observing

Setting Limits with Children Effectively

11893882_10153468918156181_1794758232957617734_o

When I read about respectful parenting or mindful parenting I was always confused about setting limits.  There are very few examples in the literature, which makes it hard to figure it out.  Once we did away with punishments, I found myself at a loss for what to do.  When I was no longer relying on punishments, I couldn’t quite figure out and effective way to help keep my children safe.  We spent some time trying to figure it out – which didn’t make any of us particularly happy, but has served us well in the long run.  But then, isn’t that how all change happens?  I thought I would share a bit about what I use to help set and maintain limits for my children, not because I am an authority on the issue, but because if I could help someone else through their parenting transformation, it would be a worthwhile thing to do!

When setting limits, the most important thing to do is to ensure all children are safe.  If the situation is something like a fist fight between children or they are engaged in an unsafe activity like playing with the stove for example, I stop the activity immediately.  Sometimes I can use words, sometimes a gentle hand to restrain a child, sometimes I have to put my body in the middle of it, and sometimes I have to move a child to a safe space by picking them up or guiding them there.  I try to communicate as clearly and calmly as possible through the whole thing what it is that I’m doing and why.  The key to success here is how I follow through on this.  Once I know everyone is safe, then I can take a moment to regain my composure if needed.

Most importantly, when setting limits, I need to keep my emotions under control.  If my children see me react in a big way, they know they’re hitting on something that is an emotional catch for me and will turn it into a power struggle in an instant.  This is the most important element for me, and the most difficult!  It is something that I still don’t do consistently, because, well…I’m human!  Before responding to any situation (unless it is a safety issue – as addressed in the previous paragraph), I try to take a moment for myself.  A deep breath often works well for me.  The point here is to gain some self-awareness about my own inner landscape and how it may be contributing to the situation.

When I started with limit setting over punishment, I began to notice my emotional reactions only after a blow-up – I would reflect on how I could have done things differently in hopes of making a different choice in the moment the next time around.  Then I began to intermittently notice in the moment that I was spinning my own emotional story about the event, which led to engaging with my own past hurts, judgements, etc.  This was/is a particularly difficult phase to be in.  It is painful to watch yourself do things you don’t intend…especially when they are hurtful to those around you!  Here is where I remind myself that no one is perfect.  Not only that, but it is in my imperfection that I am the most effective teacher for my children.  What my children see me do to ‘make things right’ after I have made a bad choice is the best kind of teaching – modelling!

Once I have myself as under control as possible I will relocate myself so that I’m close to the disruption, if I’m not there already!  Proximity can often solve an issue in an of itself.  When children know you’re nearby and will step in to help them if things go off the rails, they are far more willing to try solving the problem themselves because they feel supported in the process.  This comes with time, as it is related to building trust in each other.  I remind myself to trust that the children can sort it out themselves, and my presence reminds them that their safety is my top concern.

If the dispute is between my children, I will interject with sportscasting, narrating what I see happening – just the facts.  Often I will also use non-violent communication techniques to relay back to my children the information they’re telling me about their emotional state.  The key to both of these strategies is to avoid judgment.  Deep empathizing with their situation helps to reconnect us and it allows me to keep my perspective on their needs.  To do this, I listen to each of them, repeating the problem back in my own words if necessary to reassure them; showing that I understand.  I will often ask questions about their emotions.  Something like, “Did it make you feel angry that he took your marker?” or “Are you frustrated because you can’t get your shoes on yourself?”  I will ask if they need help to fix the problem, or if they know how to fix it themselves.  Often being heard is enough to help my children through a problem and I can stop here. Sometimes what they want me to know, understand or do is not appropriate.  So following the clarification of the issue, I will set and maintain a limit.  This sounds something like, “I know you are really excited to play at the park.  Right now, we need to go home for lunch.  I’m going to put you in the car now.”

If things continue, I offer my children a choice.  This allows them a way to gracefully exit the situation, saving face and avoiding a power struggle.  A situation like refusing to go to bed might have me offering a choice like, “You can go up to bed on your own, or I can take you, which would you prefer?”  If the child doesn’t answer in 20-30 seconds, I will take action on the choice that best suits me…so in this case, I will pick them up to go upstairs to bed.  I make sure to only offer the choice once and follow through with reasonable swiftness.  This ensures that my children listen to my words and trust that I will do what I have said.  Usually following through on a choice does not end in a grand display of refusal, since after a few times through this, children come to expect that you will take action.  In the event that they don’t respond well, I return to non-violent communication methods to understand their emotions, asking questions while I continue to follow through with the choice, reminding them they can make a different choice next time.

It sounds so easy in writing, but offering choices is difficult sometimes.  There are many instances where there is not a clear choice.  An example that comes up for us a lot is poor behavior once the lights are out for bed.  Knowing that unfavourable behaviours are rooted in unmet needs alerts me to take note and pay attention to what my children are saying so that perhaps the next day I can do something differently prevent this situation.  But noting that there is a need is not so helpful in the moment, especially when the kids are in an out of the bathroom slamming doors and yelling for us to come up for another hug and kiss…waking up the neighbourhood as they do!  The tricky part of this situation is getting them to calm down enough to communicate.  I try to use a non-verbal form of non-violent communication – empathizing with how difficult it must be for them to go to bed when really they still want to be near us and play.  If they can hear that I understand and answer a few questions, we can open the conversation.  Then a choice like, “Do you want to go back to bed yourself, or shall I take you there?” can be received.

The following are some paraphrased guidelines I use on offering choices from the book Parenting with Love and Logic:

  1. Choices shouldn’t include limitless options. Two clear options are all a child can really deal with in order to make a choice. Don’t add another choice because your child suggests it. Tell him: “That was a good suggestion. These are the choices I’m offering now. We’ll try your suggestion next time.”
  2. Use parent-approved choices only. Offer choices that guide your child toward the outcome you’re seeking. Make sure both options offered are 100% okay with you. If you offer two choices hoping your child will choose “a” instead of “b”, your hesitancy about “b” will act like a magnet and cause your child to choose “b” instead of “a” every time.
  3. Take action when a child doesn’t choose. If a child won’t choose between the apple or the cranberry juice you need to choose for her. Follow through and choose so your child comes to understand that when you offer her a choice and she doesn’t choose, the ability to choose goes away. You can say, “I know you’re upset that I had to choose the juice for you. I have another choice for you to try now. Would you like to drink what I chose for you now or not have juice right now?”

Examples of what I do are hard to come up with out of the moment.  The framework of how I progress with my children through a problem varies from situation to situation – like permaculture is site specific.  Setting and maintaining limits actually helps to build connection and trust.  As difficult as it is to see in the moment, situations where I need to set limits are the very things I need to pay attention to for growth.  They are the weeds in our garden.  They are the indications that there is a deeper unmet need.  Setting limits is really an art form.  Like with permaculture, a set of systems can be applied, but you have to just try them out, fine tune them, learn as you go…and get messy in the process!  This is why permaculture style parenting really needs mindful presence and to be treated as a process.  For this reason, when a situation is resolved and I consider that the storm has blown over, I take a moment to reflect on our interactions.  How did I do with regulating my emotions?  How did my children do with the limit?  Was it a necessary limit?  Do I need to revise the limit?  What could I do differently the next time to make it a better experience?

To sum it up, here are the strategies I use for effective limit setting:

  1. Ensure children are safe.
  2. Regulate your own emotions.
  3. Get close to the action.
  4. Sportscast or use non-violent communication to demonstrate you understand the problem, allowing children to solve it themselves.
  5. Offer a choice once and follow through immediately.
  6. Reflect on the situation – make changes if necessary.
Advertisements

Modelling Grace

11896442_10153468876381181_305104862357242805_o

Parenting consciously is just plain hard work!  The journey is as much about the children as the parent.  I have grown and learned so much about myself as I have ventured down this path of gentle parenting.  But as difficult as it is to look at the ways I could be more gentle with my children, it is even more challenging to find ways to be gentle with myself.

As I continue pushing my edges and expanding myself and trying to improve, I often feel like I’m failing.  Change is not easy.  And this path of mindful parenting is a long journey towards real and sustainable change.  Self-compassion is what is needed in the face of it all.  Just as I want my children to feel understood and held in their moments of regret, I also need to be gentle with myself when I mess up. There are ways to own our mistakes, realizing them for what they are, doing what we can to rectify them, and releasing them.

Modelling for my children what to do when I do mess up is showing them how to be in the world.  In reality, I’m providing my children with the best possible teaching about what to do when we mess up; we do our best to make it right and try for change again tomorrow.  What more could I hope to teach my children?  No one is perfect…let’s stop pretending it’s possible.

Child’s Play

We went to the park this morning to meet the children’s grandmother and great-grandmother.  It was a beautiful summer morning made better by being together with four generations of people we love!  The playground was bustling with children running feverishly from activity to activity.  My children participated wholeheartedly in the slides, monkey bars, and teeter totters.  The gross motor activities were great for my boys, who enjoyed testing their agility on the rock wall and pushing their limits by daring themselves to run the steep slide by themselves.

What I noticed about my children is that they were not engaging in activity at the same pace as the other children.  They were content to stand aside and watch another child race past and down the slide.  They were happy to observe another child use the spinning chair first before deciding to try it themselves.  Some may view this as an inability to engage with other children.  I see it as a healthy connection to their inner voices.  They are already observing and interacting with their environment.

Less than an hour into our visit, my eldest was drawn to a small creek that ran through the shade of an old willow tree alongside the edge of the playground.  The buzz of a gas powered edge trimmer held by a man wearing protective ear and eye wear was working it’s way along the opposite bank.  I tried to redirect his desire to head to the creek.  When the worker had made his way down near the end of the creek, I allowed my son to play in that area.  He was so happy, so much more engaged.  It wasn’t long until his younger brother and sister came to join him.  They were still observing and interacting…but this time it was with the rapids, the plants, the water, the crayfish and the frogs.  They befriended some (much older) children who were catching crayfish upstream, taking a peek at their latest catch.  They fell in the water and got muddy.  I heard many other parents and caregivers distracting their children away from the creek, worrying they would get hurt, wet or dirty.  Isn’t this what childhood is all about?  Risk taking to build self-confidence?  The learning my children had in that creek was of far more value to me.  Especially as they coaxed their grandmother under the footbridge to check out the huge crayfish they found down there!  What a beautiful moment.  They were drawn to the natural space.  They were happy to be muddy and wet on a hot day.  And it wasn’t just the water drawing them in, since following their creek stomp, we headed over to the splash pad where again they stood mesmerized by the flurry of activity around them.  I don’t think my three year old went in the water, he seemed content to run around the outside of the concrete pad splashing in the puddles.  I have to admit that a rocky stream with critters seems much more appealing to me than water jets spraying at eye level in unpredictable ways.

I’m so pleased to be raising children who value nature and unstructured play!  I am satisfied with their desire to play in the shady creek instead of the sun drenched desert-like play park. I admire their ability to follow their hearts and sources of joy rather than worry about trying to fit in.  I want to preserve that for them for as long as possible.  In all honesty, this is what I wish for myself…

Lessons from a Toad

I spent a few hours with a toad this week.  I sat with it in the garden, watching its movements and observing they way it lives.  I have had a fear of toads (and frogs and snakes too) since childhood, when I spiked a high fever involving hallucinations of amphibians and reptiles crawling out through a hole in the ceiling plummeting onto myself.  I felt trapped, unable to move likely due to being sweaty and tangled in the sheets.  I am over the worst of this fear now, as I no longer have anxiety when I see them, now I just experience surprise at their presence.  I am able to allow my logical mind to process their proximity as harmless.  So being able to sit with a toad for some time was cathartic in many ways.  While sitting with him, I learned some lessons that I thought I would share.

Toads spend a lot of time contemplating.  The toad I watched would hop a distance, then wait.  Then move slightly in a sort of walk, then wait.  He did much more waiting than moving.  There was no hurry.  There was no reason for him to rush.  He was not particularly threatened, so he could take his time in order to not become threatened. I have a tendency to want to rush into things, rather than waiting for the right opportunity to present itself.  I become impatient with the process.  The toad was all about the process.

Sometimes the toad took a great leap, and sometimes he just shuffled.  This is true for life.  There are times where a great leap is required to make ground.  Where I have to assert great energy toward inciting big changes, and other times where a small adjustment is required for a better view, or just to get more comfortable.  Both are necessary ways to move through change.

Toads have the capacity to turn their heads slightly.  I had always thought that they moved their eyes or had to move their entire bodies in order to increase their range of vision, but as it turns out, they have a neck of sorts.  They must have a pretty good range of vision, between their eyes being atop their heads and being able to turn their head slightly.  Movement might mean a toad would get noticed, so anything he can do to look around and take in the world from a place of stillness is an advantage.  Our culture promotes the opposite of this.  We are all hurried to keep up to the pace of life we’ve created for ourselves, and rarely slow down enough to make observations.  Our culture values productivity.  Looking is not productive…unless of course it could save your life!  Being at the top of the food chain has its disadvantages.  We have lost touch with our ability to be present because we don’t rely on this skill for survival.  When I consider it in these terms, I realize that getting back in touch with my alert and intuitive sense of self is the only thing that can save me from a crumbling society.

I spent nearly two hours with the toad, over which time he moved about a meter (3 feet or so) hopping a few times, adjusting himself several times, and turning his head a couple of times.  Meanwhile the rest of the garden was a flurry of activity.  Birds, butterflies, bees and insects hurried about while the toad by contrast waited.  It seemed as though his waiting was put forth in an effort to attain a goal, for after his movement toward the shade of the back of the garden, he found a hollow in the ground to hunker down into.  Perhaps it was a spot he’d visited before.  Once he reached his destination, he settled in by digging his hind legs beneath the soil slightly.  Then he waited again.  And waited.  And waited.  After some time, he fell asleep.  But even in slumber, he opened his eyes every ten minutes or so to make sure everything was still as he’d left it.

I have much to learn from the toad.  Pace.  Contemplation.  Careful calculation of when to exert my effort and when to reserve it.  The art of camouflage.  Knowing when to jump with confidence.  The beauty of stillness in a bustling world.  The slow pace with which I can pursue my dreams.  Look (a lot) before leaping.  Blending in doesn’t mean I’m lost.  The importance of  repeatedly checking yourself against your goals.  It doesn’t matter what the outside world sees, or think they see, what matters is the depth to which I understand my goals and how to reach them.  How to be fully present with what is on the journey.

What a gift it was to be able to sit with a toad.  For a few hours, I was able to avert my fears and learn from him.  Perhaps my fear of the toad extends beyond his exterior to what he represents…that which stretches me.  I have found an ally whose lessons I am grateful for.