A mom I know asked me a question about setting limits. I wasn’t surprised, because her son is two years old. That’s just about the time children start to show that they have a mind of their own and want to use it. They can become quite self-assertive about what they want and don’t want to do. Mothers are bewildered by the transformation in their formerly easy-to-manage, cuddly babies.
This transformation becomes what has often been called the “terrible twos”. What makes them seem terrible is the potential for confrontation in children’s changed behavior around this time. It is a potential for confrontation that continues through much of a child’s development – becoming particularly difficult once again in adolescence. Questions about setting limits can go on for quite a while!
But I think two year olds get a bad rap. While their behavior can seem challenging, once you’re on to them they can be quite interesting – and fun. There are so many exciting things going on in their development It’s exactly those developmental changes that are part of the new self-assertion. New motor skills enable children at this stage to run, climb and jump, among other things. Climbing means pulling a chair over to the cabinet to reach the high shelf where mom keeps the cookies. The ability to figure things out and develop strategies is also an unfolding skill. Most significant, children are increasingly able to use language, and “no” is an early favorite word of choice. It is the big “no” that opens the road to confrontation with parents.
That “no” is actually part of another change that otherwise is less visible. Children are becoming more aware now that they and mom are separate people. What they want is not always what mom wants, and what mom wants them to do is not always what they want to do. The conflict caused by this increasing awareness can be very confusing. Children want what they want, but they also want and need mom’s care and approval.
A child’s inner confusion gets expressed in behavior that is then confusing to mom. He loves the bath but suddenly is refusing to take a bath. Mom cuts the peanut butter and jelly sandwich in quarters as she always does, and a melt-down follows because he wants the sandwich whole. Nothing will do but to make that sandwich whole again. No wonder mothers tear their hair in frustration.
What makes this behavior challenging is that there is not one clear way for a mother to respond that “works”. Obviously that particular sandwich can’t be made whole again as the child demands. One can only sympathize and wait for the upset to subside. But there are other situations where a mother will do best by just moving ahead with what she has in mind – despite the child’s protests. Children don’t have to like something, or want to do it, in order to do it. (One mother I knew thought she had to persuade her child that he loved the bath in order to get him to take one.)
The real frustration for a mother comes after she has been reasonable and offered to make another sandwich, or give the child another five minutes to play, and then still has to deal with the protest or tantrum. This is what leads to the “do it, or else” approach that often leads to confrontation big time. On the other hand, it also can lead to a mother just giving up and doing whatever a child wants. No happy solution either way.
This is what led to the mom’s question about setting limits. She was aware that she willingly kept reading more and more books at bedtime, but then when he wanted to play rather than eat lunch, she wasn’t sure if she shouldn’t just pick him up screaming and bring him to the table. Her impulse was to do whatever he wanted to make him (and herself) happy, but that was leading to a forceful approach at other times. So, how to “set limits”?
That phrase has a somewhat threatening sound – SET LIMITS – as if a guard rail or some kind of barrier is suddenly about to drop. OFF LIMITS – GO NO FURTHER. Sometimes it means a parent has reached her limit in tolerating certain behavior. That can happen if you go too far down the child’s road, and then as a result have to come to an abrupt stop.
Actually, limits can be more effective as part of a process in which we help children move on, rather than demanding that they do so. Basically that means recognizing that not only when they are two, but for a while to come, we are asking them to do many things that run counter to what they want and feel. Even when setting limits, we need to show respect for those wishes and feelings. It is the same kind of respect we would like to be shown when we are asked to do something we may not be ready to do.
Limits can be made user friendly. That means being clear about expectations while allowing our children time to meet them. We don’t have to become “the enemy” – even when asking children to give up their wishes for ours. It takes time to learn that “you can’t always have what you want” – both for parents and children.