No Ifs, Ands, or Buts: Setting Limits With Empathy

April 12, 2014 · 6 comments

in Caring With Respect, Daily Life, Discipline, Respectful Parenting, Toddlers

Calmly setting and holding to necessary limits can be trying for parents, especially in the face of a toddler’s strong feelings of displeasure or upset. One of the most frequent questions I receive from parents is “How do I set or hold  a limit when my child is upset?” For instance, “It’s time to get dressed, and my child is refusing. We have to leave in 15 minutes to get to childcare, so that I can get to work on time. He can’t go to childcare in his diaper, but he won’t cooperate, even though I’ve given him time, and offered him choices of what to wear. I’ve tried distracting him and bribing him, and explaining the reasons he has to get dressed. I don’t want to force him, but I don’t know what to do. It’s almost impossible to dress a screaming, kicking child, and I hate to see him so upset.”

Often, in instances like this, parents are tempted to give in or give up, or they wear themselves out trying to reason with their toddler, and they may become frustrated when they give choice after choice, but their toddler rejects every option. Sometimes, parents resort to yelling or spanking, or sometimes, they end up bringing a diaper clad but otherwise naked toddler to childcare, and asking for help!

The answer to this question is to pause to allow for and acknowledge your toddler’s feelings, and then, to calmly carry on.  But what does this look and sound like in practice?

Parent and teacher, Sarah Morrison, sheds some light based on a realization she had after attending a conference held in Sacramento, in October of last year, where she listened to a keynote speech given by RIE Associate Janet Lansbury.

Sarah writes: “I think I just had an epiphany.  I was just sitting here, meditating on Janet Lansbury’s keynote talk about acknowledging emotions. One thing she said that I’ve really tried to implement is removing “but” from my vocabulary when I acknowledge a child’s feelings. Typically, adults say things  like, “You really want that toy, BUT it is Ryan’s.” “You don’t want to get into the car, BUT we are running late and we need to go right now.”

Somehow, when you include the “but” and everything that follows, it seems to invalidate the preceding part of the statement. As an example, if I was overwhelmed and stressed to the limit with my responsibilities and poured my heart out to my husband and he replied, “You are so, so unhappy right now. You feel like there’s just too much on your plate, BUT you’re the one who is home during the day and these things still need to get done.”, I would NOT feel very understood.

ANYWAY, that’s not what my epiphany was. As I was meditating on Janet’s presentation, I suddenly realized that RIE (Resources For Infant Educarers, the organization and approach founded by Magda Gerber) is not about treating children like mini-adults (a common misinterpretation of Magda Gerber’s philosophy), it’s about treating them with the understanding that they are PEOPLE. A child’s brain does not have the same developed powers of logic and reasoning that a fully formed adult brain has, therefore, it’s unreasonable to present them with our wonderfully reasoned, logical,  and intricate arguments for and against every limit that must be set. It’s not appropriate for us to give toddlers complete autonomy in choices of nutrition, proper clothing, or safety and health issues. It is our responsibility to make these decisions and hold these limits without wavering in the face of their displeasure, but to do it with love and empathy for their feelings.

“You don’t want to eat the broccoli on your plate. You wish I had served more banana muffins instead of broccoli! You are in charge of what you put in your body. If you don’t want to eat it, leave it on your plate.”

This doesn’t change the fact that I’m serving broccoli for dinner and I’ll probably serve it again next week. I’m not going to offer a banana muffin instead, or explain why broccoli is good for my child and why she should eat it. Having broccoli on our plates tonight is just the way the world is. I can acknowledge her feelings, (“You don’t want broccoli, you wish we had something else.”), and remind her of her agency. (“You’re in charge of what you put in your body. You may leave it on your plate.”)

This is pretty much the way I’ve operated since first introducing RIE ideas into my program and family, but I was having trouble explaining to others the nuances of the principles I was trying to work with. I think the distinction between treating a child as an Adult versus as a Person may make it easier to understand.

What I took from Janet’s presentation was that honestly acknowledging and being respectful of a child’s feelings or point of view shouldn’t have any qualifiers. It’s enough (and more respectful) to simply observe, “You really don’t want to get in the car. You want to stay and play.” And then, just be in that moment with them. Adding, “BUT we’re running late and you need to get buckled in right now”, kind of just runs roughshod over what they’re feeling and perhaps invalidates it.

I think this a a perfect time for Magda Gerber’s advice to Slow Down.

“You really don’t want to get in the car. You’re so upset right now.” (Pause to slow my own breathing and get a little “zen”.) “I need to be sure you’re safe. Do you need another moment before I buckle you in? OK.” (Pausing again to keep my own breathing deep and slow, staying as unhurried and relaxed as I can.) “OK, I’m going to buckle you in now.” (Pause to let what I just said register and then gently and firmly talk my child through the process.) “I’m helping you with your right arm. And now your left. Here goes your chest clip. I need your bottom all the way in the seat. Please sit your bottom down all the way. I’m going to help you scoot your bottom back so that I can click your buckle. OK, now I’m making your straps snug. I know that you are still upset. You are crying and you look frustrated. It’s OK for you to be upset. This is a safe place for you and your feelings. I’m going to get in the front seat now but I will be listening to you.”

My general rule of thumb is, the louder and more upset a child is becoming, the softer and more intimate I become. It helps me to remain calm and I think it helps children to feel safer. I don’t need to put on a big parenting show for everyone in the cereal aisle, it’s just me and my kiddo trying to reconnect and that is done by going low and slow.”

I’d love to hear your questions, comments, and thoughts about setting limits with empathy. For more reading on a gentle, effective approach to discipline with infants and toddlers, I highly recommend  following this link and checking out the many articles Janet Lansbury has written on the topic.

Sarah MorrisonA special thanks to Sarah Morrison, who is an Early Childhood specialist who lives in Northern California. Her passion for providing quality child care for young children led her to study Waldorf Education with Lifeways North America, which is where she was introduced to the inspired writings of Magda Gerber and RIE. Soon after, she completed the RIE Foundations course. Sarah runs a mixed-age nursery school program from her home.
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Ellen Williams April 12, 2014

Thank you for the authentic words to acknowledge and empower children (and adults). I especially liked the words, “You are in change of what you put in your body. You may leave it in your plate.” I found the reminder helpful that we choose to cook and serve broccoli over and over instead of banana muffins without sharing the commercial of why broccoli is a healthy choice. Less “wa wa, wa wah, wa wah” (from snoopy cartoons for my child to experience). Thanks for sharing, Lisa!

Nina May 21, 2014

I try to do the same. I find that acknowledging my kids’ feelings first lets them know that I’m on “their side” and that I can see how they feel.

I also try to stay calm. The angrier I get, the more frustrated my kid gets. It’s like a never ending cycle that way.

And sometimes I’m just quiet and reassure physically, like with a hug or pat on the back. Or I’ll concede to something that he might enjoy, like say, “Why don’t you bring that toy with you to the car? Now we can put your shoes on.”

Amanda August 3, 2016

Hi Lisa. I’ve been following your site for a long time. I have a three year old boy. He asks for snacks all morning and afternoon. His tone is usually a whining tone and he’s relentless. I find if he snacks too close to meals he does not eat much at meal time so I stop allowing snacks 1.5 hours prior to meals. He will scream and cry for snacks. I question whether it is a snack he wants or something else he’s trying to communicate, because he’ll demand a snack 5 minutes after eating one. He’s growing well. He sucks on a cloth at nap and during the night (we never comfort nursed and he self-weaned at 14 months from BFing) and he’ll often go upstairs to get his cloth to suck when I acknowledge his desire while saying no firmly to his demands for snacks. This is when I remind him that the “suck cloth” is for rest and ask him if he needs to snuggle. I remind him that I am there for him. I do keep a bag of carrots in the fridge that he can help himself to whenever he wants, but he usually wants something else. I don’t think this behavior is about snacks. I think it might be him asserting his will and testing boundaries. Thoughts?


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