Tuesday, 8 March 2016

JJ throw sand, JJ go home--Parenting with limits

I'm at a park one day with the kids, and the lunch hour is nearing.  There's another mom and (my best guess) her 3 year-old son playing on the swings. Mom suggests they need to go home soon. They go through the 5 minute, 2 minute, and last minute warnings and then blow straight through their projected leaving time. This progresses to mom offering 'one last slide' which the toddler takes to mean one last slide, one last swing, one last monkey bar, one run around the tree AND one last dig in the sandpit. Mom then says, “OK, time to go now, JJ,” and this is inevitably met with tears and protests. Mom then goes into explaining how they have to go so mom can make lunch, and they can have sandwiches, “You like sandwiches, don't you JJ?” I'm not a creep so I totally wasn't watching judgmentally while this whole scene unfolded, but I believe it ended when JJ threw sand in mom's face seconds before she hauled him off to the stroller. I can only assume she'd reached her limit.

Limits. I'm no expert, but today I have few things to say about kids and limits.

Limits are learned through example, and there is no correct limit. Though it may sound otherwise, I am not judging the actions of this woman at the park. She would have been no less or no more of a mom if she'd hauled JJ's ass out after the last minute warning or waited until she convinced him to go on his own accord. She would have just been setting a different limit. But, I will say this about my very generous interpretation of the whole situation, actions speak louder than words! And what JJ took from this situation was not anything about leaving the park at a reasonable time so that mommy could make lunch, what JJ learned was, “JJ throw sand in mommy's face, JJ go home.” More accurately, he learned what mommy's limit was, and, for better or worse, he will take that forward when going to set his own limits in the future. I know in my own life, my 5 and 7-year old have been struggling with the old 'who-gets-the-pink-booster-seat' quandary. This had been dragging on and on and had come to the point where we needed to address it. As far as I could tell, there were a few ways to go about this...We could let them argue for as long as it took to figure it out. My best guess is that that would result in blood and last no less than 30 minutes. We could take turns. We could employ the 'you sit where I say you sit' method, or we could assign permanent booster seats. Now, again, I'm not suggesting this is the correct solution, but we opted for the taking turns approach. That is the ‘limit’ we chose to set on this occasion, and for us, it is the compromise between them having a say in the location of their ass in our vehicle and our own patience/time when it comes to dealing with the issue. Don't get me wrong, there is still plenty of disagreement as to who sat where last and for how long they sat there, but for now this is something we can all live with. Now, I will be clear, I see nothing wrong with parents who assign permanent booster seats so as to avoid the bickering entirely, and I can also entertain the merits of letting them hash it out on their own...However long it takes…Whatever blood is shed…While you wait and wait and wait. Having said that…

The length of your tether is not directly proportional to your virtuousness. If I put that in the context of limits, I might say, one is no more (or no less) virtuous just because it takes longer to reach their limit. We've all met a parent or two whose patience seem endless--the ones at daycare pick-up with that perma -smile on their face, even as they remind their child for the 20th time that it's time to put on their shoes, those that keep smiling and speaking in the gentlest of voices while their child throws their vegetables on the floor AGAIN. 'Peas stay on our plates, sweetie.' Or better (worse?) yet, the ones who have seemingly endless time to engage with their kids in conflict-resolution strategies whenever there is a tussle over a toy, say. No doubt, patience is a virtue, and there are all kinds on wonderful lessons to be learned from engaging in a situation this way, but let’s not forget the getting-shit-done-and-meaning-what-you-say-the-first-time virtue. I have a tremendous amount of respect (and maybe a little jealousy) when I see a child who doesn't need reminding when their parent has asked them to put their shoes on, or who quite simply puts an end to what might be a painful and time-consuming conflict-resolution process with the simple words, “We share our toys.” Again, I'm not suggesting one is better than the other, just that these types of parents set different but comparably valuable limits.

Having no limits is just plain dangerous. Though I have ventured to not place too much value on the types of limits one sets for their kids, I will say this...DO set limits. Whatever they are. A quote from my own father, by some measures the most experienced dad I have ever met…“Kids need limits. Kids thrive with limits.” And he is absolutely right. Limits are those things which make kids feel safe physically and emotionally. They make life predictable, help us the develop good habits, and altogether help us navigate successfully through the variety of social and occupational situations we encounter throughout our lives. For instance, if parents set a 'bedtime before 830 on a school night' limit, this limit not only serves to make the bedtime hour more manageable and predictable, but it is hugely responsible for the readiness of that child to learn the next day and, further down the road, helping that child as an adult to make responsible decisions such that they are able to be at work on time and be a productive participant in their career of choice. On the flip side, and I haven't seen this type of the thing very often, but I was once on a play date with a few moms, and an incident occurred where one child choked another child. When this was met with a mere eyebrow raise and a flippant comment about how, ‘he was just kidding’ from the offending child’s mom, at first, I felt certain rage on behalf of the choke-ee and her mom, but, on further reflection, I also felt very sorry for the little boy. Apparently, for him there are no limits when engaging in dangerous behavior, and one can’t help but wonder what life will look like for him going forward.  

‘No’ is the most valuable limit your child will ever learn. Kids need to be comfortable with the word ‘No.’ They need to say it, mean it, hear it and heed it, in no particular order. I draw attention to this specifically because in my years of parenting, I have certainly noticed a trend toward not saying ‘No’ to a child as if the word is somehow negative or needs to be dressed up in some flowery way. I think I have even seen and read articles entitled something like, “10 things to say to your child instead of No” but I can't stress enough what a great disservice this is to our children.  I could go on and on and on, but I will leave it at this...Would you want your college-age daughter (or son) going to a frat party where no one had ever heard the word ‘no’? Me neither.

You don’t always need to justify your limit. It is easy to get caught up providing lengthy explanations to our children as to why we have chosen to set such and such limit (God knows they demand to know…'Why, Mom?’) and though there are plenty of situations where is this absolutely necessary and appropriate, I’m going to take this opportunity to remind you that limits are set more powerfully by action. Oftentimes words can actually take away from the clarity of a limit, and whatever your age, it is easy to get backed into a corner in these types of conversations. Imagine this:
FunFriend: Hey, it’s ladies night at ClubX on Thursday. Male strippers! Wanna come?
You: I don’t think I’ll make it.
FunFriend: Why?
You: I have to work early on Friday.
FunFriend: So do I. Come on, it’s just one night.
You: Nah, it’s not really my thing.
FunFriend: Why do you have something against strippers?
You: I don’t know. I’ve never been.
FunFriend: All the more reason!
You: I’m too broke to go out anyway.
FunFriend: There’s no cover. I’ll buy you a drink. I don’t want to go by myself and, hunky Jack is bartending.
You: I don’t think I have the car that night, anyway.
FunFriend: Great, I’ll pick you up, and you can buy the drinks next time. Bye

So, I’m going to propose that the actual reason you didn’t want to go to Club X is of no consequence. The point was that you said you weren’t going, and the rest of the conversation just served to confuse that.
When it comes to setting a limit with your children, maybe in some cases you have done so for the betterment of their health or safety, or maybe sometimes you have set a limit because you desire to teach them to be respectful of other people, or maybe you needed to set a ‘no-toys upstairs’ limit because you are just sick of the noise and the mess. The point is, you don’t always need to provide an explanation, just as you wouldn’t want your kids to have to always feel obliged to provide an explanation when they have set a limit. So let’s try this again…

You don’t always need to justify your limit. Period.

And finally…No brainer, but limits are most successful when you enforce them consistently. The other morning my son asked me if he could play on my phone while he waited for the bus. In my rush around to get lunches ready and breakfast cleared away, I absent-mindedly replied, “Sure.” My husband says, “Yesterday you said no screen time on weekdays??” And, I totally had. And this is why we are ALWAYS fighting about screen time. And when I have some magical parenting tip as to how one enforces limits consistently, I will totally get back to you, but I’m pretty sure I’m right not wrong in saying it.

So yea, wherever this finds you on your parenting journey today, I wish you the best of luck. Don’t mistake any of this as advice given from some position of superiority. I’m too busy sucking out at these types of things to judge you. All the best.