It is absolutely vital that children have limits in their lives, along with structure--as long as you don’t overdo it and give them twitches. And the toddler years are when we start to set those limits. I’ve seen families where the parents don’t set any boundaries, and it’s not a pretty sight for either children or adults.
One woman with two children bragged that she never tried to curtail her kids in any way. And nobody liked those children. It was scary to be around them, because you never knew what they would do next. They kept pushing, acting worse and worse, trying to discover where the edges were. I was with them once, and they just ran around screaming, knocking things over, hitting adults, and breaking things. It was awful and it must have been frightening for them to realize there were no barriers and no one was in charge. They would have felt much safer knowing that some behavior was unacceptable.
As I said, no one likes kids like these, not grownups nor other children; they have no friends, no one wants to be around them, and they are very unhappy individuals.
The little stinkers always seem to sense when we are least able to enforce our limits and take full advantage of it, like in the grocery store. When they do test the limits, the one thing you want to avoid is a power struggle because you’ll lose every time. Usually you can see it coming; and before your child becomes completely unreasonable and out of control, try talking to her in a calm, soothing voice. Emphasize that you are sorry she feels sad, which gives her feelings legitimacy, and you wish it could be different. Then suggest alternatives. Where possible, the most helpful tactic is to direct her attention elsewhere.
Toddlers especially feel more secure with limits because they seem to know instinctively that then their parents will keep them safe. At the same time, be warned they will fight against those limits with all the strength of spirit they possess, which is considerable. They do this to test just how secure those boundaries are.
My sister-in-law, Rayleen, tells about the time when her son, Scott, was three years old, and she had foot surgery. One day after she came home from the hospital but before she could get around, Scott came into the house and slammed the door. Rayleen said, “Scott, please don’t slam the door so hard.” Scott looked at her a minute, then went back and slammed it again, even harder. Rayleen said, “What are you doing? I asked you not to slam the door.” Scott went back and slammed it again. By this time Rayleen was struggling to get hold of her crutches and stand up, but Scott just sort of danced around her, giggling. She tried to grab him, but he could easily keep out of her reach and every so often he’d go back and slam the door again.
Finally, Rayleen, who was almost hysterical, called her husband at work, incoherent with rage. Somehow he knew the situation was desperate, so he arrived home in ten minutes. He says, “I knew I had to get home to save my son’s life!”
Structure and routines are related to limits. By developing a routine, again you are doing your children a favor. I’ve known families where mealtimes were whenever anyone fixed themselves something to eat, and bedtime was whenever and wherever anyone dropped from exhaustion.
For example, one mother with three small ones didn’t like putting them to bed. So they wandered around in the evening getting crankier and crankier until one by one they draped themselves over the sofa or flat out on the rug and fell asleep. When I asked the mother why she didn’t help them into bed earlier, she shrugged and said, “It’s easier this way.” I thought that was unfair. I’m sure the parents didn’t wait around every night until they dropped from exhaustion. This was a case where, unpleasant as it is, a parent has to be the grown-up.
Keep telling yourself, “The maturation process takes care of all kinds of problems.”
Next time: Temper Tantrums