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Setting Empathetic Limits and Finding Win/Win Solutions with 18 Month Old

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Dr. Laura,

I love your posts. They are such a blessing for parents. I need your help in the following situation.

I practice attachment parenting with my 18 month old breastfed toddler. He is a very cooperative, happy guy so much so that my friends and neighbors always compliment me on what a happy kid he is! I also practice positive discipline with him and provide him with a safe environment to explore where I don't have to say no to him constantly. But there are times when I don't know what to do. For instance, he wants to go out to the park but is absolutely refusing to wear his pants when it is cold outside or after bath he is not ready to get out of the tub while the water is turning cold or refusing to put clothes on after a bath or when he would grab an open tube of my make-up and refuses to let go of it. I don't understand what my approach should be? Should I remove him from a situation anyway (in case of removing him from the cold bath) while he is wailing and is inconsolable for several minutes or wait for him to finish; should I put pants on him even though he gets really mad? I fear that by doing such things I am teaching him disrespect and that he has no choice and is helpless in the world of adults. What should I do to a achieve a win-win situation?


You're at that stage where your son's wants and needs are no longer the same thing. So he wants many things that he thinks will make him happy. But because he does not yet have enough frontal cortex to understand cause and effect, how things change over time, that it costs money to replace wasted makeup, and danger, you can't let him make all his decisions. So you do have to set limits. The key is to set those limits as empathically as you can, and look for win/win situations when that is possible. That's how he will keep cooperating. But you also need to be aware that sometimes kids just need to cry, so they act out purposely. Maybe he thinks it is a game to run away with the makeup, or maybe he knows it is against the rules and when you do grab him and take the makeup away, he will sob, and then he will feel better.

So every parent has their own lines. For instance, I don't have a problem with a child not wearing a jacket when you leave the house; just bring the jacket with you. But given my daughter's tendency to want to be naked, I did rule that she had to wear clothes when we left the house. If she cried, I empathized: It is hard, I wish you could always be naked...but in our society people wear clothes when they walk around can stay naked and stay home, or you can put on clothes and go to the park. She would sob, then find a way to save face, for instance by saying "Okay, I will put on clothes, but only something I WANT to wear, I am wearing only purple," or whatever. Fine. Strong-willed kids need to save face. No problem. Then she would be in charge of putting on her clothes and off we would go.

IF it was not a choice, and we had to leave, I would give her a choice in clothing, and also a choice between putting on clothes herself and me putting them on her. If she cried, I empathized, but I still put on the clothes if necessary, as kindly as possible. I don't think that taught her disrespect. It taught her that there are limits in life and she can't choose everything that happens to her, but she'd rather make positive choices than let herself end up feeling pushed around.

So I think it is fine to set limits. There is just never a reason to be mean about it. As The Dalai Lama says, "Be kind whenever possible...It is always possible."

All of this is laid out clearly in my book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. Do you have it yet? I think 18 months is the perfect time to read it, and it will really help you with this next stage.

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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