Our children need confident, calm leaders rather than to be disciplined, punished, or shamed into doing things.
I often ask myself “what am I trying to teach my child?” And then, strategize about the most effective way to teach that.
This way of parenting is quite active; when people hear “no punishment” that can get interpreted as permissive parenting.
Consequences can be very important. When giving a consequence: 1) I try to be present and aware (vs. reactive), 2) ensure the consequences are proportional, 3) ensure consequences are directly related to the incident, 4) be sure I will follow through if I state there will be a consequence for something and then that thing happens, 5) keep the perspective that my child might have done something bad, but that they are not bad and are small people who are learning and need help.
I need to have very clear and strong boundaries - children crave boundaries. I cannot be scared to give them or be scared to hear my children cry or feel sad.
Often times they make unreasonable or ridiculous requests specifically because they are unconsciously begging me to set a limit for them, so they can melt down and let out their emotions through crying or a tantrum.
Generally, if I am starting to feel annoyed at either of my children, it is time to set a boundary / limit. No child wants to annoy us. My kids don’t want to be the “bad” ones. Even if they smile after they do something they know they should not, I have to remind myself not to be fooled. They are very uncomfortable little people in need of a lot of help.
It is their job to push, and my job to hold the line. I protect them by taking care of myself and trying to set limits way before I get angry.
Boundary setting can start early. I remember spending a lot of time following my daughter around on the playground when she was younger because I knew her really well, and it took her awhile to learn it wasn’t ok to hit or push other kids. I’d stay near and when she got close to hit, I’d hold her arm, gently if possible, and say “I can’t let you hit” just like Janet Landsbury says to do. The most important things I learned related to boundary setting with very young kids include:
At this age boundary setting is very active. You need to pay attention and know your child. Set boundaries often and early. Physically intervene vs. giving increasingly loud verbal commands. Most of the time, this means being very close by, physically. If I was further away but through careful observation, I could sense my child was going to be testing limits, I would move closer.
Use very clear “I” language. With my first child before I found Janet Landsbury, I used to say things all the time like “no no, we don’t hit” when my child would hit. I learned that at this age kids need 'me to you' close connection. When I switched over to “I can’t let you…” with physical assistance and eye contact, I noticed a HUGE difference in my child’s response.
On the physical assistance, this is another change I made that helped a lot. Kids need a LOT of physical assistance especially pre 5 years old. Yelling across the room “hey, stop doing that…” especially repeatedly and louder and louder is not effective, and it is a recipe for a very frustrated parent. If my children don't comply with my request the first time, then they likely need physical help.
For me, this meant a lot of getting up off my seat and walking over to my children when I saw they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing by physically stopping them combined with saying “I can’t let you do x...because of y” and then blocking them as long as it took for them to stop trying to do that thing.
Or this also worked really well as they got older “I see you're having trouble not doing x, are you able to stop on your own, or do you need me to come help you stop?” And then get up and follow through if they don’t stop. My kids are very used to this, and so it is quite effective.
Sometimes, physical assistance also means helping them into a car seat when they are screaming and thrashing. Or assisting them to wash their hands after going potty while they are screaming, etc. As long as I am able to stay calm and confident while acknowledging the feelings, I will lovingly assist my children physically when they need it to comply with a firm boundary. Especially if it is a safety related item.
Kids even as young as a year old can understand almost everything we say. By 18 months they really can understand us, and my kids often felt frustrated during this age that they couldn’t communicate back.
We need to clearly explain why we’ve set a limit and offer alternatives when possible (“I can’t let you touch the dog’s face, let me tell you why...the dog might not like that and he might bite you. Here, let me help you pet him on the bottom softly…”). Use as few words/keep explanations as simple as possible.
We need to confidently set limits, and then we need to let go. It is perfectly fine for your child to dislike your limits and to scream, cry and show that displeasure. This does not mean that you shouldn’t set and, importantly, HOLD the limit and likely that can be exactly what the child needs in that moment.
Above all, I work hard to accept all of my children’s feelings. This is one of the most important, freeing and challenging things I have learned as a parent. It is not my job to ensure my child never feels pain; it is my job to support my children through the ups and downs of life and be there for them and love and accept them for who they really are and fall in love with them and see them.
I have read when some people hear “no punishment” or even if they observe me with my child and I don’t intervene all the time when they do something others deem rude to another child...I can see how people might judge and think I am going to have a child one day with no sense of right or wrong. Or maybe they think I’m being lazy. But this approach has worked very well for me and my kids and it is NOT lazy. As I noted above, it involves knowing your child intimately and getting up and physically assisting as needed. It also means giving more and more latitude as the children grow and know themselves better. Letting them take on more and more responsibility and resolve their own conflicts with other kids (now that my daughter is 5.5 years old...basically if there is no physical violence, I let the kids figure it out).
All the advice above on babies continues into the toddler years, and is more challenging but still quite necessary (or at least it was for my kids), AND:
As I’ve noted in other chapters, my daughter is fierce / spirited. She has a LOT of feelings. And she cries quite a bit. Now at 5.5 years old, the crying has gone down quite a lot in frequency, but it wasn’t at all uncommon for her to cry 30 min in the AM and an hour in the PM almost EVERYDAY from about 1.5-2.5 and then 3 - 3.5 year old (second stretch was when new baby arrived). I met a lot of other parents where this was the case for them also.
Almost every time I speak to parents with kids around 2-4 years old, and I tell them about my kids' tantrums they always seem relieved and say some version of “I thought it was just me” or “I thought there was something wrong with my child”... NOPE! Kid screaming in the car? Kid screaming because you poured the wrong type of cereal right after they asked for the one you poured? Kid screaming because you’re looking at them? Totally normal at this age to have this much crying. Not fun and very hard, but totally normal.
I can tell you also for my first child, she PUSHES ME HARD to find my solid limit. It can feel so exhausting dealing with a toddler who you do things for all day long and then to be pushed to the very edge of what you’re willing to do with the toddler begging and pleading for things multiple times that you've already said no to. “Can’t this toddler just give me a break?!?!” I recall thinking many a day.
The answer is no, they cannot. Because they have a lot of feelings and they don’t know their power and they are constantly testing and trying to figure you and life out. And what they are looking for is a calm and confident leader and a solid limit and also for confirmation that they aren’t bad kids for wanting things or pushing us.
The most helpful concept for me and dealing with limit setting with toddlers is the idea that kids hold it together all day long at school, and when they are home with you and feel safe, that is when they are comfortable to lose control and have meltdowns. It is actually a huge sign of their love and trust for you that they are willing to lose it with you (lucky us!). It is precisely these outbursts that signal our deep connection. True quality time (though it can feel far from that sometimes). Especially for working parents like myself, it can feel like a real bummer that the two hours a day you get to see your kids they are crying for 80% of it, but it just goes with the age (and it WILL go down a lot soon!)
Additionally, our kids (especially the spirited ones!) have a lot of feelings, and they don’t know what to do when they come on. I now understand sometimes my daughter will say incredibly unreasonable things or make demands specifically because she is unconsciously looking for me to say no, so she can lose it and cry and scream for awhile. Maybe she had conflict with a friend at school earlier that day that I am not aware of, and so now she needs to scream at me about not wanting to put pajamas on. She doesn’t KNOW that is why, but as they get older they can even sometimes identify these connections between earlier events and the need to let feelings flow.
And the worst thing I can do in this situation is NOT set a limit. Let her keep pushing me. Keep giving in. Start to get annoyed at her as she keeps pushing me beyond what I feel comfortable with because I keep thinking she is a reasonable person that will stop pushing me. WRONG! She is not a reasonable adult! She is a tiny, tiny little person that is not in her right mind much of the time and can’t control herself and needs me to help her not annoy me. ALL kids are seeking secure attachment to the main adults in their lives. She does not want to annoy me.
Setting the limit helps her feel safe. It allows for the releasing of emotion because it gives her a reason to melt down. And she is safe to melt down with me. I can’t tell you the number of times (hundreds?!) that my daughter has cried for a totally insane reason and gone totally crazy (trying to hit and kick me, screaming at me, etc.) and at the end of it...she comes over and sits in my lap, takes a huge sigh of relief, and just snuggles. Sometimes she apologizes and says she loves me before we go back to whatever we were doing before. Sometimes she doesn’t.
Now that my younger child (with a more mellow temperament) is almost 3 years old, I can tell you he also has tantrums about things that I think seem unreasonable. But they didn’t start till recently (whereas they started for my first at 14 months!), and they last a much shorter time. The crying, if I bring him into another room, is usually under 5 minutes. Bring it on kid! Cake walk after the first time around. But it also confirmed for me that most kids do go through this phase, even ones with more mellow temperaments from birth.
I want to take a minute to note how incredibly important this chapter is to me. When I think about my daughter and all the hard times when she was 2.5-3.5 years old...I have to say that there were MANY days when I just couldn’t believe how hard they were. I questioned myself. My husband and I were at odds on how to handle our girl. I’d come home from work exhausted and be screamed at all night (by my daughter, ha). It was very hard. Especially when the baby came and we were super sleep deprived, as well.
I can see how it would have been SO EASY to get into a cycle with my girl and make her the "bad one". To make her the difficult child, and my second child the victim. To bribe her. To yell at her. To try to shame her into submission. To put her in front of the TV way more. To give in to her crazy demands. To let her sleep in our bed. To let her eat more sugar. Etc. I could go on and on.
BUT instead...I read Janet Landsbury articles every day. I talked to my husband almost every night about the incidents of the day. We strategized, dissected, brainstormed tactics, at times argued, and tried to understand each other’s perspective and also talk through how we each did that day dealing with our girl. And each day we did our best. We sat with her while she had her big feelings. We allowed all her feelings. We were consistent, as calm as we could be, and we offered limits and consequences for her actions. Sometimes we totally missed the mark (like with the pee and the bedtime stuff), and sometimes we totally lost our cool. But we worked SUPER hard to not make her the bad kid all those times she ran away, peed herself, hurt a friend or her little brother, threw something, broke a dish, etc. We hung out with other families that understood and cared about us and most importantly didn’t judge us. People we could talk honestly with about how hard it was and compare notes.
And now...things are MUCH more mellow. I’m so incredibly proud of the way we handled that very challenging time with our spirited kid. We are on the other side. There are still tantrums. Still harder days, but NOTHING like the way things used to be. And our girl’s spirit is intact. She is confident, aware, brave, empathetic. She is able to feel her feelings and tell us now “sometimes I just need to cry mommy and I don’t know why”, (me too, girl! And I’m a grown up!)
None of this would have been possible without us being super conscious and present about the way we parented. As someone who was no doubt a difficult child, I can tell you I had to spend a lot of time (and still have to spend a lot of time) thinking through my triggers and why I am the way I am today. I’m sure my girl will have some of that one day as well, but I do feel confident we’ve set her up for success these past few years by getting her through the hard times and allowing her to feel her feelings and release them. We tell her often “there is nothing you could ever do that would make us not love you”. We tell her she is a wonderful, kind, helpful girl. That we want to know her and what she thinks and that she is capable.
My relationship with my children is the most important thing to me in the world. If I wasn’t able to get through that time where I really was annoyed A LOT, it would have been deeply upsetting to me. Instead, today I know my child feels seen, known and loved for who she is at a deep level by both me and my husband. We are humans and deeply wired for and craving connection and to be seen and loved (thank you, Brene Brown!). I want so badly to provide this for my kids.
And finally, it makes living with kids so much more enjoyable if you like them!