Monday, February 22, 2010

Setting Limits?

A few items of site business from Natalie:

Due to the number of questions we've received in the last few weeks, we'll be posting every day this week. We don't wish to flood your inbox, bloglist, or reader, so we thought about saving the questions and continuing to post once or twice a week. The problem, however, is that I'm not organized enough to keep track of the questions for that long and if questions keep coming, (as we hope they do) we'll never be able to get on top of things. Please forgive the lack of structure on this site as we figure things out. It is growing more quickly than we anticipated (yahoo!). The one thing you can count on: We will always post on Mondays. Some weeks may have more posts, we'll just see how things go.

Also, out of the goodness of his heart, my oldest brother surprised us by purchasing the domain names and so if you type those in now, they will bring you here! This doesn't make a difference to those of you already linking to this blog, it just makes it easier to remember. Plus it makes us sound more official, so thanks Nick!

Thanks so much for reading! We really love doing this blog and connecting with each of you. Now, finally, on to the question of the day!

The Question:

I sometimes get mad at my kids, and I always regret it after I do it. I am working on changing, but there is one area I really don't know what to do. My three year old often hurts my 10 month old. Sometimes it's to the point of very dangerous (smothering her with a pillow). Other times, he does things that are dangerous to him (running out in the road). I never spank or anything, but I usually get mad and am, well, too firm, because I want him to know that I am serious, it is serious. But I know there's a better way. What do you suggest? Thank you!

The Answer:

Dear Erin,

You are right. This is a serious issue. And it gives me a chance to talk about something I’ve wanted to clarify—setting limits. I recognize that all this talk about loving discipline might make this topic seem contradictory. But clear limits are vital to a child's security and safety. You as a mother will draw lines and carefully teach your children not to cross them.

First, I’ll discuss limits in general, and then we’ll talk about your son. The loving approach to discipline does not mean that children have their run of the house. You, as a mother, set the limits that work for you and you firmly enforce them. When a child is about 15-18 months old and you sense that he can really understand yes and no, you begin to give him limits.

Some limits have to do with safety, while others are more about personal preference. Here is an example of one of my personal limits. I don't allow my children to freely range through the refrigerator and cupboards and eat anything they see. There are some snacks that they can have anytime, like fruit or a carrot, but aside from that, they have to ask me. I might have plans for those chips. I might know that dinner is in 20 minutes. They have to ask. I teach them this limit very young. I am in charge of the food and they have to ask. Not every one cares about that so they don't bother with that limit, but I do so I take the time to teach and enforce it.

I have limits about rough-housing--never in the living room, mostly outside. I even have a personal noise limit. My family has learned what constitutes "too loud". People used to comment that our children were calm. I really think it's because my threshold for noise is fairly low. You can decide what limits are important enough to you that you are willing to teach and enforce them.

Setting and enforcing limits is vital to a peaceful home. Usually it doesn't involve much firm talk at all. You just teach it from the very beginning. "You may not open the pantry." "If you need a snack, you have to ask me." Then you follow through and are consistent. You thank them for asking when they do and you expect that they will.

When our children know that we mean what we say, they will usually accept our limits. It means we have to get up and follow through again and again, rather than yelling from the next room. Get right on their level and say "Remember, you are not allowed to play with this."

It's fascinating to watch tiny children accept limits. When all of my grandchildren came for Christmas, I showed each of the 1-2-year-olds how they could touch the ornaments carefully with just one finger. We never had any problems. They seemed to enjoy keeping my limit.

Most of our limits are dictated by the Lord's commandments and standards. These are the most important limits, and we try to live by them as a group.

Some offenses are more serious than others. Eating something from the refrigerator is hardly on par with trying to injure the baby. There are times for real firmness. I found that if 98% of my communication with my child was calm and "normal", the other 2% was a very valuable tool. For example, if my child ran out into the road, I would swiftly grab him, carry him back, take his face in my hands, look right into his eyes and say sharply, "We never run into the road. Never!" I don't calmly explain all the dangers at this time. I am clear and stern (reproving betimes with sharpness). Because I don't speak to my child this way every few minutes or even every day, there is shock value. "I think she means it." I keep the child right by me for a few minutes and continue to reiterate the important message. "We never go into the road." When the initial emotion is subsided, I explain why. This method has worked well for me. I do this when a child endangers himself, when a child physically attacks another child (hitting, biting, etc.) or when a child is outright disobedient (when they do something I have just asked them not to do.) I know it seems like I'd be doing this constantly, but it's actually rare--and the rarity of it is what makes it effective.

Now...about your son. Some children require a great deal of supervision. I would be very vigilant and consistent with him. Know what he is doing and constantly be in a mode of teaching him and directing him to appropriate activities. He may have a jealousy issue with your baby. He may respond well if you give him a lot of extra attention and reassurance about his place in your life. You might give him preferential treatment for a while--setting the baby down when he comes into the room and holding him close and reading to him. Sometimes we think that the baby needs the lion's share of our attention, when that next child up is truly the needy one. He may be very aware of how your eyes light up for this little new-comer. When he feels secure in his place in your life, he'll be more generous in his attitude toward his siblings.

Is it hard to see how this idea of limits ties together with loving discipline? Well, the truth is, I rarely "discipline" at all. I just teach. We set up a framework of limits in our homes with clear expectations. When our children make mistakes, we talk to them, teach them, work with them and help them to succeed. When we handle their mistakes with kindness, we show them that our love is unconditional.

It’s an interesting process. I think all the time about how like my children I am—meaning well but making the same mistakes again and again. How gentle my Father in Heaven is with me. How generous is his Son. It always keeps me trying.

With all my love,



  1. I never thought it like this before, but I think that is why our home was quieter than noise threshold is also low. Especially for the TV. My sons learned to watch it on little volume :)

  2. I love when I read something you've posted about and I'm actually doing it 'right'! I know that one person's rules/standards/way of life doesn't always work for another but I have enjoyed setting limits for my son and watching him blossom with them. I'm always the mom who, while still paying attention, doesn't stress over going to someone's house with my boys. I've given them limits and 'house-proofed' them so when we go somewhere with no cabinet locks or outlet plugs, I don't have to worry about them. They already know what they can and cannot do and they have more fun, stress free lives because of it.
    And I'm not meaning to brag at all, just sharing that I've had great success so far (2.5yrs) with setting limits and reaping the benefits of them with our whole family.

  3. I would love to see you start posting Q&As several times a week, I need all the advice I can get!

  4. I'm a bit confused about what you recommend doing when a toddler disobeys. No time-outs? No "punishment"? I can see how a stern "NO" would be effective if only used rarely, but what do I do on a daily basis to deal with these crazy kids! How do I get them to listen????

  5. When my son was 2 and 3 years old (he's 5 now) he was completely out of control. He would scream at bedtime until 2 a.m., he was constantly breaking things, throwing dinner on the floor, hitting, kicking, biting.... nothing I did would work. I ended up calling family in tears several times a week just to have someone come save me.

    I finally followed some super-nanny advice, and we made a naughty spot. Our problem was that we were in a 500 square foot apartment with no stairs. Where do you put him???

    I put one of those food storage buckets in the middle of the kitchen. It was the most boring spot that I could find in the house, and literally the only place I could put it where he couldn't reach out and grab something. It took a few weeks of consistency, but every time he went on the bucket it would be a little longer before the next time he acted up. 2 years later, that bucket is still sitting in our kitchen. The few times he acts up, all I have to do is ask if he needs the bucket and he immediately stops what he was about to do.

    It takes a lot of patience on your part, but it's worth it. Just make sure that you stay calm, because when you get upset, it just makes them more upset and starts a spiral that you can't get out of.

    Hope this helps!

  6. Carly,

    I struggle with this myself. I wanted to be a nice mom who didn't yell, but my kids just weren't listening to me. After trying other things, I decided to take a few days of doing nothing but teaching my boys how I wanted them to behave. I didn't turn on the TV, I didn't get on the computer while they were awake. We didn't have friends over or go anywhere. I followed them around and sat in whatever room they were playing in. As trouble would arise (as it does with 4 little boys) I would intervene before things escalated. I'd teach them that we don't take from our brothers, that we can trade or take turns or find something else. I'd take them by the hand and walk them through it. I helped them practice using nice voices with me and eachother. We practiced coming the first time I called and made a game out of it (I'd have them all go to another room and I'd call them, they'd run to me as fast as can be). If they hit I was stern. I'd praise praise praise their efforts, sometimes rewarding them with a skittle. I honestly got better results this way in a few days than months of putting them on a chair for their infractions. It just takes consistancy and vigilance. I'm speaking in the past tense, as if this is not an issue any more. Don't get me wrong, we certainly have our bad days and sometimes I do resort of putting them on a chair because I've lost my patience. But I've found that on days when I start out putting them on a chair for time out, I have to keep doing it again and again because they keep acting up and I wonder if they are learning a darn thing from the punishment. But if I take the time to teach rather than punish, my children tend to behave better right away and my relationships with them are better. The spirit in the home changes to a more positive one and I genuinely enjoy my kids more. Obviously this is what I was raised with, so it's what I'm comfortable with. I hope you find what works best for you and your family.

  7. Carly, My 2 year old gives me a run for the money sometimes too. I just didn't want to be the kind of mom that was saying "NO!" all day, so I decided to pick my battles. As long as she isn't in danger of hurting herself or others, or damaging something, I pretty much let it slide. Would I prefer that she didn't empty my pots and pans out of the cupboard? Of course. Is it worth yelling at her about it? No. I find that the less angry I am with her, the less mischievous she is, and the easier it is to teach her more ideal ways to do things, and the more likely I am to want to snuggle and spend quality time with her.

    But this is coming from me on a good day with her, I might be singing a different tune tomorrow! :)


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