Oct 242011

Parents often seek out books, classes or support in parenting because they have difficulty setting limits effectively for their children. Complaints such as, “Nothing we do works,” “I put him in time-out and he just doesn’t care,” or “We have tried everything, but little Johnny still won’t listen” are made by tired and frustrated parents time and time again. Healthy limits help children feel secure, safe and loved, while still allowing a child to explore, grow and experiment with life on their own terms. Limit setting teaches children how to negotiate the world in a respectful and responsible way. And limit setting helps households run more smoothly. Of course, it’s a no-brainer: we all want to set these wonderfully helpful limits for our children. And, with the plethora of resources out there explaining just how to set limits, it seems like it should be a snap.

Google the keywords “setting limits with children” and you can easily learn that limits should be reasonable for the child’s age, they should promote safety, they should be consistent, they should be enforced in loving and positive ways. We learn that we should be calm and firm. We learn that the child should understand the limit and the consequence clearly. And, if we do all that, it should work, right?

But, so often it doesn’t.

So what is going on? Is it that our kids are somehow immune to the touted benefit of limit setting? Is it that we have exceptionally difficult children or that something is wrong with them? Are our children going to forever run the household?

The good news is that it is probably none of these things. Rather, I wonder if the biggest barriers that keep us from setting and enforcing limits have less to do with the children and more to do with everything that leads up to the limit setting in the first place. If you think about it, many of the limits we set are born out of frustrating situations. Even on our best days, we can find ourselves reacting quickly without thinking through what we are saying to our children, why we are saying it or what it will mean in the long run. For example, the mother of a preschooler finds herself saying, “If you choose not to clean up your mess, you are going to have to go to bed early.” The child tests these limits and the mother is left to either put the child to bed at 5 pm or let the limit slide. Nobody wins. I have noticed a few main themes that seem to interfere with our ability to successfully set and maintain limits:

1)      The limits are not reasonable or meaningful: Rather than viewing limits as methods of getting our children to behave, it is important to view limits as tools to help children develop their own sense of self-control and independence within a safe space. In order for this to happen, the limit has to be meaningful, understandable and reasonable for the child. Telling a child that she will have to go to bed if she doesn’t clean up her mess doesn’t teach her how to internalize the skill of picking up after herself. The two things don’t really go together and it doesn’t make sense. For the child, it just feels like the parent threatening something (that they probably won’t follow through on).

2)      We set limits that we (the parents) can’t live with: “If you can’t sit still in your seat, we are going to have to leave the restaurant.” What parent hasn’t heard herself saying something, knowing full well that we are not prepared to actually follow through. Setting limits that we aren’t going to follow through on sends our child an important message, and not one we probably want them to get! This is often true when we use limit setting as a threat to motivate behavior through fear, rather than as a tool to help children make decisions for themselves. The other day, at the end of my proverbial rope, I found myself saying, “If you can’t help pick up the toys, we aren’t going to have toys in our home any more.” My child laughed at me. He actually laughed. He knew I wouldn’t follow through with such an unreasonable threat. He was right, and the message I sent was worse.

3)      We set limits that don’t enhance the developmental milestones our children are negotiating: Stress at transition times, like getting out the door in the morning, results in limit setting and testing on a daily basis. What exactly does “get yourself ready” mean? Is it reasonable to expect a toddler to make his bed perfectly every morning? Probably not. But, is it reasonable that he try? Can an 8-year-old use an alarm clock to wake up on her own? Can a 15-year-old get himself to school on time? If we set limits that are plainly beyond our children’s capabilities, we are doomed to failure.

4)      We aren’t clear about what goal we are trying to reach, and, along the way, our goal changes: When we react in haste, we often make rash decisions and set limits that are misguided. Often this is because we don’t really know what we are trying to achieve. Dinner-time struggles are a perfect example of this. One night it is, “Eat all your dinner or no desert.” The next night it’s, “You can’t leave the table until you eat all your vegetables.” And later in the week it is, “You don’t have to eat, but you have to sit here with the family.” Eating and meal-time issues create angst and drama for so many families. But often the limit isn’t clear because the goal isn’t clear. Do we want the child to eat all the food served to them at every meal? Do we want them to eat a variety of foods? Do we want them to participate in the social aspect of meals? Do we want them to consume more calories, more iron, more vitamins, etc? When we aren’t clear about what it is we are trying to teach our child, then our goals, and thus our limits, continually change. How is the child supposed to become clear on the expectations when we aren’t clear ourselves?

5)      We can’t tolerate the child’s emotion: This might just be the biggest reason that we don’t follow through on the limits we set. We hate to see our children in pain. We hate to see them cry and we hate to have them angry at us. We also hate tantrums, outbursts and tornadoes ripping through our houses. But children need to be able to express their emotions and we need to be able to tolerate that emotion. Crying, stomping, yelling and otherwise emoting provides children with a powerful stress reliever. Limits are not always pleasant and emotional reaction to them is normal. Unfortunately, watching or tolerating their reaction is not always fun and we can be quick to keep the peace (for them and ourselves) by backing down on our limit.

So what can we do as parents to avoid some of these pitfalls and avoid setting limits that are destined to fail? It may seem cliché, but it may boil down to breathing. Slowing it down. Interacting with our child, rather than reacting to their behavior. Specifically, I recommend five key things to remember:

1)      Think through limits beforehand: With a few exceptions of extreme danger (running into traffic, for example) there is usually no reason that we have to react immediately to any situation. We can take a few deep breaths to calm ourselves. Check in with our own emotional reactions. See the situation through the child’s point of view. Ask the child what they think is going on and what they need. Consider developmental skills or milestones. Parenting is not a race, it happens over many years, not seconds. Think the situation through. Usually limit setting is something that we do repeatedly over time until the child incorporates the skill or value into their own sense of self. It’s rarely a one time, one shot event. We have time.

2)      Reflect: Ask yourself questions like, What has worked in the past with my child? What do I know about my child? What do I know about myself or my family that may be at play here?

3)      Talk through a plan with a partner or support person: Get feedback. Make a plan and talk about ways you can support each other in sticking with the limit.

4)      Define the goal, expectations and limits clearly: Once you actually know the goal you are working towards, it will be easier to communicate that with your child. “I want you to eat or else” becomes “I trust you to know when you are hungry or not, but in our family, once you leave the table, the meal is over for you.” The goal, expectation and limit are clear. The child has choices and the parent knows what they have to do to follow through. 

5)      Tolerate  and support their emotion: We have to know that setting limits will upset our children. They may get angry and they will probably express it. That’s good. We can be empathetic to their misery. “I get really frustrated when I can’t do something I want to do also. I know how you feel. I’m available for support if you need it, but the limit remains.” By doing this we teach them that we mean what we say, that the limit is important, but that we also value and acknowledge that it is hard for them. Feelings are real and they are tricky. By supporting them through this, we not only help them to negotiate the limit, but we help them become more emotionally competent as well. What an opportunity!

Happy Limit Setting!

 Posted by at 11:30 am
Sep 192011

I often write and talk about the value of “knowing your child” when deciding how to deal with a specific concern or problem that has arisen. But what does it mean to “know” your child, and how can that impact parenting? Ask a parent to talk about their child and they can instantly give you a detailed list of all their child’s attributes that would put any recommendation letter to shame. What they like, what they don’t like, what their latest developmental stride has been. We spend so much time watching our children in amazement that it’s hard to imagine NOT knowing our children inside and out.

But in the heat of the moment, when we are at our wits’ end, we rarely rely on this information to help us empathize with our child or create options and opportunities that can effectively help them negotiate a tricky situation. It is easy to get lost in the situation, and, in doing so, we can lose not only ourselves, but our kids as well. We get too focused on the intervention, what “should” work or what works for our friends. We get too focused on what we want or expect the outcome to be and become frustrated when we can’t seem to “make” that outcome happen.

We become solution focused. We turn to the books and the experts and our friends to tell us the “right” answer to make bedtime easier, to stop little brother from pulling hair or big sister from slamming doors. And when the books and experts and friendly advice fail, we assume something is wrong with our kids or us as parents.

But maybe it isn’t about the solution at all. Maybe, parenting is about the process. And the process is, in essence, the child’s experience with the world. That is what this little person is trying to negotiate and understand and master. That is what all their fuss is about. It’s a rough task, it’s a big task and they are a little person. Our task as parents is to help them through this process. When we focus only on the solution, we risk completely neglecting the child and their experience.

Hence the question, “who is your child?” What you already know about them can give you valuable insight into what they are experiencing and how you can help them. For example, distraction is often discussed as a method to help a child redirect themselves during a tantrum, offering them other things to think about or do. But if I know that my child is the type of child who has less stress tolerance if he is hungry, and I know he hasn’t eaten, then I may be able to help him identify hunger as a basic need in that moment and offer him food. If his emotional dysregulation is a result of low blood sugar, then no amount of distraction will help us negotiate the problem.

In doing this, I am challenging myself to be empathic with my child. To walk in his shoes. To try to understand where he is coming from. To do this, I have to put away my idea of the “solution” and be present with him. I have to draw on what I know about him, what I know about the circumstances and try to understand how he must be feeling. Easier said than done when I am frustrated, tired and at my wits’ end. But when I am empathic and connected with my child first, and when I decide what direction to help him move in based on that, I find that we are usually both more successful. Those interactions feel more meaningful, and often I find that the results seem to make sense not just to me, but to them as well. For example, when I figure out, based on my empathic understanding of my child, that hunger causes meltdowns, and I help him understand this about himself, he can then start to communicate his hunger and get his own needs met. It makes sense to him and he has learned something about his experience with the world. On the other hand, if I repeatedly try time out or distraction, because that is what works for another kid, the child feels frustrated because the core issue isn’t changing. His experience of the world doesn’t make sense and he probably feels like I just don’t understand. Maybe next time he will yell louder.

So how do we do this more consistently?

In quiet moments, think about all the things you already know about your child. Things like: How social are they? How much alone time do they need? What is their relationship with food? Who is their “go to” person? What makes them smile? What do they think is funny? What makes them angry? What situations are likely to make them nervous? What situations are likely to make them feel most secure? If they could choose to do anything, what would it be?

You get the picture.

Then, the next time you have a situation, take a moment to just observe them. Make an intentional effort to really see what is happening with them. Ask yourself: What might they be feeling right now? What are the circumstances at play? What is my child trying to tell me? What things have worked for them in the past?

Really try to walk in their shoes. Sit on the floor or get down at their level and see the world through their eyes for just a minute. Then see what you think. Sometimes, that is all it takes. You may be surprised at what you already know. You may be surprised when you let go of the solution and focus on the process. You may be surprised at the way the experience looks when you see it through their eyes. And you may be surprised at how effectively you might be able to help your little one through a tricky situation when you trust yourself, and your kiddo, as the real expert.

 Posted by at 12:40 pm
Sep 062011

Some moments it is easy to stay present and thoughtful and aware and centered as we interact with our little ones. In those moments things work out. They flow. They flourish even. We seem to move from interaction to interaction with our children as if this parenting thing is the most natural thing in the world.

And then, in an instant, everything changes.

Maybe something doesn’t go their way. Maybe something doesn’t go our way. But suddenly we find ourselves struggling to make sense of who this person is in front of us and what in the world we are supposed to do with them. Suddenly, none of the parenting tricks, rules, recommendations or advice work. We can feel our discomfort growing. It is small at first. A nudge in the back of our mind. A whisper really. What if I can’t handle this?

And, of course, it is usually in those moments that this little person in front of us is relentless. They push. They pull. They poke and prod. They have amazing accuracy when it comes to pushing buttons from a distance. At least it feels that way in the moment.

And the discomfort grows. It’s churning now. Maybe it feels like anger. Maybe it feels like fear. Or frustration. Or annoyance. It’s morphing and materializing. What am I going to do? I must get this under control.

And then it happens. We hear ourselves do the thing we hate. The thing we always say we wouldn’t do. It’s kind of like slow motion. We know we are going to do it. We don’t want to. Our mind flashes to all the “appropriate” parenting strategies we “should” be using in this instance.  But. We. Just. Can’t. Stop. Ourselves. You know what I’m talking about. It’s different for all of us. Maybe it’s yelling or using the dreaded words “because I said so.” Or “wait till your father gets home.” Or “no dessert.” Maybe it’s giving a spanking or slamming a door or whatever. It doesn’t matter because the point is, in the moment, we all wish we had it together, but we still find ourselves being less than perfect.

Of course it happens to all of us, but what does it mean? How do we reconcile the parents we want to be with the parents we are and, worst of all, the parents we know we could be? Do we pretend that our shortcomings don’t happen? Do we blame others? Do we give up and stop aspiring to be better parents?

The truth is that there are no perfect parents. And, if you ask me, that is a good thing, especially if perfect parenting means always being in control, always responding consistently and appropriately, always keeping our personal feelings in check as we interact with our children. If perfect parenting always means being calm and fair and well…perfect, then it also means missing out.

If parents were perfect, then how would children learn about real life? How would they learn about healthy adversity? How would they learn about emotions? How would they learn how to tolerate stress and ambiguity and how in the world would they learn that it is okay to be human?

Don’t get me wrong. We can be hopeful that most of the time we respond and interact with our children in a way that is consistent with our views on optimal parenting. We should strive for that and we should never resort to anything that is abusive or harmful. But we should also know that we won’t always be perfect.

Rather than expecting perfection, we can use our “human” moments to teach our children life lessons: how to admit fault, take responsibility, make amends, recognize the need for change. We all know that children learn from what we do rather than what we say. Why would we assume that we can simply tell them how to do these things when we can show them? Rather than expecting perfection and hiding in shame when we fail, we can talk to our kids. These moments can be learning experiences for everyone. We can apologize and role model coping skills like taking a deep breath or a moment to ourselves. We can show them that we are human and in doing so we give them permission to do the same.

But maybe more importantly, it gives us the ability to relax just a little bit. Remembering that there are no perfect parents helps me to take a step back. It allows me to say, “I’m not sure, I’ll have to think about that” or “I was wrong” or “I don’t know.” It allows me to say, “Mama needs a minute” or “I’m feeling really frustrated” or “I’m not quite sure what to do here, got any ideas?” Not only does this awareness help to avoid those dreaded reactions we all fear so much, but it might just help to shed some light on the situation. Maybe we think to ourselves, “I’m out of my league here, what would (my mom, my mentor, my friend) do?” or “maybe I should call in reinforcements.” Or maybe, we can even ask the kiddo.

It is amazing, but when parents do this, little ones may just surprise us with their response. One day as my three-year-old made his thirtieth or so lap around the house screeching at the top of his lungs, I caught him and whispered in his ear, “I just don’t know how to help you right now.”  He responded with a high pitched, “I NEED TO GO TO  SLEEP!!!!!!!” and took off for lap number thirty-one. Alrighty then…at least I knew what direction to head, which is more than I could have said a few moments earlier.  I had admitted defeat and he had given me a clue. But that was only possible because I reminded myself that I wasn’t perfect.

Boys Alive!

 Parenting, Parenting tools  Comments Off on Boys Alive!
Aug 312011

Several months ago I attended a workshop by Janet Allison, a Parent Educator and Consultant based in Portland.  It was lively, informative and gave a great opportunity to reflect on the uniqueness and strengths of my son.

Although these are probably good practices for boys and girls, they seem to be especially helpful with boys.  Here are a few “take-aways” that I am still incorporating to this day:

  • The importance of touch when communicating with a boy
  • How can we make the environment such that the boy’s behaviors are seen as “ok”?
    • For example, when big or loud energy is present – can we go outside?
  • That it can be stress-inducing to require a boy to look you in the eyes as you are communicating with him.
  • A drink of water can reduce stress immediately.

If you have an interest in brain science, gender differences or the wisdom of a long time teacher, attend the final workshop being offered this year.

 The Boys Alive! Workshop will be on Saturday, September 17, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 in SE Portland.  Registration is here.   (www.boysalive.com)

 Posted by at 7:54 pm

What Inspires Us

 Parenting tools  Comments Off on What Inspires Us
Jul 182011

Core Parenting is about finding what works for each family. We don’t believe that any one book, resource, theory or strategy can meet all the needs of every child and parent. However, inspiration comes from a variety of sources and when used with flexibility, we believe that most resources have at least a little wisdom. Here is what inspires us…


Books we love:

  • Buddha Mom by Jacqueline Kramer
  • Mindful Parenting by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Myla Kabat-Zinn
  • Parenting With Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay
  • Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel, and Mary Hartzell
  • Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch
  • Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield
  • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
  • The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel Ph.D.
  • Know Your Parenting Personality by Janet Levine
  • Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky Bailey Ph.D.
Connecting with others:
Getting out of the house:
Theories, philosophies and guides that inspire:




 Posted by at 6:54 pm
Jul 182011

As a child I remember standing in the ocean letting the waves wash over my feet. I was exhilarated by the power and strength of each wave. I would watch in anticipation, hopping from foot to foot, as the waves built up and came closer to shore. As they got closer, I would reach for my dad’s hand, making sure he was close. I wanted to stand on my own two feet, but I also wanted to make sure that he was near by if I needed him. As the waves washed over me, I was always surprised and sometimes overwhelmed.  A mixture of fear and glee filled me. My tummy tickled and my heartbeat quickened. The cold water took my breath away and I could feel the tricky sand shifting under my feet. I wondered if it would sweep me out to sea. I felt proud, relieved and excited as I realized I was still standing strong as the wave retreated. I jumped up and down and pointed out, yelling up to my dad “Look!” as I waited for the next one.

Sometimes I managed the waves on my own. At the edge of the water I felt pretty confident in my ability to stay standing. I also knew that if I fell, I could easily get back up. I could toddle around in the easy waves on my own, my parents safe within my eyesight. I checked often to make sure they were there. But as I went deeper, I wanted them close. A little farther in and I needed my parents hand to keep myself steady. A little bit farther and I wanted to be safe in their arms. They were my pillar. I trusted that the waves wouldn’t wash them away and that I could use their strength (either in the arms, holding their hand, or just being near them) to brave the waves that would have otherwise been too big for me, the waves that would have washed me out to sea. They gave me the strength, power, and courage to learn how to play in the waves on my own.

As I think about parenting today, I think of these pillars and waves. Growing up can be scary, tricky and overwhelming. To little ones, emotions, problems and challenges are just like waves. They look on them with anticipation. “I can do it myself!” They become quickly overwhelmed when the waves are bigger than they expect. They fall down when the tricky sands shift underneath them. If we support them in mastering the small waves first, they will soon be ready to take on bigger ones. Little by little, they get stronger and more experienced in negotiating the waves of life. Little by little, they move farther and farther from us. Their parents. Their pillars. Sometimes they just need us close. Sometimes they need our hands. Sometimes they need to hide in the warmth of our arms. Even as adults, it never really changes. Our parents are our pillars. Just a few years ago, during an emotional crisis I flew across the country to be close to mine, their voices over the phone just weren’t enough. I needed to be close to my pillars. The waves were just too strong.

If my parents had never let me out of their arms to feel the power of the waves myself, I never would have learned to play in the ocean. But if they never held me close, I wouldn’t have ventured out. And if I did, I might not have been ready. Likewise, if we never let the little ones experience the rush of life, the power of emotion, the trickiness of challenges they will never learn to live life to the fullest. The challenge then, for parents is to know when to stand close, when to lend a hand, when to hold them close, and when to back away.

I always ask myself: “How big is this wave?”

 Posted by at 7:05 am
May 312011
 Posted by at 7:00 pm