One of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of parenting is also the most critical…providing children the boundaries they need to feel secure. I was reminded (again) how confusing this issue can be for all of us when I received this comment on my recent post about hitting:
“Like so many others, I am struggling with this issue daily. I feel somewhat validated knowing that my matter-of-fact response is on the right track. It can be difficult to remain visibly unruffled when grandma or another observer is present and yelling, ‘Don’t hit your mother like that!’ One thing that continues to be an issue for me is the ‘I won’t let you…’ approach. My toddler son is big for his age and quite strong. Trying to restrain his hands or feet is difficult for a petite woman like me. It’s even more difficult when I try the approach you mentioned: ‘can you come inside by yourself, or do you need my help?’ If the kicking, hitting and biting starts when you try to pick up the child, but you can’t just walk away, what’s next?”
‘Unruffled’, ‘calm’, and ‘matter-of-fact’ are words I often use to convey an understanding that intense responses to our kids’ behavior tend to backfire. Our children need to know that their parents and caregivers are not thrown by their minor misdeeds, so they can rest assured that they are well taken care of and not more powerful than the leaders they depend on. A two or three-year-old whose normal, healthy boundary testing causes fear or anger in an adult can’t feel safe.
So the comment above was a little perplexing to me until I realized that ‘unruffled’ and ‘matter-of-fact’ (and even ‘respect’) can easily be misconstrued as being permissive rather than confidently in charge. This reminded me that passivity and permissiveness are the most common discipline fails I see.
Here’s what I wrote back to the commenter:
“If my kids’ grandma yelled, “Don’t hit your mother like that!” I would be agreeing, “Yeah, don’t hit your mother! I’m not going to let you do that.” This reaction would not come from a place of anger; it would be firm and out of the assurance that I am helping my child. Is it possible that you are confusing “unruffled” and “matter-of-fact” with passive or timid? It sounds like your son needs much more assurance and confident leadership from you.
You say your boy is quite strong, but you are stronger. It can be disconcerting and even frightening for young children to feel like their parents can’t physically contain them… It’s hard for me to know exactly how to advise you with just the information you’ve given me, but your boy’s behavior indicates that he is not getting the helpful, comforting, firm responses he needs.
I would also make sure you are preparing him in advance for transitions and speaking to him honestly and respectfully.”
There are two extreme approaches to discipline that do not serve a toddler’s needs. One is overly strict, punitive, and non-empathetic. It involves maintaining control of the household through punitive discipline and other manipulative tactics. The child is perceived as innately “bad” and out-of-control, needing to be taught how to behave through fear and shame. Respect is demanded from children, rather than being something children can be trusted to return to us when they have been treated respectfully from the time they are born.
On the other end of the spectrum are parents who are reticent to engage in conflict and will do almost anything to avoid their child’s disagreement (a type I can personally relate to!). These parents hope boundaries will be accepted by their toddler, so they set limits timidly, softly, perhaps with a wavering tone that asks “is this going to be okay with you?”
Perhaps they over-identify with their child’s feelings, so their instinct is to go out of their way to “make it work” in order to keep their child happy. The parent’s thought might be, “Why not avoid an emotional outburst whenever possible?” The parent rationalizes, “I wanted to go to the bathroom alone this time, but I didn’t really need to.” Or “it’s probably okay for us to be late while I wait for Alice to decide she’s ready to get into her car seat. I can’t force her.”
This can indicate that there is a lack of recognition of the healthy need toddlers have to express their burgeoning will by resisting whatever their parents want…and their need to release intense feelings.
These parents might worry that their child’s spirit will be crushed or she’ll stop loving or trusting them if there is a conflict of will. They coax or distract their child into the behavior they want (or out of the behavior they don’t want) rather than risk being the mean guy who says “no”.
“Basically, most parents are afraid of disciplining their children because they are afraid of the power struggle. They are afraid of overpowering the child, afraid they will destroy the child’s free will and personality. This is an erroneous attitude. “ –Magda Gerber
Passive or permissive parents often give too many choices, overanalyze or respond ambiguously when children need a definitive, honest intervention.
Every tear a child sheds goes straight to a sensitive parent’s heart. But no matter how caring we are in these cases, our child’s testing continues. It has to, because our child is still not getting the help they need.
“There is no way over-indulged children are going to be happy, because they seldom get direct, honest responses from their parents. …When you say “No,” really mean it. Let your face and posture reflect “No” as well” –Gerber
In these situations, children might seem adrift and uncomfortable much of the time. There may be a lot of demanding, crying, and whining rather than healthy coping and resilience, which can send even the kindest, gentlest, most loving parents over the edge. “How could our child keep pushing us when we are so loving, kind, and respectful?” But often child’s behavior is not in spite of the parent’s efforts to please, or their passive, peaceful attitude. It is because of it.
If this permissive approach continues, these children can become unpleasant company, not only for their parents but for their peers, teachers, family, and friends.
“A positive goal to strive for when disciplining would be to raise children we not only love but in whose company we love being.” –Gerber
Guess which of these two discipline approaches I have more experience helping parents with?
That might be because “follow the child” philosophies like the one I teach (Magda Gerber’s approach) can confuse parents about their role. Parents are encouraged to respect their babies, trust them to develop skills naturally according to their inborn timetable, and lead play. As facilitators of these aspects of child development, rather than teachers, we learn to observe, and practice staying out of the way. But this must not be confused with permissiveness — it is mindfulness.
I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in
I also recommend these respectful parenting perspectives:
Positive Child Guidance: A Look At Discipline vs. Punishment by Amanda Morgan, Not Just Cute
The Secret To Turning A Toddler’s “No!” Into A “Yes!” and Let’s Talk by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby
Entitlement And The Pursuit Of Happiness by Rick Ackerly, The Genius In Children
The wonderful handbook 1, 2, 3, The Toddler Years by Irene Van der Zande
(Photo by greg westfall on Flickr)