I Don’t Like the Choices You’re Choicing Me! How to Set Clear, Enforceable Limits…with Love

Marta has told her 3-year-old, Ruby, to pick up her toys 5 times in the past 10 minutes. Marta is getting increasingly agitated and annoyed, and finally shouts at Ruby that if she doesn’t put all the toys away, Marta will 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 Ruby’s toys. Ruby becomes hysterical and Marta feels horrible and ashamed. She takes the toys back out of the bag and comforts Ruby. Marta ultimately cleans the toys up after Ruby has gone to bed.

Every week I am in the homes of families with young children who are struggling with these kinds of scenarios. They are frustrated and angry that their children won’t cooperate, and that they are “driving the car”—taking the parents for a ride. Further, parents feel ashamed when they lose it, when they say harsh things to their children in the heat of the moment and make threats they have no intention of following through on (i.e., to never give them the iPad or take them to the playground again). Ultimately, these parents are depleted and sad, because by the end of the day all they have done is yelled and dealt with ugly power struggles, leaving little room for the pleasures of parenthood.

As I have watched these dynamics unfold on one home visit after another, it has become clear that one key factor at the root of the problem is that the limits and expectations parents set are often dependent on the child’s cooperation—to clean up their toys, get into their PJs, or climb happily into the car seat. The problem is that you can’t actually physically make your child do these things. And any time you are waiting for your child to follow a direction or trying to convince her to cooperate, she is in control. You can demand repeatedly that she not throw a ball in the house or to stay in her room after lights-out, but unless you have a plan for how you are going to follow through on the limit you are trying to set, your child is in the driver’s seat and she knows it. This is not good for her or for you.  So, as you go about setting limits, keep in mind that a limit is only as effective as your ability to implement it.

The following are key elements to an approach most parents find effective:

·         Make the choices and consequences crystal clear—and be sure that you can control the consequence: Dad has told Sadie (3 years) 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 says she really wants peanut butter toast. She insists she won’t eat anything else and that she’ll just starve. 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—and breakfast battles were bygones.

·         Communicate their 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: “If you don’t clean up those toys, I’m throwing them in the garbage”, puts them in a negative and oppositional frame of mind. I like the concept of giving “two great choices” which frames these moments in a positive light and puts children in a more cooperative state of mind: “Tessa, you have two great choices (said with a genuine smile): if you put all the toys away, you can 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 have those to play with until (fill in the blank—however many days you think is appropriate.)

·         Always end your presentation of choices with “you decide”. This reinforces the idea that you aren’t the one making the choice. Remember, you can’t actually make your child do anything—eat, sleep, put toys away, not have a tantrum, etc. What you do control are the consequences of your child’s choices/actions: “Ben, you’ve got two great choices: If you throw the ball into the basket, you can keep playing with it. If you choose to throw it at people, the ball will go away. You decide.”  Once you follow through on the limit, I strongly encourage giving 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 (ie, getting to play with the ball.) This is how children learn to make good decisions.

·         Incentivize with natural, positive consequences (vs. rewards or taking things away): “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 choose not to cooperate, I’ll get you into your PJs on my own, but that means we won’t have time for an extra book. You decide.”  I find you can use the concept of saving time for almost everything.  When kids cooperate with a task or limit, it takes less time, enabling them to do more of the things they love—which in fact mirrors real life.

The benefits of having a plan you can implement are: 1) it enables you to remain loving, present and supportive, while also in the driver’s seat—where you, not your child, belongs. I think of this as “responsive” versus “reactive” parenting. There is no need for anger or punishment—your job is to show your child with your actions that cooperating with or accepting a limit is not a choice, it is a direction. And it is not an option to obfuscate or draw you into a knock-down-drag-out battle that raises everyone’s blood pressure and results in both parents and children feeling out of control; and, 2) experiencing the consequences of their actions helps children learn to make good choices. This doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to have a total meltdown when you actually follow through—for example, put her breakfast in the take-away bag when the timer goes off to signal the end of breakfast. But remember, that doesn’t mean your approach is wrong. Just because your child doesn’t like a limit, doesn’t mean it’s not good for her. Further, keep in mind that you are not responsible for your child’s decisions—you are in charge of offering clear and appropriate choices and implementing the consequence of your child’s decisions.

The next time you find yourself in that moment when you’re about to give in on a rule you know to be a good one, remind yourself that: 1) Setting limits is loving, not mean; it is when you don’t set and enforce clear limits, and your child continues to push and push and work your last nerve, that you are much more likely to get mean; and, 2) We live in a world that doesn’t adapt to us—we have to do the adapting. 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.