Aha! Parenting Blog

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Empathic Limits In Action: Leaving the Playground

Most parents assume that not punishing means permissive parenting. But resisting the urge to punish doesn't mean we don't set limits! In fact, neither permissive parenting nor authoritarian parenting work to raise self-disciplined kids.  The research on this is very clear: the children who develop self-discipline, resilience, and emotional intelligence are raised with empathic limits. Limits give children essential practice in shifting gears between what they want, and something they want more--which is to cooperate and contribute. But--and this is essential--the child will only make this choice if the limit is set with empathy, so he feels understood and willing to accept it.

Setting limits with empathy means we:

  • Stay connected while we set limits.
  • Set limits in a way that empathizes with our child's feelings and helps him process them.
  • Resist the urge to make our child suffer or feel bad while we set limits.

Let's consider an example.

Mommy: “Avery, it's time to walk home and make some yummy peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. Would you like to walk or ride in the stroller?”

Avery: “No Mommy, I’m sitting on the swing.”

Mommy: [verbally empathize with her and acknowledge how she must be feeling] “You're having so much fun on the swing. You wish you could stay and swing for a long time. [Setting the limit] AND we need to fill our hungry bellies! Time to go home!”

Avery: “No Mommy, I sit here on the swing.”

Now, we all know this can go on and on and on.  The two and a half year old will get hungrier, and the mom will get more frustrated. At this point, mom could use humor. Few children can resist a game. But she's hungry herself and ready to leave. She decides to set a clear limit and ask her daughter to cooperate. She begins with empathy, or an understanding of her child's feelings.

Mommy“Avery, you love swinging, don't you?" 

Avery: "YES!"

Mommy: "Even though it's lunch time and we're getting hungry, you wish you could stay in the swing, all day, don't you?" [Wish fulfillment] 

Avery: "YES!"

Mommy: "I wish you could, too. That would be so much fun, wouldn't it? (Finding a point of agreement.)  AND STILL, now it's lunchtime so it's time to go home.  You have a choice, you can jump down like a baby kangaroo and hop along with me. Or I will pick you up and you can ride in the stroller." [Mom gives a choice, either of which is palatable to her.  This helps Avery save face and gives her some control.]

If Avery doesn’t select one of these choices:

Mommy: (speaking warmly but firmly) “Avery, I see it's too hard for you to leave the swing yourself.  I will help you down and into the stroller."

Notice Mom doesn't make Avery feel like a bad person because she couldn't "obey."  Mom acknowledges that it was just too hard for her.

Let's assume Avery howls as Mom picks her up.  Conventional wisdom says to wrestle her into the stroller and ignore her crying, so we don't "reward" her crying with attention.  But that breaks our connection with our child.  What's worse, we give her the message that her emotions are bad, and we will only attend to her if we like what she is expressing -- in other words, that our love is conditional.   She's all alone with those big scary feelings. 

So should we try to distract our child from her upset? “Wow, Avery, look at that cute doggie right there!”  If she's not very upset, there's no major harm in it.  But the bigger the feeling, the less likely she'll go for the distraction. And really, what message does distraction give her?  Your feelings aren't important? They're dangerous, so we'll pretend they don't exist? (Would you feel loved and understood if you expressed unhappiness and your partner or friend responded by distracting you?) In general, we want to listen to our child, not imply that her emotions are too unimportant or too scary for us to deal with.

Avery: [Begins to howl as we pick her up from the swing.]

Mommy: “You're crying. You don't want to leave the swing. You are so sad and mad that we have to leave.  I'm sorry you can't swing all day, but it is time to go home and eat. Let's sit for a minute on this bench; I will hold you while you cry."

Despite the fact that the other parents at the playground are staring at us, we are not failures because our daughter is crying. In fact, crying is good, and helpful, for a two year old with big feelings.  She needs to express them and show them to us, not to "stuff them." 

As she cries, if we can hold her and help her to feel safe (instead of strapping her into the stroller and pushing her home, sobbing), she may even begin to cry about other things -- that big dog that barked at her this morning, or the way Daddy snapped at her when he was in a rush, or how much her knee hurt when she fell yesterday but she didn't cry because she was with Grandma who told her what a brave big girl she was and big girls don't cry.  What a great opportunity to get all this off her chest!  In fact, often kids "pick fights" by resisting our limits, exactly as Avery did with the swing, precisely to get the opportunity to cry like this.  So holding our child while she cries is a tremendous gift.

As she cries, we stay connected by holding her.  We keep the tears coming -- yes, on purpose! -- by empathizing and reassuring her that she is safe: "You are sad, you don't want to go home, I am right here, you are safe."

If she is angry and twists away, we stay nearby and stay connected with our voice: "I'm right here. I won't leave you alone with those big feelings. You're safe. You'll feel better soon."  We breathe deeply to stay calm. We ignore the curious looks from passersby.

Finally, she begins to calm. She is snuggled in our arms. We give her a big hug.  "You were crying. You were sad.  Now you feel better. Let's go home and get those yummy sandwiches. Do you want a drink of water before you get in the stroller?"

After a good cry in your loving presence, your child will be free of whatever feelings were making her stick to her position at the expense of getting along with you. She will feel relaxed and cooperative. (When kids are rigid and insist on getting their way, that's often a red flag that they need to cry. Just like with adults! :-))

The first time you do this, your child may cry for a long time. Crying is never a bad thing; she's showing you her pent-up upsets. Or she may think that her crying will convince you to let her swing more.  Obviously, empathizing with her feelings doesn't mean you rescind a limit that's important to you. (If you can, it's best to start setting limits like this at home, when you actually have the time and energy to sit with the meltdown. This preventive maintenance will make your playground meltdowns much shorter or non-existent.)

Before long, your child will climb reluctantly from the swing and into her stroller when you say it's time for lunch. Because you were able to set your limit with empathy, she'll have learned:

  • Disappointment can be weathered. That's the beginning of resilience.
  • Your limits are firm. She may not like them, but you're on her side, so she'll accept them. That's the beginning of self-discipline.
  • Feelings are manageable. That's the beginning of emotional regulation.
  • You really do care about her happiness. That keeps her seeking guidance from you.



Here we thought this was a crisis, but it turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for teaching essential life lessons. Think of it as love in action.



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