Does this scenario sound familiar?

Marta has asked her 3-year-old, Ruby, to pick up her toys five times in the past 10 minutes. Annoyed, Marta finally shouts, “If you don’t put your toys away right now, I’ll throw them in the garbage.” When Ruby continues to ignore her mother’s request, Marta pulls out a plastic trash bag and starts to fill it with toys. Ruby becomes hysterical, and Marta feels terrible. She takes the toys back out of the bag and comforts Ruby. Marta cleans the toys up herself after Ruby has gone to bed.

Every week I am in the homes of families with young children who are struggling with these maddening moments. They are frustrated and angry that their children won’t cooperate. They feel out of control, like their kids are “driving the car” — and taking them for a ride.

Like Marta, most parents I work with feel horrible when they lose it, when they say harsh things to their children in the heat of the moment, or make threats they have no intention of following through on (e.g. “you will never get to play with on the iPad again”) in a desperate attempt to take back control. Ultimately, these power struggles leave parents depleted, with little room left for the pleasures of parenthood.

As I watch these scenarios unfold, one source of the problem becomes clear: the limits and expectations parents set are often dependent on the child’s willing cooperation — to clean up their toys, get into their PJs, or climb happily into the car seat. Waiting for your child to follow a direction or trying to convince her to cooperate means she is in control. You can demand repeatedly that she not throw a ball in the house or leave her room after lights-out, but unless you have a plan for how you are going to implement that limit your child is in the driver’s seat . . . and she knows it.

This is not good for her or for you. Limits are loving, but a limit is only as effective as your ability to implement it.

Here are four factors for setting and enforcing effective and loving limits:

  • Make the choices and consequences crystal clear — and be sure that you can control the consequence.  A dad has told his 3-year-old, Sadie, that he will make one breakfast for her. She can choose cereal or eggs. She chooses eggs. But as soon as Dad presents them to her, she refuses them and demands peanut butter toast, insisting she won’t eat anything else. Dad, recognizing he can’t actually make Sadie eat the eggs, responds: “Sadie, you know the rule: I make one breakfast. If you choose not to eat it, we will put it in your special to-go container that you can take with you to school in case you get hungry. You can choose peanut butter toast tomorrow.” Two days of following through on this limit — with Sadie experiencing the consequences of her choices (not happily— remember, just because a child doesn’t like a limit doesn’t mean it’s not good for her!) — and breakfast battles were bygones.
  • Communicate choices with all the positivity you can muster. Children pick up on your tone which can be contagious. Approaching these encounters with tension and threat in your voice puts kids in oppositional, power-struggle mode. I suggest always framing it by offering “two great choices.” For example, in a totally upbeat voice, Tessa’s mom explains: “Tessa, you have two great choices: you can choose to put all the toys away and then have them all to play with again tomorrow; if you choose not to clean them all up, the ones that don’t get put away will be placed in a special box and you won’t be able to play with those until the weekend [or whenever you decide is appropriate].”
  • Always end your presentation of choices with the phrase, “you decide.” This reinforces the idea that you are not the one making the choice. Remember, you can’t actually make your child do anything — eat, sleep, put toys away, etc. What you can control are the consequences of your child’s choices and actions. “Ben, you’ve got two great choices: If you throw the balls into the basket, you can keep playing with them. If you choose to throw the balls at people, the balls will go away. You decide.” Once you follow through on the limit, give your child another chance within a reasonable period of time — maybe an hour later —so he can experience the positive outcome of making a different choice, such as playing with the ball in a safe and fun way. This is how children learn to make good decisions.
  • Incentivize with natural, positive consequences: A positive consequence is more motivating than a reward (such as a sticker) or a negative consequence (such as taking something away).  For example: “Natalia, you’ve got two great choices: If you cooperate with getting into pajamas, we’ll have time for one extra book before bed; if you don’t cooperate, then I’ll just go ahead and get your PJs on, but we won’t have time for an extra book. You decide.”  This is a strategy you can use in many situations, showing children that cooperating equals extra time for things they really enjoy. Not cooperating means mommy or daddy has to do it (place them into the car seat when the child won’t climb in themselves, get their jacket on when they refuse) as it should not be an option for a child to derail the family with a protracted power-struggle. If mom or dad has to make it happen, it just means less time for fun stuff.

Setting enforceable, age-appropriate limits enables you to be loving, present and supportive, all while remaining in the driver’s seat — where you, not your child, belongs. Remember, experiencing the consequences of their actions helps children learn to make good choices. Giving your child the gift of loving limits will help her be more flexible and adaptable — key ingredients for success in all aspects of her life.

About Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C

Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE (ZTT) for over 18 years, overseeing the development of all parenting content, print and digital. Recently she has taken on the position of Senior Parenting Advisor to focus on expanding the organization’s reach directly to parents.

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