Photo (c) Anna Taylor 2004
Parents all have tough moments and setting limits is one for me.
Yet, wow! Limit setting went really well for me and my younger son the other day. It was a slow process, but in the end no time felt wasted and we actually had time to enjoy ourselves on our way home. It made both me and my child feel really close.
Transition in general is hard for my two children, but especially for my younger son, who turned four recently. Today, my son’s playdate went well until it was time to say goodbye, as expected. Good thing I decided to start the “good-byes” a half an hour earlier.
When I said, “It’s time to go,” my son said, “I will after one more pillow (on his fortress).” After the third “It’s time to go” and my son still buried under fortress of pillows, I felt time slowing and my self-talk playing in my head, “What would other moms think of me? Am I an ineffective mom who can’t make my son obey me?”
Again I said gently, “You are having so much fun and it’s time to go.” I reached out quickly and gently held my son’s body from grabbing yet another pillow to cover his head. He started struggling with growling sounds. “No! I need to be here!” I didn’t let go of him, inviting him to come on my lap to put on clothes. I knew this scenario. I had done this before, and the only thing that ever really worked in the long run was simply listening. So I took a breath, held my son’s hands gently, and listened.
For a while, I put my hands around him, listening and stopping him from running away. “Come on my lap, it’s time to go, I need to put your clothes on.” He escalated his noise still trying to escape my hands. I stayed with him holding him on my lap. I was quiet, not saying much, but listening. Inside, I was aware that my self-doubt grew. I was tempted to say, “If you make it so hard for us to leave a playdate, I won’t have it again for long!” I was tempted to grab my son and carry him out of the door! Instead, I took a breath, looked at my son in the eyes and listened while holding him.
Finally, my son stopped making noise and struggling. He relaxed, jumped up and agreed to put his clothes on (he had been half naked) and finally we walked to the door. “Whew!” I thought, “that was not bad.” However, outside the door, there was another parent, to whom I said hello. My son seized the opportunity and happily started riding on a tricycle he found there.
To get home on time, we didn’t have much time to spare and I felt exhausted at the thought that I needed to peel my son away from still more fun.
I used my hands and feet to firmly block the tricycle tapping into what little mental resource I had left. I managed to keep my voice gentle and said, “You really want to ride this tricycle. Not now. It’s time to go home.” My son struggled trying to pedal forward and backward. I wouldn’t let him.
Mentally, it felt like tight-rope walking, seeking the fine balance between him and me. If I leaned too much his way, then he would ride the tricycle away, which would make me angry. If I leaned too much my way, I would overpower him with my size and my role, and he would cry, resenting me. I kept listening to son’s crying and struggling. His crying sounded like I was torturing him despite my gentle hold. I grew worried what other parents might think of this.
In reality, nobody disrupted us or complained about the process. I listened to him for a full five minutes. It felt long. I was sweaty holding on to my son and the tricycle he clung to. My son was sweaty too. He cried a little more, and eventually he switched gears to “Please, may I have some water?” a possible sign that he was almost done crying.
He let go of his grip on the tricycle and ran off. I chased after him. My son laughed. Now we were playing. His laughter grew louder and louder. We played for a few minutes until we ran down the driveway, away from our friend’s house shouting, “Goodbye.”
It was one of those necessary limits that we parents set every day and I liked the process as it didn’t build up tension in him or in myself, instead, it diffused it. I didn’t resort to threats or bribes, and I didn’t raise my voice. It made us close and playful.
Sometimes, I can’t afford a half an hour of setting limits. Yet, when I do, it sure is a worthwhile investment of time. To my surprise, that day after leaving a playdate, we had some time to spare walking back home, so we explored the neighborhood taking our sweet time. Moreover, when it was time for my son to leave another fun-filled playdate later that week, he was as cooperative as could be and saying goodbye was no issue.
—Keiko Sato-Perry, Certified Parenting by Connection Instructor.
We look forward to hearing how this approach to setting limits works in your home. We’d love to read any comments or anecdotes in the comment section below.