Monday, January 19, 2015

The Language of Limits: Giving Power and Creating Trust

When we set limits with our children, there are many things we must take into consideration: location, time, energy level, needs of ourself and child, etc.   All of these things become much easier when we take the time to connect and become attuned to our child's needs and emotions. When our goals are to avoid power struggles and to to create a loving relationship built on trust, limits are a comfort for both child and adult.

Before we can engage children in limit-setting interactions, we need to feel secure in our role as gentle leaders.  We think of gentle leadership as a practice built on connection, empathy, and attunement:

"Tuning into the inner life of [a child's] mind - to their feelings and thoughts, to their perceptions and memories, to what has inner subjective meaning in their lives." - Daniel Siegel

A gentle leader embodies kind, empathetic connection at the same time as they maintain clear, firm limits.  This means being aware of a child's emotions, as well as your own, so that you can guide them from a reactive state to a receptive one.  There are a number of practices that are helpful in facilitating this kind of connection:  

Pausing.  Taking a deep breath.  Checking in with yourself.  "Chasing the why" internally before you engage (why is my child in a state of distress?  Hungry?  Angry?  Lonely?  Tired?).  

Slowing down and being present provides an opportunity for us to set our own intention for the interaction and create a sense of confidence and trust while setting limits.  

Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” ~ Brené Brown

It can be helpful to categorize different kinds of limits as we engage in different situations with children.  We think of limits as falling into one of three categories -- these might look different for school and home, individual families and children, and different ages:

Always Limits
These are always true, regardless of outside factors and are mostly safety      based 
Examples  --  Always buckled into the car seat when the car is moving; Always hold hands when crossing the street.
Phrases We Use -- "I won't let you...", "Not a safe choice", "I feel strongly that..."

Sometimes Limits 
situational, time based; more flexible
Examples -- Sometimes we have a lot of time to get ready and sometimes adults help choose outfits and put on shoes quickly.
Phrase We Use -- "That works for me", "I'm feeling flexible", "When it's not raining, jackets are a choice", "Right now, we need to... Next time you can..."  "I need __ to happen, let's make a plan"

Rare Limits 
special occasions; maybe based on our own energy level or other authentic adult needs
Examples -- Stay up later on birthdays;  I can't go outside with you because I have a bad cold
Phrases We Use -- "I need [space, quiet, rest]", "Today, that doesn't work for me", "Today is a special day for our family, so you get to...", "When you're with Grandma, it works for her..."

Once we identify the limit that we are setting in a given situation, we can offer power to children within the limit by giving choices.  True choice are real (i.e. either outcome is equally desirable for the adult) and appealing to the individual child.  An open-ended question (e.g. "Do you want to put your shoes on?") does not function as a true choice because it leaves the option for a child to answer with "no", which is in conflict with the limit being set.  

We use choices to give permission to children in limit-testing.  Positive phrasing is an important tool for engaging children so that they feel empowered to collaborate with adults within the limits that have been set.  Phrases like "You get to...", "You can...", or "It works to..." give permission to children within their play and interactions, while also communicating information about what doesn't work in a given situation.  Some phrases work best when reserved for emergency situations: "No!" and "Stop!" retain their significance when used rarely or only for situations when a child is in danger of being harmed.  

What if you didn't have to be perfect?
What if that wasn't even the path to being a good parent, much less a happy person?
What if what your child really needed was your unconditional love, your full acceptance, 
your willingness to see things from his point of view,
and your open-hearted apologies, daily if necessary, when you can't quite pull this off (which is the definition of being human.)

What if giving that unconditional love to your child
required you to offer it first to yourself,
to accept all the good and bad, embarrassing and powerful, mundane and sacred parts of yourself?
It would take great patience and 
ruthless compassion.
It would be really hard, 
and really amazing,
And the beginning
of becoming yourself
not to mention a true blessing to your child.

-- Laura Markham (

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