A limit is only as effective as your ability to enforce it
Lessons From the Child-Rearing Trenches: Limits are Only as Effective as Your Ability to Implement Them
Today's newsletter focuses on a key obstacle to setting effective limits. I hope will empower you to feel more in control of shaping your child's behavior in positive ways while reducing power struggles.
Adam and Brian are entrenched in breakfast battles with their 3-year-old, Sadie, who lollygags and gets up and down from the table for a seemingly endless array of urgent tasks she insists must be undertaken. She keeps going back to her room to make sure her teddy’s blanket is still on securely. Or, she looks for the toy she wants to bring to school that day to put in her backpack. Her dads vacillate between trying to convince her to eat—telling her she will be hungry at school—and making threats such as no dessert after dinner if she doesn’t stay at the table. None of these tactics motivates Sadie to sit and eat. When they announce that it’s time to leave for school after the more-than-adequate 20 minutes they have allotted for breakfast, Sadie has taken maybe 3 small bites of her toast. She starts shouting: “I haven’t had time to eat and will starve!” Exasperated but worried that she will be hungry at school, Adam and Brian give her five more minutes which turns into 10 and then 15. They finally, angrily pick her up and get her into her car seat. With Sadie in hysterics, they scold her for making everyone late and lecture her all the way to school about how it is her fault if she doesn’t eat. Everyone is miserable.
I see this dynamic play out in home after home: parents unsuccessful at getting their kids to cooperate—be it to eat, sleep, put toys away—by trying to convince them to comply using logic (you’ll be hungry!), threats and bribery. The problem with these tactics is that they all put the child in the driver’s seat. Whenever parents are in the position of trying to convince a child to comply with a direction and are waiting for her to agree to the expectation they have set, the child holds all the cards. This naturally makes parents feel out of control which leads to reactive and harsh responses that only intensify the struggle and reduce a parent’s ability to be effective.
The key is for parents to make a critical mindset shift which is to recognize that you have no control over your child. He’s a human being and you can’t make him do anything, including eat, pee in the potty, clean up his toys, or go to sleep. The only person you control is you. But the good news is that how you choose to respond makes all the difference. When it comes to getting kids to cooperate, rather than begging, bribing, cajoling or convincing, let your child know exactly what the expectation is and what his choices are. And, most importantly, be sure that you can enforce whatever limit you set so that you maintain control. Consider: you can’t make a child stay in his room after bedtime, but you can put up a gate to provide a boundary that prevents your having to continuously (and with increasing annoyance—not good for anyone) escorting him back to bed. You can’t make a child clean up her toys but you can place the ones she chooses not to put away in a special basket that she doesn’t have access to for a day or two. You can't make a child get in his car seat, but you can let him know that his two great choices are to either climb n himself or you will put him in (while ignoring all his kicking and screaming.) And recently, for a "runner", we told her that her two great choices were to hold an adult's hand while walking along the city sidewalk or to go in the stroller, even if it was just to move from the car to the house, to make it clear that running into the street was not an option and we would be in total control of making sure that didn't happen.
In the case of Sadie, the solution we came up with went as follows: Adam and Brian told her the amount of time she would have for breakfast and used a Time Timer to provide a visual for time elapsing. They clearly explained that she has “two great choices”: she can eat enough to fill her belly during breakfast; or, if she chooses not to fill herself up, then they will put the remaining food in a to-go container for her to eat on the way to school in case she gets hungry. Recognizing that they can’t actually make her stay seated at the table, and that running after her results in too much attention for unwanted behavior, they would no longer chase her down or keep trying to get her to eat. Brian and Adam felt this plan was fair, developmentally appropriate, and would put them back in the driver’s seat. After two days of implementing the new system their breakfasts battles were bygones. Sadie sat at the table for longer and ate more, once her constant getting up and down no longer resulted in a lot of attention or the power to extend the meal and make everyone late.
I am in the midst of writing a book proposal which needs to include testimonials from parents about how they have benefited from my writing or from working directly with me. I would greatly appreciate if any of you who fall into these categories would share a story of how any insights or ideas I have offered have led to you feeling better able to understand and respond to your children's challenging behaviors. The more specific, the better. You can email it to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be sure not to include any identifying information and will change all the names. Thanks in advance for your contribution!
Claire Lerner, LCSW-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE for more than 18 years, where she oversaw the development of all parenting educational content.
Claire has been a practicing clinician for over 30 years, partnering with parents to understand the behavior and development of their young children. In addition, she provides consultation and training to local preschools and pediatric residents.