When we set limits for our kids, we do so with the best of intentions. We see all the logical reasons for our limit, usually issues of safety, manners, and other logistics of daily life. Meanwhile, as our child has a fit about the limit we’ve set, they’re seeing their joy come to a screeching halt. They feel all of the emotions surrounding that limit.
Parent: [As child digs hands into bowl of pasta] You may not eat with your hands.
Child: [Whining] But I want to!
Parent: It gets your hands too messy. Use a fork.
Child: [Angry] I don’t want to use a fork!
Parent: It’s rude to eat with your hands.
Child: [Crying] I like doing it this way!
Parent: It’s not how people eat.
Child: Noooooo! I wanna eat with my hands!
Parent: But you get to use your special frog fork that Grandma bought you!
This could go on and on, as long as we can come up with more reasons why our child should use a fork, and as long as we can present them in different logical and enticing ways. It’s easy to reason like this for far too long….and eventually get upset that our child is conintually “not listening” to our logical explanations and requests. But while our arguments are based on what makes sense, a child’s arguments are based on how they feel; I like, I want, sadness, anger. Here’s another example:
Parent: It’s time to turn the TV off.
Child: Aw, I don’t want to!
Parent: Yes. It’s time need to get ready for bed.
Child: But I want to keep watching!
Parent: Well, you’ve had enough tv time…that was 30 minutes.
Child: I like this movie!
Parent: If we stop the movie now, we’ll have it to watch tomorrow night.
Parent: It’s getting late and you won’t be able to finish it by bedtime anyway.
Back and forth, until we become increasingly irritated, lose it and say something regrettable. Limits like these in our daily lives are not meant to be a debate. And they’re definitely not meant to be debate that occurs in two different languages. We know the reasons for our limits, and the’re all great. Very responsible. Children don’t understand the validity behind our reasons, and no matter how many we list or how we try to convice them that our limit makes sense, they just don’t care! Until a child’s frontal cortex starts developing, they will always respond from a place of emotion. Next time, try responding in their language.
Parent: It’s time to turn off the TV.
Child: Aw, I don’t want to!
Parent: You’re having fun. You’re enjoying this movie.
Child: Yes, and I just want to keep watching!
Parent: [Turns TV off] You’re mad that it’s time to stop.
Child: [Crying] Yes! Turn it back on!
Parent: Yeah, that’s OK. It’s OK to be mad about that.
Parent: I’m sorry you’re upset. I’d love to help you feel better. Let me know when you’re ready for a hug.
That’s it. Set the limit, let kids have their feelings, and be available for comforting when they’re ready. Not too complicated, but not too easy either.
We adults think so rationally, that it just makes sense to turn the TV off right then. There are so many reasons why, and we feel the need to list or expain them all. But it’s too much for young kids. Too much for their brains to handle when they’re being overrun with the emotions of the limit. No amount of rationalizing will make sense when those emotions are so present.
So let them be present. Let the limit stand, let the child’s feelings be acceptable, and skip the rationalizing. We want to teach them that limits exist and their feelings are OK. The older kids get, the more you will be able to use logic and reasoning in setting limits. (But it will help if you can still empathize then, too.) For now, focus on the emotional aspect of limit setting. The emotions are what will get you and your child on the same wavelength.