One of my passions is helping parents to realize the crucial role of boundaries in their children’s lives and to encourage them to become the confident, benevolent leaders kids need. It’s an important subject for me, because I know this journey intimately. I was a classic pushover parent. I ardently believe that if I was able to find the strong leader within me, anyone can.
Having been a people pleaser for as long as I can remember, I was predisposed to pushover parenting. My goal was for you to like me, or at the very least not dislike me. “Sorry” was as reflexive a response for me as “Hi.” I was a master at avoiding confrontation, and like the toddler who believes that no one can see her when she covers her eyes, I naively believed my unresolved issues could disappear on their own. On the occasion that I was caught off-guard and forced into confrontation, I’d be the first to wave a white flag rather than hold my ground and own my place in the world.
And then I had a toddler. Not just any toddler — an assured, assertive, terrific, terrifying power-girl whose maturity and insight could be both awesome and seductive to the extent that it often felt like she was my mother. And when my princess lost her composure, which seemed to happen all too often, she became a ferocious, indignant queen. Heads will roll!
Even as an infant, my little darling intimidated me. Rather than plaintively communicating, Help, I’m hungry, her cries seemed to demand, On the double, you fool! I need it yesterday! I remember once sharing this with family, and I know there were eye-rolls and snickers behind my back, “Yeah, right. Typical oversensitive, overwhelmed new mom!”
But if I ever doubted this perception of my baby at the time, the brilliant, vivacious and accomplished 22-year-old she is today confirms it. I still see the feisty power-baby beneath her quiet elegance and poise. She has contained and channeled it well, but it’s still there.
As I struggled to navigate those toddler years, one thing was clear: I needed to find something within me to stay a step ahead of my mighty girl. But first I needed to adjust my perspective…
It was my mentor Magda Gerber who opened my eyes in her RIE class that I attended. My daughter was around 20 months old at the time. RIE was an hour’s drive without traffic, and to survive the ride home I’d often give her a bottle of milk. That day, my toddler had decided she was ready to leave several minutes before class ended and began howling at the top of her tiny lungs, “Bottle! Bottle!” She obviously wanted me to know she was in agony, quite suddenly dying of thirst, and I was to take immediate action.
But then Magda turned to me and calmly acknowledged, “She’s a very good actress.”
It was then that I realized: My daughter’s fierce demands were this toddler’s healthy assertiveness, delivered with a flair for drama (she’s still a very good actress) rather than the intensely desperate pleas they appeared to be. This was the moment of clarity that helped me to stop riding her emotional toddler rollercoaster.
Another helpful perspective shift came a year later through some feedback from an experienced early childhood associate. Thanks to Magda Gerber, I had learned to trust my baby’s competence, and (wowza!) competent she was. She consistently amazed us with all she could do. In those olden days we had a music player known as a “boom box” which our daughter had mastered by the age of two. We kept one in her bedroom until, in the wee hours one night, her dad and I awoke to a pulsating beat. Sure enough, she was partying, which we found rather amusing. But when I shared this story with my trusted associate, her perspective made sense. “Just because she’s able to do it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to give her that power.” I began to recognize where too much power and choice was actually the opposite of freedom for a toddler and could be an uncomfortable burden and distraction. In that particular case, a middle-of-the-night sleep distraction.
These adjustments to my perspective helped me to more clearly define my role, but fulfilling that role in my daughter’s dynamic and forceful presence continued to be a challenge. Here are some thoughts that helped me get over the hump:
Mantras and self-talk
When I needed to set a limit with my daughter or tell her some version of no, but I was afraid of the backlash or worried that I was being mean, I would imagine I was saying to her something like: Don’t worry, I will keep you safe, which would mean safe from hurting herself or others.
Or, let’s say my daughter was paralyzed with indecisiveness (as toddlers often are) or making unreasonable requests or demands. While letting her know that I would make those choices for her, I might say something to myself like, Don’t worry. I will take these concerns off your plate to free you up.
I often said to myself, and sometimes even out loud, “You are the most special child and deserve the most incredible parents, so I must do what’s hard.” It’s easier to say yes, and I believe that in their hearts our children know that.
This self-talk served to empower me by reminding me of my role and my children’s needs. It helped me stay in a “helpful leader” frame of mind, comfortable and confident. And I learned that a comfortable, confident parent makes for a more comfortable, confident toddler because she senses she has an anchor and guide to see her through her age appropriate storms.
But mastering a confident attitude when dealing with limit-setting, etc. didn’t make it any easier to get blasted by my daughter’s anger or endure her crying and tantrums. When those explosions happened, I’d do all I could not to absorb them by repeating to myself a mantra I created: Let feelings be. I’d often add the reminder: They don’t belong to me.
(I also relied on the hero imagery I describe in detail in Tantrums and Meltdowns – My Secret for Staying Calm When My Kids Aren’t.)
It was only recently that I realized during one of my parent-toddler classes that I have a “method” for gaining children’s cooperation, although I’ve been practicing it since my daughter’s toddler years. It’s simple: I envision children following through with whatever it is I’ve asked them to do. Similar to the way an athlete follows through when swinging a golf club, throwing a ball, performing a high jump or anything else, I visualize a child stalling at the doorway of the classroom walking on through while I say matter-of-factly, “It’s time to come in, Audrey.” Or while I ask a one-year-old, “Please put the toy down, I don’t want it on the snack table,” I’ll see the child doing it. This secret has worked almost every time I’ve tried it, and I think that’s because visualizing follow-through ensures I’ll project conviction and belief in the child.
Letting kids know we care
There was an experience I had with my toddler daughter that sealed the deal for me, erased the last shred of worry I’d had that my boundaries might be perceived as anything other than the most positive expression of my love.
We were blessed to have next door neighbors on both sides of us with daughters a year older than my daughter. For different reasons, each of these families was happy to leave their 3-year-old in my care. So, we had an almost daily playgroup, but I was the only adult in charge.
One of the first “rules” that Magda Gerber recommended for toddlers was requesting they always sit while eating or drinking. I had seen with my daughter how effective this rule had been for encouraging her focus and attention, fostering healthy eating habits and table manners that, to my surprise at that time, even one-year-olds are capable of. I’d noticed how my daughter had appreciated this ritual at home, in her RIE classes, even at the park while sitting on the grass.
My daughter’s two little girlfriends did not have this rule at home, so I feared that they would think I was overly strict, perhaps even mean, and not want to come over anymore. I could not have been more wrong. It soon became clear that while I was feeling strict, they were feeling cared for. They embraced our snack and meal rules. It almost seemed they were hungry for them.
It got easier after that.
I share my complete guide to respectful discipline in