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Limits: They Can Set a Toddler Free

Sometimes BabyC just wants me to tell her no. I’m learning this about my toddler.

We read two books of BabyC’s choosing at bedtime each night. Last night, she rushed us through the first book, turning the pages so fast that we couldn’t really read it. For the second book, she signed “all done” on page 3. This happens sometimes when BabyC is really tired. “OK then, we’re all done with reading, BabyC. Time to sing our song and get in bed.”

She protested, “No, no, no, no.” She arched her back in my arms and shook her head at the crib. She signed for “milk.” Looking desperate, she whined and made the sign for “book” with her hands.

I love reading to my daughter. It is one of my all-time favorite things to do. I’m tempted to sit down for another book, trying it again, hoping for sweet snuggles before bed. But it is late, and I know she’s dead tired – that’s what she was telling us when she sped through her books. I know that if we sit down for another book, she’ll have a hard time choosing the one she wants, and then she’ll again flip through it too fast to read. We could play that game for 10 more books.

But I hate saying no. I really do. As much as I know BabyC needs limits, I often pause and wonder if there is an easier way out, a way to avoid her disappointment or sadness.

“BabyC, you had milk, and we brushed your teeth. We read two books together. Now it is time to sing our song and say goodnight.”

Her body relaxes in my arms. There is no protest – she just seems relieved. She needed me to tell her that tonight would be the same as every other night and that it was time for bed. You’re right, Mama, it is time for bed. Thanks.

We sing. I kiss her. Daddy kisses her. She holds out her baby doll for us to kiss, and each of us does. I lean down and she pecks me on the cheek, then points to Daddy. He leans down to receive his kiss. Kisses all around and a goodnight. Twinkle, twinkle.

I often find myself afraid to set limits, thinking there must be an easier way. You already had two cookies, BabyC – you don’t need a third. I won’t let you climb on the table. And yes, we really do have to brush your teeth tonight. It’s what I do all day. But I’m still new enough to this parenting gig that I get surprised by nights like last night, when it is obvious that setting a limit was not just the right thing but also the easiest thing for everyone. Sometimes these moments of parenting sweetness are book-ended with 10 struggles on either side, and still they make me feel like we’re doing alright.

P.S. I’ve been busy, dear readers. I have a few posts half-written in my head and on notepads around the house that are in danger of being hijacked by BabyC at any moment. I’ve neglected the blog a bit, but we’ll get back into the swing of things soon.

29 Comments
  1. Great advice…

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    June 5, 2012
  2. All children need limits. Very active toddlers need more limits in a loving way. I am happy you stuck to what you knew was right. Toddlers are made to fight to see what their parents are made out of.

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    June 5, 2012
    • What I’ve noticed about BabyC is that she keeps testing a limit if she’s not exactly sure where it stands. We’ve been working on the climbing on the table and chairs thing lately, and I think I haven’t been consistent enough. For a while, I told her she could only sit on chairs, no standing. But she was testing it over and over, and there were a few times when she stood on the chairs and I was too tired to ask her to sit down over and over, so I just let it go. Next thing you know, she’s climbing on the table. That’s a definite no, no waffling there! When I really think about it though, the testing is totally reasonable. These kids are scientists after all! If they aren’t sure about something, they’re going to test it again and again to collect more data!

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      June 5, 2012
  3. tina #

    Thank you for an encouraging post. I do have days where I feel like giving in but it’s nice to know that the little ones need limits and to be told that. It’s so hard to say no, when the easy way is to just let them be which like you said leads to more trouble for both sides.

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    June 5, 2012
    • You’re right – saying no is sometimes harder in the moment, but I think when we’re consistent, it pays dividends in the future. Any sometimes, surprisingly often actually, BabyC reacts as I described in this post – with relief or at least with acceptance. There is a lot of security in knowing what to expect.

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      June 5, 2012
  4. Jenny F. Scientist, PhD #

    I know! Toddlers! I tell Bug no sometimes not because I really care (what’s one more cookie?) but because he needs limits, and because he’s three-and-some, and will keep pushing on everything.

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    June 5, 2012
    • I have waffled on the cookie limits. A part of me wants to see what would happen if I said, sure, have another and another, learn to self-regulate your cookie consumption. It’s just one of those things that feels wrong to me. At this age anyway, she usually takes it surprisingly well. I try to say yes to lots and lots of things, but you’ve got to draw some lines, you know?

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      June 5, 2012
  5. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve flagged it for future reference. I’m sure there will be many times when I will need to refer back to it to give me the strength to stand my ground in the face of tantrums and attempted negotiations.

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    June 5, 2012
  6. Well said! I’m enjoying your blog.

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    June 5, 2012
  7. Robin #

    Great observations! Absolutely 100% true for us as well. I really have noticed, babies and kids of all ages want boundries, they want direction, even if they don’t know it. This is a lesson I first saw with horses (and dogs) most horses don’t want to be the one in charge or up front, it makes them quite insecure and increases the chance that they’ll act out. They want boundries, guidance and a level of control even if it’s passive. But that’s me always comparing my little ones to animals 😉
    Of course kids at some point move onward and upward, teen-dom I suppose. At that time its expected that they’ll push for their own independence but I’ll wait to address that bridge when we get closer.

    Thanks for the insightful post and I’m always surprised you have any time to post!!!

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    June 5, 2012
    • Since I know you and know how much you care for animals, I love that you compare your kids to them:) We had a lot of practice establishing clear and consistent boundaries with our dog before we had a baby, and we saw how much it helped him to feel more secure. Unfortunately, I think that bringing a baby into our family has made us slip with our dog’s discipline, but so many of the principles of family dynamics are similar with pets and kids, and I’m not afraid to say it! Love, exercise, and consistency…

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      June 5, 2012
  8. So true. Kids really benefit from clear, simple rules. Knowing what to expect makes them feel secure– it means that Mom and Dad (or Mom and Mom, or Dad and Dad, &c) care, and thus their world makes sense.

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    June 5, 2012
    • The challenge is in keeping the rules clear and simple and consistently enforcing them respectfully. I see it getting harder as she gets older. I was talking with a friend about the challenge of setting rules around throwing for her 2-year-old. You can throw a ball, and you can even throw a ball to a person, but not at another person. You can’t throw toys, except maybe soft ones and only if you aim at the ground. You can throw rocks, but only when we’re throwing them into a creek together. These rules get complicated fast! But I totally agree with you – just starting to get a handle on what it means in practice.

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      June 5, 2012
  9. Cat #

    Thank you. I have the same problems with bedtime. It’s nice when my hubby backs me up and we say good night to our daughter

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    June 5, 2012
  10. I’ve always been a great advocate of limits. they provide security to a child and (eventually) shape behaviour. And they give great relief to parents too!

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    June 6, 2012
  11. I can’t wait to get to that point! Right now it seems that we are still in an “I want no matter what” stage. Fortunately he’s easily distracted.

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    June 6, 2012
    • Yes, I know that “I want!” tone. For BabyC, it comes in the form of repeated pointing and “dat, dat, dat.” When she’s asking for something that she can’t have, I usually acknowledge what it is that she wants and then tell her why she can’t have it and then we move on to something she can have. Distraction doesn’t really work for her. If I try to move her attention to something else without first acknowledging what it is that she wants, then she just seems to get more and more frustrated, which is understandable when I think about it!

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      June 7, 2012
      • My son’s phrase is “dis, dis, dis”. We definitely try to acknowledge and explain why he can’t have it. Lately he’s been throwing fits when I tell him that I’m not going to let him have what ever it is he wants. If we leave the area or thing behind, he snaps out of it and find something else he wants. Life with a toddler sure is exhausting, but fun!

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        June 7, 2012
      • I agree, and it changes ALL the time, doesn’t it?!

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        June 7, 2012
        • That’s the problem with kids, het just keep growing and changing!

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          June 7, 2012
  12. I love this post on boundaries! And what ann29foot said was dead on from what I’ve seen. My daughter is quite an official toddler yet, since she hasn’t taken a step, but at nearly 11 months old she is definitely in that mentality. I’ve noticed when I tell her no (i.e. if she’s trying to eat out of the dog’s bowl or stick her hands in the bathroom trash bin) she’ll look at me as she reaches for it again. It’s almost like she’s waiting to see what I’ll say if she tries it again; will I lose ground. Stay firm with what’s important (and for me, eating dogfood is a pretty big no). Again, great post!

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    June 6, 2012
    • Yup, this sounds very familiar. We go through phases of testing, testing, testing particular things, and then she seems to pass on. The phases are prolonged if we aren’t clear on the boundaries, which is sometimes easier said than done. Currently in the testing phase: Climbing to the very top of the couch and reaching, reaching, reaching for the key rack.

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      June 7, 2012
  13. Katie #

    LOVE this post (as always), thanks! A lot of this, and reader’s comments, remind me of a book I just finished up: Bringing up Bebe. It’s written by an American woman (Pamela Druckerman) raising her family in Paris. It’s a great read in part because she’s able to reflect upon the differences in American and French parenting styles. The French, according to her, rely very heavily on teaching their children to have boundaries with flexibility. So, for the most part, children have a very consistent framework for behavior with times of more freedom/flexibility built in. As an example, a certain standard of behavior is expected at dinner time but when they are on the playground they are free to act like children. Whether you agree with the style or not, I think it’s ALWAYS interesting to hear another parent’s point of view!

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    June 7, 2012
    • I read Bringing Up Bebe, too! I liked it, and I appreciated the “French framework” for thinking about boundaries for kids. In general, I think firm boundaries on stuff that really matters and lots of freedom around stuff that doesn’t, seems to work well. Letting your kid act like a kid on the playground can sometimes get you the stink eye from other parents here in the U.S., though – maybe it’s different in France:)

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      June 7, 2012
  14. Hello ScienceofMom! You have a beautiful baby! I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award:
    http://specialspice.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/its-raining-blog-awards/

    Like

    June 7, 2012
  15. ayearinthecaymans #

    Love this post and couldn’t agree with you more. I was great at setting limits (if I do say so myself!) with my eldest daughter but now that she is 5 and my younger daughter is 3, I’m on to a new struggle- explaining why a few of little sister’s rules are different from big sister’s rules. Gotta keep evolving!

    Like

    June 15, 2012

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