Choose your battles, they say.

No, don’t choose your battles, don’t even have battles!

No, wait–you have to have some battles or your child will never learn resilience or responsibility!

Gentle parents and newer teachers might wonder, “WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO ABOUT LIMIT-SETTING?? I don’t want to trick or scare them to get compliance, but I also don’t want this child walking all over me or hurting people.”

First I’ll address the how, then we’ll get to the why.

There are basics in technique when it is clear that a limit needs to be set:

  1. Validate the emotion
  2. State the limit (without the word “okay?” at the end, which turns a statement into a request)
  3. Suggest an alternative behavior
  4. Reflect

(1) “You are so upset that she grabbed your toy! (2) Pushing her down hurts her body, that’s not okay. (3) You can say, ‘Give it back, I’m not done!’ If she doesn’t listen, get a grownup to help you. Let’s have a redo of that!”

Adults can do (4) on their own. Is this child in need of something? Food, rest/downtime, snuggles? Or is this just a mistaken behavior stemming from lack of experience? Is this likely to happen again, and if so, did I feel good about the way I handled it?

But what about when you’re not sure whether or not a limit needs to be set?

Maybe this behavior is developmentally appropriate or understandable, no one is getting hurt… but what this child is doing or the way they’re doing it is still making you feel uncomfortable. Listen to that gut feeling! It’s challenging for us when previously easygoing babies or toddlers turn into little people who want the opposite of what their caregivers want. Throw in a strong-willed, persistent temperament or a bad mood on either side and that normal striving for independence can feel personal! Does this behavior make me feel like I’m not “good” at being a parent or a teacher? If I were better at this, maybe they wouldn’t be ignoring me, or looking me in the eye and doing exactly what I asked them not to, or screaming on the floor in public. It’ll just be easier if I give them what they want this time, or pretend I don’t see what’s happening… right?

We feel conflicted about what to do, because we’ve all heard that learning to navigate disappointment is a necessary skill in life, but at the same time, why not let kids experience joy whenever possible? People who were parented harshly themselves often want to create a blissful childhood for their kids to remember. Of course it feels good to make the people you love happy! But also, no one wants to be around people (children or adults) who can’t take no for an answer. Maybe you want to allow part of what is happening (“I get it that she wants to pour, but the water is getting everywhere and I’m getting annoyed because I’ll have to clean it up!”). It’s all so confusing.

Think of it this way: children are naturally egocentric, but they don’t have to stay that way. Do you want your child’s first day or week in a group care setting to also be the first time they experience not being able to have everything they want?

“A positive goal to strive for when disciplining would be to raise children we not only love, but in whose company we love being.”  –- Magda Gerber

And remember, the word “discipline” means to teach or train. Discipline does not mean to punish.

“Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem solvers, focus on solutions, not retribution.”  ― L.R. Knost

Okay, so they need some limits. But when? How do I know?

It takes practice to figure out for yourself what is worth having a battle over or not. And like any practice, it won’t be perfect or feel good, especially in the beginning. The good news is, you can be open (talk out loud) about the struggle while you’re having it. Kids often think adults have everything figured out because we keep our doubts on the inside. To talk out loud about our thinking process helps everyone involved. “Hmm. You really want me to let you… (whatever they are urgently asking for that you don’t want to do),” or “I said that if you brushed your teeth quickly we’d watch a show and that didn’t happen. I am going to have to think about that for a minute.” I heard about one parent who would pretend she had to go get something in the other room, just to breathe and collect herself before responding to an unexpected request!

Not all limits are hard to enforce. Adults don’t let children run into the street, or not get into their car seat, those rules are not up for discussion. Second tier concerns (harder to enforce) might be unlimited screen time, inconsistent or nonexistent bedtime, or access to sugary foods. Adults know that those things aren’t healthy for kids but may feel unsure about where to draw the line (is it worth a tantrum, especially when it seems to make them so happy in the moment when I give in?). Finally, there are preference limits like which color cup a child can insist upon for a meal, or how long they can take to leave the playground. These are less important for health or safety in the moment, but the adult will have to make a decision at some point about whether or not the child is entirely in charge. This is often where the phrase “choose your battles” comes into play–does it really matter?

Janet Lansbury has written eloquently about how important it is to set limits in relationships, no matter how committed one is to being gentle in one’s approach. Limits are like the guardrails and painted lines on an unfamiliar highway. Without them, it is difficult and slow going, and children who have no guidance may search for the boundaries they aren’t getting through increasingly challenging behavior. Behavior from children that is entirely passive or extremely controlling may indicate that the balance of power between the caregiver and the child is off. If you find yourself avoiding certain situations or “walking on eggshells” around this child to avoid an upset, try enforcing more limits on things that you’ve been trying to be flexible about (“But I don’t mind if my child chooses my outfit/seat at the table/show for the whole family to watch…”). Surprisingly, with more limits in place there is often less testing overall.

This does not mean that adults have to be harsh! Tone of voice, facial expression and body language all affect the delivery of the message, even more than the words. No one likes to feel bossed around. You can be firm (“This is what is going to happen, I’m not going to change my mind”) and kind (“I want to support you, it is hard to hear no”), but that balancing act takes practice. You can even practice in the mirror! This may sound silly but it helps, so you can consciously choose how your face looks with the voice you want to use. The other part that takes practice is deciding where you feel comfortable drawing the line. Even if you allowed something before, you can change your mind. Similarly, if you said no before, you can change your mind… as long as you explain why, to let children know that you are making the choice to say yes after thinking about it, they didn’t just wear you down!

A wise parent coach I know suggested that instead of calling limits or boundaries that children disagree with “battles” where there is an “us vs. them” mentality, that we could frame it as a problem that parent and children can solve together. This problem is called It’s Time To Leave the Park. This problem is called Your Favorite Dress is in the Laundry. This problem is called Hitting Hurts, We Need Words. Ask the child: what are your ideas about how to solve this problem? It is a shared problem because their choices are affecting you. In fact, you may have a bigger investment than they do in the problem getting solved! Making written plans with visuals (perhaps at another time, when you are not in the middle of a standoff) for recurring problems can be helpful. This could be as simple as a piece of paper on the wall, or you can make a longer, portable version by stapling some papers together to make a book.

The book is called a social story. For example, Our Family Plan For Sitting At Dinner that you look at before dinner. Or A Story: Going to the Grocery Store. How do I make a social story? Start with something positive: (1) “I like going to the store with mom. It’s fun to walk around, help pick out snacks, and talk to people.” State the problem and the feelings that result: (2) “When I run ahead, or take things off the shelves without asking, mom and I both feel frustrated. She doesn’t like saying no to me, but I want so many things that I see! Sometimes I cry, and mom has to take me outside. Then we both feel upset AND we don’t have the food that we need!” Last, solution: (3) “When we make a list and stick to it, we bring a snack, and I stay with mom so she can keep me safe, we both can have fun with the shopping. That feels good. I am learning to be helpful at the grocery store!” Review the book before you leave or in the car, it might be used many times before new habits are internalized.

Another tool in the “teamwork toolbox” is to point out something other than yourself as the obstacle they are facing. Children are such master negotiators, aren’t they? Well, you wish they could have what they want, but there is a thing in the way that can’t change. Say it like this: feeling/desire first, then the limit. “You really want to keep playing, and the clock is telling me it’s time for…” or “You feel worried about your doctor’s appointment, and they called my phone to say they are waiting for us, so in one minute I am going to help you get to the car…” or “You don’t want a sweater, and the thermometer is telling me it’s cold outside, so I am putting one in my bag in case you need it later.” They can express dismay, but there are times when the adult is the decider. It’s okay to change the subject after that, or say, “I’m all done talking about that for now.”

Even adults have to compromise within a limited number of choices. There are other people’s needs to consider, and limited time and resources that pare down our options. “How frustrating that even grownups don’t get to do everything they want to do either! You know, I also want to skip a bath… and I want to have popcorn and candy for dinner!!” Of course, adults can stay up late or eat the whole pint of ice cream if we really want to, even if we know there will be undesirable consequences. We forget how it feels to be a child sometimes, with someone else making so many decisions for us about what is going to happen (or not) and when/for how long. Commiserate with them, expect pushback, but know that being at odds with what your child wants is actually helping them. Studies have shown that long-term happiness comes much more from internal mindset and actions (choosing thoughts, being grateful, helping others), than from one’s external circumstances lining up just so.

Another question to think about when you wonder whether or not a boundary is called for is: is this child trying to control themselves or control someone else? Choosing a crazy outfit that doesn’t match? Maybe they can choose that, it affects only them. But what if they insist that you stay up late because they need to have something washed for that outfit? If it brings you joy to do that, okay. But if you don’t want to, you get to say no! A child wants to pick music to listen to in their room? Fine. They demand that the whole family listen to a particular song in the car over and over? Limit time! A child in a school setting that frequently “takes over” an entire area (or all of a certain material), insists that everyone follow her/his directions (and objects to anyone else’s), or consistently disrupts group games with his/her own agenda (not participating is one thing, but trying to redirect the focus of the group is another), is a child asking for help from the adults to feel less powerful.

It helps to have a sense of humor about all of this. Once I read about a child that threw an enormous tantrum at the dinner table (mealtimes are often tricky, when everyone is both hungry and tired!) because she wanted to sit at the corner of the table. Sounds like a reasonable request… except that the table was round. The Tumblr account “Reasons My Son Is Crying” resonates with parents everywhere because little kids aren’t reasonable. Sometimes they need to have that tantrum, and get rid of some tears and stress that have been building up over time. A tantrum doesn’t mean that the adult did something wrong. A friend of mine says that one of her daughter’s most memorable meltdowns was because she wanted the clown that was on a box of ice cream cones. She didn’t want the cones, she wanted to play with the clown, which was only a drawing!

Children don’t want to be in charge of the world, they just might act like it sometimes. Actually, too much power is unsettling and scary to them. Let them have choices and chances when you can, let them act silly and get messy and be active, but if you feel “icky” or irritated about the behavior (you feel an internal eye-roll or gritted teeth), or if you notice that as soon as you say yes to something they have a new demand, or their tone of voice isn’t what you’d like, those are clues that it’s time to find that line and stand on it. You might have been coming across as wishy-washy, and you can at any moment decide to become the confident leader that child needs instead. As an experienced teacher friend puts it:

Say YES with a smile, or say NO and go for the ride!

One more thing…

THIS BOOK. Everyone should read it. So good.