expression of their feelings or making them stifle their emotions. Rather, it seemed like he was guiding them to appropriate forms of communication.
And I think that’s the one thing children want to know: “Here I am! How does this place work? What are the rules? Where do I fit in? How do we do things here?”
This is what they learned from my brother, a young teenager: “I don’t want you to whine. I want you to make your needs known without whining. I will respect you; I will honor you; but let’s leave that out of our communication.” They learned boundaries and respect and I could see that they felt safe and clear within that. Of course we came from parents who raised us the same way—limits were firm—and so it came naturally. Plus I had been a Montessori-trained teacher for 10 years by the time I had children, and I had learned the importance of clarity, routine, and freedom within limits.
So I did things like sleep-train my kids at a few months and I could immediately see how important to them it was to have a good sleep schedule. People often commented that my kids rarely whined, whimpered or cried. I believe it was because their sleep and food and health were so protected by me. Children cry chiefly when their physical resources are diminished. And I continue to see myself as their health and safety czar. I’ve tried to leave their emotional life, their academic life, and their social life to them. I may ask my kids if they have homework if I’m planning something for us, but I have never looked over their assignments, checked in on the internet, or edited their papers. I see those as out of my domain.
I began to set limits with my kids as soon as they were crawling. I set aside some cabinets for them, but others were off limits. I gave them access to our alphabetized music CDs when I saw the pure joy and sense of order that my daughter got out of grabbing a CD, toddling 30 steps to the dining room to place it against the wall, and going back 50 times to get another to do the same. But I didn’t let them touch my guitar.
Once they were mobile and I told my kids that they couldn’t touch my guitar sitting on its stand, I would see a little 9-month-old crawl over to the guitar, turn and look at me, make a decision, and crawl on. Isn’t that self control? Don’t we want our children to know what self control looks and feels like? I do!
But these limits were also balanced by much freedom wherever possible. I gave my children complete freedom of movement to the extent possible. They had easy access to a back yard where they could climb and dig and get dirty to their heart’s content. I never limited them from climbing to the very tops of trees and they had a trampoline with no screens around it. My question to myself was always “Could I possibly say yes here?” and I did to the extent possible. They rode their bikes around the block of a busy urban street at a young age and they walked to the gas station a hundred yards away.
We were early practitioners of “free range parenting” and it served us and them well. Sometimes if I was feeling anxious about saying yes I would ask myself “might they die?” I really tried to hold that as the standard, rather than “might they break an arm?” so that I could really allow their executive thinking and decision making to expand. It’s funny because, just as Montessori has both the reputation of being “too rigid” and “too relaxed” – both things have been said about my own parenting methods. I wanted my children to come as close as they could, in an urban setting, to my free range rural childhood. Complete freedom within very clear boundaries is my (and Maria Montessori’s) philosophy!
I also believe that limits and discipline can always be accomplished with COMPLETE love. No anger necessary! You’re containing that child and providing limits with lots of compassion and empathy. As a teacher with many new criers coming to my class I sit with them, “I know it’s hard when Mom leaves. Let me sit here with you.” I don’t try to distract them. I let them be with their big emotions and help them know it’s okay.
Children do what works.
But sometimes tantrums can be a source of power. This isn’t to say they’re manipulative but children are hard wired to determine how things are and what works. When a two-year-old discovers he can bring the family to its knees, he may come to love the power of that. Especially if he isn’t feeling powerful in the rest of his life. This is a nuanced thing. Only a parent knows what’s really going on – whether it’s big feelings or the feeling of big power – but sometimes removing a child can take the wind out of his sails. “I’m sorry, we’re dining here. We’re not crying. Would you like for me to show you where you can go to have a nice cry?” If you take that child into another room, say a formal living room, and sit with him and say “you have a nice cry and let me know when you’d like to return to the dining table,” you may find he looks around, sees he is having no effect, and quiets down to return to the family hub.
We live in Illinois, have friends with farms and houses in Wisconsin and Michigan, and travel often to my home state of Missouri and to Kentucky where my husband was raised. That’s a lot of driving. When our children were small and we stopped for dinner, we had expectations for how they would behave in a restaurant. I always told them,”We don’t know if there is a family here for whom dinner in a restaurant is a rare, special-occasion, once-a-year treat. They do not want it spoiled by listening to a baby cry, scream, or whine. So if you whine or cry, we will go to the car.”
Once inside, we would repeat this, if necessary. For each of my kids we had to follow through once by taking them to the car. That child got no dinner and, when it was my turn to sit in the car, I too cried for my loss of wine (no “h”), leg stretch, rest, atmosphere, and food. But that left enough of an impression that we only had to threaten “Do you need to go to the car?” and that child would be able to stop his behavior fast!
This idea of leaving an impression is important. We have to impress upon a child the terms of his limits. Some children are impressed upon easily, and others not so easily. We have to look at each child and know what it is that will make an impression. For one sensitive child it may be a raised eyebrow. My daughter and I were upset recently when we opened a candy box to find one piece left. I went to my son’s room to tell him we didn’t appreciate him eating all the candy. My daughter called after me, “Just do that thing where you make your eyes big; he’ll know!”
I have met children whose parents have never been able to, or do not believe in, setting limits. It saddens me to see these children who believe that life should always go their way, and who don’t know what it feels like to struggle against a whim. They’ve had no practice and they suffer for it. The people around them suffer too. They become people no one wants to be with. Mostly, it’s a huge disservice to them.
I once heard a speaker, Dr. JoAnne Deak, talk about brain development and the importance of “stretching rubber bands” that were little used. She said that what makes a whole, well-rounded human is one who has all types and kinds of stretchy rubber bands in his brain. So a child for whom things come easily actually needs practice at the things that don’t come so easily and needs to be encouraged to go out of his comfort zone in order to use his whole brain.
I believe that becoming accustomed to limits and working around them can be really good practice for life. It helps stretch those rubberbands – the ones where life doesn’t go exactly as you wished. Limits are good for the brain, good for the soul!
I know this is a controversial subject! In my many years of teaching I have had quite a few parents tell me “We don’t say like to say no. We were raised with authoritarian parents and don’t want to do that.” But I actually think a child feels safe and contained and clear when he is clear on limits. What’s your opinion of boundaries and and freedom-within-limits? Do you try to reduce limit setting in your house?
Does setting limits help children have resilience and find solutions quicker than if they hadn’t had the experience of being told no? This study has an interesting take: http://psychpedia.blogspot.com/2015/11/the-science-of-happiness-why.html
(To read more about Dr. Deak, click here http://www.deakgroup.com/our-educators/joann-deak-phd/)
Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, Little Pickle Press, 2011. It’s a great book about the teenage brain that my children enjoyed.