Janet discusses children’s crucial need for boundaries and how our authentic responses can free kids up to create and explore. She shares a success story from a parent who says that her son began constantly demanding she draw pictures for him after she “made a rookie mistake” by drawing for him one time. From that moment on, her son became obsessed: “Inside, he’d bring me crayons and paper, and outside, he’d bring me sidewalk chalk and demand drawings.” She quickly realized that she didn’t want to be drawing for him all the time and understood that this was a boundaries issue. Janet describes the common feelings that get in the way of our creating and maintaining boundaries with our children, how to overcome them and why everyone benefits.
Transcript of “How Our Boundaries Free Children to Play, Create, and Explore”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be doing something a little bit different. I’m going to be talking about some thoughts that have come to me recently based on, first of all, a success story that I received that I’m going to read here, and various comments on various things I’ve posted. I’ve been reminded of a way of perceiving our children’s behavior and our role in it that was pivotal for me as a parent and becoming a confident leader for my children.
Basically, this understanding that I want to share today is about seeing our child when they’re being demanding, when they’re repeating an unwanted behavior, challenging behavior. What’s actually going on there a lot of the time is that they are stuck. They are stuck in an uncomfortable place for them. And that’s the part that they can’t really tell us. They can only tell us that through this behavior.
So to generalize, what they need is for us to help them get unstuck. And that usually means that we are more confident in our boundary, and that we’re more welcoming of their feelings around the boundary, which are often loaded with a buildup of emotion that they have that they do need to share. And that’s part of the reason they’re pushing whatever it is or continuing whatever it is.
Then what happens is that we free them.
I just want to encourage it to those that are uncomfortable setting boundaries like I was. I was much more of a people pleaser. I didn’t want to confront and disappoint anybody and make my child upset. There are a lot of parents that lean in this direction. And it was so helpful to me to understand that my reticence wasn’t as loving as the confidence my child needed to be freed from their stuck place.
So rather than keep talking generally about this, I would like to first share this success story. Some of you maybe saw that I posted it on Facebook, and here it is:
I’m a major fan and wanted to share a parenting win I had recently, thanks to your advice. I’ve read your books, listened to every podcast, and work hard to maintain boundaries and encourage independent play.
When I bought my son Legos, I didn’t show him how to use them. And it took him a year to realize they stick together. I didn’t show him how to use blocks. I let him direct the order in which we read the pages of books, et cetera.
Recently, I bought my son his first box of crayons. He always ate them before, but he’s two and a half years old now. I made a rookie mistake. I drew a picture of an excavator with them. From that moment on, he became obsessed with me drawing pictures. Inside, he’d bring me crayons and paper and outside, he’d bring me sidewalk chalk and demand drawings of every kind of truck imaginable anytime I would sit down.
I think I made this mistake because I am an artist and felt so much guilt when I would say no. I started to realize that I just don’t want to draw excavators all the time with sidewalk chalk and that this is a boundaries issue just like anything else. So I pushed past the guilt and told my son I wouldn’t draw pictures anymore.
Of course, he had a lot of strong feelings about that. But remarkably quickly, he became engrossed in drawing on his own. It’s like I set him free. For weeks now he spends hours every day drawing with the chalk and crayons. We had to replace his 30 pack of jumbo chalks because he wore them all down to little nubs in three weeks. I was shocked to watch his lines quickly advance from scratches and dots to swirls and closed shapes, to closed shapes that he colors in, until the other day he drew a pretty accurate dump truck.
Anyway, I was so encouraged at how setting a boundary and giving my toddler back agency in his own learning was so successful and also such a relief for me. Thanks for all that you do.
So in this case the parent got caught up in something very normal and common, which is guilt. I’m prone to guilt, so I am very familiar with that. And there’s very little about our guilt that ever helps our children. What it does is make us doubt our own feelings and our own sense of what’s going on.
So she started something very innocent and normal. And it sounds like she is like I was in wanting my child to be a discoverer of things, because that is such a profound way of learning, and it’s so encouraging to children to be the discovers instead of the followers of the parent’s lead. That’s why taking this to the extreme that I did, and it sounds like this parent was kind of doing — she didn’t show him how to use Legos, she didn’t show them how to use blocks. So those are things that not everyone will choose to do. But yes, I took that approach and I found it was very empowering for my child.
But then she drew something for him. And this is the thing most parents probably would do — to get their child excited about drawing, or just share themselves with their child, or to do something fun while playing with your child. So, really normal thing to do. Then she found out something which also commonly happens, and a lot of parents bring this issue to me, especially whenever I post something about creativity in children. Their child, who may have been drawing before, won’t draw and only wants the parent to draw.
Legendary early childhood educator, Bev Bos, who died in 2016, and I had the pleasure of seeing her speak, she was adamant, “Never draw for a child,” is what she said. I know this is a controversial opinion, but her reason was that a young child can’t possibly draw the way that we do when we make a picture of something. A child sees a product that they can’t recreate or anything close to that. And besides, children are experimenters of materials. They’re not so much into drawing something for someone else, they’re into seeing what chalk does, experimenting with all the different kinds of marks it can make and what it can do. And they do that with all materials. Sometimes they can do this for years and that’s healthy. It’s a process that most of us want to encourage. So Bev Bos noted that when the adult creates something, it can make it harder for the child to want to explore those particular materials.
In this case, she says he became obsessed with me drawing pictures. So it seems like an obsession that he has to keep testing this, pushing her, pushing her that she has to do this, she has to do this. And maybe he was learning something from that about how to draw pictures, but he was also not feeling the confidence to explore himself.
Then what happened is that the parent started to feel something. And this, for all of us with any boundary we need to set, is the signal that’s going to help us recognize when we’re getting caught up in a guilt pattern, or child-pleasing pattern, or a fear of their feelings pattern. We start to feel annoyed. I don’t want to be doing this. I don’t want to be drawing for my child right now. It doesn’t feel right to us.
If you’re a people pleaser like me, you might tend to override that feeling and even feel more guilt about it. Well, I should want to play with my child. I should want to draw with my child. What’s the matter with me?
And then we keep going and our child stays stuck.
There are a lot of things as parents that we have to do to care for our child that we don’t want to do. But in a situation like this, or if your child wants you to play with them and you can’t play, or your child wants to go outside and they’re not safe to go there on their own and you don’t want to go outside with them right now. So many things come under this heading. What I would love to do is give every parent permission to listen to that voice inside them and to know that we’re not doing children any favors saying, “Okay, I’ll do it,” if we really, really don’t want to do it.
Yeah, of course, there are those off moments where our child says, “Let’s go outside,” and we do and we realize we have a great time too. That happens. But more often than not, that voice in us, that feeling in us that doesn’t want to do it, it’s a voice that at least deserves to be heard, if not abided by.
So this parent had the realization that: I just don’t want to draw excavators all the time and that this is a boundaries issue just like anything else. And wow, what a light bulb moment. I can trust my feelings as a parent. I don’t have to do things I don’t want to do that aren’t about primary care for my child. I don’t have to try to entertain and please and be uncomfortable knowing it, be bored, be annoyed.
She listened to that feeling. And she says, “I pushed past the guilt and told my son I wouldn’t draw pictures anymore.”
That’s all we have to do: say no. And when we say no, then we’ve got to hear the feelings on their side about it, which honestly are oftentimes a relief for our child because… and this is the overall point I want to make… they’re in a stuck place there. How does the child feel when they are directing a parent to do something constantly? It doesn’t feel good.
I’ve had the benefit of facilitating classes week to week with parents and their children. So I’ve been able to see and learn a great deal from the dynamic. And when a parent is not setting their limits with confidence and the child has to keep nagging, and whining, and begging and repeating, that child looks so uncomfortable. This is not a happy free explorer. What you see is a tight, controlling: I’m holding something in. A burdened child.
That’s the stuck place that they go into. And only we in our relationship with them can free them from this — by listening to ourselves and setting the reasonable boundary. Seeing, when our child is in a pattern, that’s the help that they need. And that that is much more loving than allowing it to go on and getting stuck in our own guilt place, getting more and more annoyed. And yeah, we can even start to resent our child and it’s not the child’s fault. I mean not that it’s really our fault either, but we are the ones that have control over this and we’ve let it happen to us. Whether we resent our child or annoyed with them, that’s on us to control.
So this parents said, “Of course, he had a lot of strong feelings about that.” Yes. Finally, he’s releasing this flood of feelings he’s been holding onto as the controlling, bossy child in those moments. So yeah, this tends to be a buildup when children are holding on to control, they’re holding onto control of their feelings. That’s why it’s not a comfortable place. But if this parent is confident like she was when she got that light bulb moment, it clicked for her and she went for it with confidence. And that’s why, remarkably quickly, he released his feelings.
She said, “He became engrossed in drawing on his own. It’s like, I set him free.” She set him free. That’s absolutely what she did.
She shared some of these pictures that he’s drawing and how into it he is. He would even let his 10 month old baby brother be drawing next to him on the same large sheet of paper. That’s comfort, that’s freedom, that’s joy for a child. But it took that hard thing, for the parent to see and be brave.
I like for us to own that we’re heroic a lot of the time as parents. Every one of these moments is pretty heroic — to overcome our guilt, and our fear, and maybe shame, and doubt, to do this most loving thing.
Another thing I had posted was about encouraging independent play in toddlers. So on Instagram there are a lot of messages about it. And I know that parents struggle with this so much. What I try to do is help them to see how uncomfortable a child is when they’re holding onto the parent and trying to control them this way and how much freer and better they feel when they can be explorers, learners and creators, as young children want to be.
This parent in this success story used the term “agency.” Yes, there are books out and lots of talk about how studies show that children are growing up without a sense of agency, because the parents have worked so hard to please them, and look out for them, problem solve for them and help them avoid disappointment and failure. The insecurity that creates for young adults when they’ve been prevented from those experiences of not getting what they want, of disappointment, starting with the parent in a situation like this, they don’t feel free. It’s like they have to continue in that stuck place of dependency and control.
And we can avoid that. Actually, with the track that we start on with our infants and definitely in the toddler years, we can get on a path that completely circumvents hovering, doubting, pleasing our children. This is how to do it. Being in a relationship with them where our feelings matter, where we don’t let them get stuck, or at least not for too long in these places where they just need our confident answer and to share their feelings about it.
So, anyway, one of the comments that I was referring to earlier on Instagram was on a post about encouraging independent play in toddlers, and it was more about separating. “I have to go do something in the kitchen. I can’t keep playing with you.” And this parent wrote:
“Exactly my issue now with my three-year-old. She constantly wants me around her holding her which is difficult as she has a year-old brother. Sometimes I feel guilty not spending as much time with her brother as she always wants my attention.” And the parent put a sad face.
So here’s a rare case where a feeling of guilt could actually be helpful to this parent because it’s an indication that there’s something important to her that she’s missing. I don’t know my exact words commenting back, but I believe that I asked her what she thought her three-year-old was feeling when she, according to this parent, “Constantly wants me around her holding her.” What is that child feeling? And how did this boy feel when he was demanding his mother keep drawing for him?
It’s a stuck feeling. It’s not fun to be calling the shots with your parent and then have them catering to you, even though you know, because children do know, that they don’t want to be doing that. But they’re still doing it. So you’re not getting a clear, authentically joyful connection with your parent. You’re getting this kind of forced, “Okay. All right,” giving into you kind of response. It doesn’t feel good. And it’s not a good message for children to get that people don’t have boundaries with them, that they don’t have to respect what another person wants, that they just keep asking and badgering. The child is stuck.
This is so easy to fall into. I’m raising my hand, you can’t see me, but I’ve been here.
As I said in the beginning of this podcast, turning this on its head, the way that I’m suggesting here is what helped me turn a huge corner and feel confident in myself as a leader, feel that I was being loving, doing the hardest, most loving thing, being heroic, even when my child was strongly disagreeing. Because children can’t express this to us, they can’t express: Oh, this is not comfortable that I have to keep doing this and I’m stuck here.” They’re not even realizing it. And if they were, they couldn’t articulate it. So we’re not going to get that answer straight from them.
And that’s the tough thing about the toddler years and why we all write so much about them and podcast so much about that age, because it’s when children go from infancy, where what they put out there in terms of their requests and their communication, it’s often pretty clear. They need us to pick them up, they need to move their body because they’re really uncomfortable with digestive pain or something, they’re hungry, they’re tired.
But with toddlers, it’s not as clear. There are more layers there and they’re not always telling us on the surface what their actual need is. So we might worry that their need is to be held all the time as in the second example and paid attention to constantly, or that their need is for the parent to demonstrate art to them. But their actual need is: Please give me a boundary because I’m stuck. Please stop me. Please help me out of this stuck place that I am in with you where I’m not making you happy and I’m not making me happy.
I really hope this perspective helps.
And if these podcasts are helpful to you, please let us know by leaving a comment on iTunes, and please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. There are many of them, and they’re all indexed by subject and category. So you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in eBook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play or barnesandnoble.com, and an audio at Audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.
This is so helpful- thank you. Its made me realise that my 3.5yr old son is ‘stuck’ and I hadn’t realised it. I started making up stories for him (adventures that he and his friends would have, finding dragons, dinosaurs etc) whilst his 1 yr old twin sisters were napping and now its become almost an obsession- he is demanding my husband and I make up stories multiple times a day and it is frankly exhausting (not to mention that I actually am exhausted as his sisters are waking at 4am at the moment..) but I’ve felt too guilty to turn him down. It’s almost as if I’m afraid he’ll think I don’t love him if I don’t put the effort into making up stories for him.
Authenticity in the adults in setting boundaries frees the child who is stuck! What a wonderful way to describe the interaction and to inspire boundary-setting that is both clear and kind. Only when the container is defined, can the child move freely within it. Otherwise, they keep bumping into the edges to discover where they are.
Agreed! Thank you so much, Judith!