Please help! I’m having to rethink my strategies with my 4-year-old. Normally bedtime is effortless — a great routine, quality time, and straight down. The only caveat is that I’ve used TV as an incentive and threaten to cancel play dates the next day if she doesn’t stay in bed (and have consistently followed through). Now that I’ve removed this “motivation,” which in fact are maybe just “bribes,” she is getting out of bed constantly and screaming and yelling when I take her back. I stay calm, and I acknowledge feelings.
The same thing is happening for independent playtime. Before, it was going wonderfully, but now without the motivation of screen time, she keeps coming out of her room. She has a Gro-clock in there, so knows when the time is up.
What am I supposed to do? I feel like giving up and reverting to the old negative-but-effective patterns of parenting. What limit can I set that is respectful?
The difficulties you’re experiencing suggest you might be missing one crucial element of respectful discipline: certainty.
To comfortably accept a limit, our children need us to feel really, really sure about it. When children don’t sense this certainty emanating from us, they tend to keep pushing the limit. My thought is that it was easier for you to project conviction when you could negotiate what felt to you like a fair deal: “Okay, you give me some time to do what I need to do in peace, and I’ll give you some TV.” Or, “If you won’t go to bed without a battle, I won’t give you what you want (a playdate).”
Those kinds of agreements helped you to feel that the limits were established with benefits for both sides, so you were able to sign off on them with confidence. After all, you were being fair. But it was that comfortable conviction on your part that registered for your daughter more than the incentives themselves.
The incentives may have also served the purpose of causing her to behave out of the fear of losing something she wanted. If our long term goal is to nurture our child’s sense of security and a parent-child relationship steeped in trust, it’s best not to stoke anxiety or fear to gain cooperation. Instead, I would embrace these situations as opportunities for an honest connection – as a loving leader to our beloved and understandably impulsive young child.
An important element of respectful discipline is that it requires us to find that sense of certainty in ourselves as loving leaders for our children. It’s a tactic-free approach and doesn’t rely on bribes, threats, or equipment like timers or Glo-clocks.
Once, in a Facebook discussion group, I referred to this conviction as “being the gate.” A parent had asked how to handle her child’s constant requests for attention when the parent needed to separate to do housework. There had been a gate across the child’s play area, but the child could now open it. Gates are certainly helpful for offering us the opportunity to focus for a few minutes on something other than our children with peace of mind. A gate can also encourage them to explore freely in a safe enclosed place without the interruption of our “No, you can’t do that…” I recommend them, but not as replacements for our inner conviction. Children still need us to be the gate when we express limits like, “I’m going to make our dinner now.” They might express their displeasure by whining, pleading, howling, or screaming, but our inner gate helps us accept these strong objections with confidence, perhaps reminding ourselves that young children will often need to express an intense mix of feelings and stress at the end of their day… and that’s a positive thing. We trust and hear and acknowledge them all – willing to truly see our child in her pain and support her to express it. We understand that these seemingly unreasonable requests and feelings are healthy venting rather than a sign that we’ve done something wrong.
In your case, Chrystal, I noticed a second baby in your Facebook profile pic (call me nosy), which means that your daughter likely has an abundance of uncomfortable feelings to share about this change in her life. If she’s like most children her age, her feelings will be expressed at bedtime and/or in response to various limits, or during transitions throughout the day. Often they won’t appear to having anything to do with the baby or seem at all reasonable (feelings often aren’t, even for us as adults). Your limits expressed with certainty will help her to safely share and relieve herself of these feelings.
So, be the gate when she pops out of bed after you’ve said, “Goodnight, my love” with conviction. Calmly and boringly walk her back to bed, so that only she is the emotional one. This isn’t the time to try to connect, and don’t negotiate. Allow her and trust her to vent these feelings.
During her independent play time, set your boundaries, and let her try to push them as you remain the gate, even if she is following you around. She does this because she needs this dynamic with you… again, sharing her complaints.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to trust rather than fear our children’s feelings. Interestingly, the conviction this approach gives us continues to grow and build on itself, and the result is a calmer, happier home. Denise shared an encouraging success story about certainty and fearlessness:
“I have a 6-month and a 2.5-year-old. I heard about RIE just before the little one was born and have tried to implement it since. At first I found that even if I did the right things and said the right words it would not help. Then I discovered that the key for me is gentle leadership. Having conviction in what I say and do, and trust that my children will appreciate it.
For example, if I put the little one in her crib and tell her, “Have a great nap, I’ll go do laundry now and will be nearby when you wake up so I can come in when you would like me to pick you up,” and then leave thinking I hope she doesn’t scream when I close the door, she will for sure cry and scream. But if I put her down picturing her fast asleep, then she most likely doesn’t even fuss.
Same with my 2.5-year-old. If we need to leave the house and he wants to keep playing even after lots of notice, I say, “You want to keep playing, but we have to leave now, please put on your shoes.” In my mind, if I’m afraid he will keep stalling and whining, then he most likely will. On the other hand, if there is no doubt in my mind that he will sit in his car seat in a couple minutes, then he cooperates.
Unfortunately there is no switch that you can turn on to make this happen, but over time it will become easier and easier.”
Projecting certainty doesn’t always work as quietly and agreeably as Denise’s examples. If only! As I shared with Chrystal, when children are sitting on feelings they need to express, they will instinctively use these situations as their channel. But either way, our fearlessness around feelings that might range from whines and complaints to tantrums and meltdowns is an essential for projecting authentic conviction. Finding this belief in ourselves and faith in our kids provides them the leadership they need to flourish.
(Photo by Donnie Ray Jones on Flickr)