Watching a child grow from a tiny helpless baby into a little person is one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced. James will be 18 months very soon and it seems as though he’s changed more in the past 3 months than the previous year. Watching him barrel down the hallway is such a delight, but also an awakening. For the first time, I’m starting to see him not as a baby, but as a little person. He has always been good about communicating his needs but now he’s also getting better at asserting his wants. And I’ve realized, I need to do a better job at setting some boundaries.
Taking care of a baby is challenging, but it’s simple, straightforward. A baby has a finite list of needs and you can usually figure out which one needs to be satisfied. An emerging toddler, though, still struggles to communicate exactly what they want but has some very strong opinions on what should be happening. Take yesterday for example: James carried his shoe to Daniel, held out his foot, and said, “Help.” So Daniel started to put the shoe on James’ foot. At first he was smiling and content…until the moment the shoe was fully on. Then he started screaming. So Daniel took the shoe off and James again stuck out his foot and said, “Help.” After a few more rounds of this, it was clear; James wanted to do the process of putting on the shoe but he sure as hell didn’t want to wear the shoe.
Realizing what your toddler wants is only half the battle though, because you also have to recognize there needs to be some boundaries.
The sound of a crying or grumpy child is torture to parents. But we also can’t just let our kids do whatever they want, whenever they want. We know we need to teach our kids limits, not just because we don’t want to raise little dictators who think they will always get their way, but because ultimately kids need boundaries to feel safe, happy, and confident to navigate the world.
What I’ve realized lately is that I struggle with setting boundaries because (I realize this is about to sound like a humble brag but hear me out) I am too sensitive and empathetic to his emotions. I over-identify with my son’s feelings. I try to understand where he’s coming from—constantly, which isn’t all bad, but it does make it tricky to do the right thing regardless of how it’ll make him feel. I’m sure many parents have had the experience of trying to get a toddler into a car seat when they don’t want to sit down and have realized they have some ability to resist. James figured out how to straighten his legs and hold onto the top of the seat in a standing position where it’s very difficult to bend his legs and buckle him in. If we try to physically force him to sit, he completely melts down. And I completely understand why. Being physically forced to do something against your will is a horrible feeling, worthy of intense anger and sadness. He is too young for me to try to convince him to sit with words, so he just would stand there laughing as I tried to cajole him to comply. The way he cries when I do it is so heartbreaking that several times I have decided to abandon our plans so I didn’t have to buckle him into the seat. But I’ve realized, of course that isn’t good parenting. Kids need to learn that some things in life are non-negotiable and sitting safely in a car seat is one of the best examples of that. Now when he starts to get upset when I put him in the car I tell him, “I know you don’t want to sit in the car seat, but you must.” (Advice I read from Janet Lansbury) And I confidently hold him down and buckle him in. He still gets upset and sometimes cries but he gets over it soon enough.
We have been experimenting with setting limits in some other ways. Some are obvious safety issues like not letting him climb on the arm of the couch where he can get hurt, and not letting him play with the toilet water (he just figured out how to open the lid, help us…). Others involve us setting what we think are good boundaries about not always being able to have things exactly as he wants. He tries to extend his bedtime routine by asking for book after book. So we tell him we will read two books before bed. Then at the end of the second book we put him in his crib. He still cries out, “No, book, book, book,” as we put him in but he settles within seconds and goes to sleep. We used to have an endless power struggle of trying to convince a miniature person who can barely speak that this “is really the last book.”
We want James to feel like he has agency and power over his own decisions. We toddler-proofed the downstairs so he can walk around, explore, and play without us having to constantly say no or redirect. If he wants to open the drawer with the pots and pans and take out every single one and all of the lids and then move over to the tupperware and do the same, that is totally OK. This is his house, too. But we also want to make sure he knows there are some limits and we will gently and safely guide him.
This part of parenting doesn’t come naturally to me. I am usually codependent and overly empathetic. I hate upsetting anyone, especially James. Intellectually, I know I am doing the right thing by setting limits and creating boundaries. But sometimes it really really hurts my soul. I think the only way to get better is to keep doing it and realize ultimately, this is its own kindness. I try to remember it’s his job to test boundaries and my job to set boundaries, safe and reasonable ones. He needs them to feel secure and content. I know I need to get better because we are just starting toddlerhood and I can’t even imagine the difficulty we will face over the next few years.
Do you find it difficult to set limits with your children? What are some of your biggest struggles and how do you deal with them? What are some parenting guides or books that you found helpful?