Setting Physical Limits
“Is it okay for me to do that?”
Parents ask me this question from time to time, and while I feel awkward answering it* (My job is not to judge!), I can totally understand where it comes from. Modern parents are bombarded by advice, books, judgments, and conflicting opinions about how best to parent. We are often weighing Expert A’s opinion against Expert B’s, and they both are different from how we were parented, and different still from how our friends are all doing things, too… no wonder we’re left confused about what’s right.
Setting physical limits** is a particularly sticky area for many of the parents with whom I work. When our toddlers are 18 months old, we’re confident that steering them away from the electrical outlet is “right,” but the water gets murkier when they are 3 and refusing to walk to the car after music class. Don’t even mention the bane of children (and parents) everywhere: the carseat.
But, yes, I advise parents that it is okay to set a physical limit, and–as with all things in parenting, there are a zillion contingencies to consider. Here are two:
- By far the most important… in fact you could stop reading after this it’s so critical–is YOUR emotional state. If you are upset, don’t do it. Period.
- A very distant second consideration: can you avoid it? Let it go? Use a different tool? Be playful? Talk it through? Wait patiently? If the answer to any of those is yes, try those first.
After weighing your options, and perhaps trying a few other tools, let’s assume that you do have to set the physical limit. As you proceed, here are a few things to consider including in the process:
- Describe to your child what needs to happen.
- Remind your kid that if they can’t make the right decision, you’ll have to make it for them.
- Take your next steps more slowly than usual.
- Later, talk together about what happened. Be a problem-solving consultant to your child: “What could Mommy do to help you make the right choice next time?”
- Next time, remind child about this time (“Remember the last time you & I came to this library, you couldn’t keep your body from going up those stairs, and I had to pick you up to keep you from doing it–and you really didn’t like that.”) Play the role of the problem-solving consultant again: “What can I do to help you make the right choice this time?”
So, the next time you’re faced with a (parenting) problem that you can’t solve with talking, I hope some of these suggestions will help.
* For the record, with few exceptions, I always say the same thing: yes. You can parent the way you want to. Of course, I am direct with my clients about things I advise against, like spanking, losing your temper, being inconsistent, etc, but the parents who take the time & energy (and money!) to come in to see a therapist/parenting coach are conscientious, caring, proactive people who are working on fine-tuning their already loving and thoughtful skills.
** Obviously, I’m excluding those times when your child’s immediate safety is in jeopardy. You do what you must in those situations, and that’s what’s right.