Why Limits Are Vital for Young Children

Words don’t work well in setting limits with children of any age! Move in close, offer a tone of generosity and warmth, and gently but firmly stop the unworkable behavior.

Dear Patty,

I'm confused about how to set boundaries and limits with my 19-month-old daughter. I feel like she's too young to understand what I'm asking of her, so how can I ask it of her?

She's not very verbal yet. I also do not want to use any rewards or punishments in my limit-setting, so I'm not sure what I should do.

One of the areas I'm having A LOT of trouble with is food and eating. When we sit down to eat she flings a lot of the food onto the floor and walls, throws it at me, throws dishes and cups and silverware, and pours her water all over the food. She seems like she's playing when she does this, not angry.

Can I allow myself to want her to behave differently. If I do, can I ask that of her and set a limit around it?

Hi, Good Mother:

There are several issues your question raises, so I’ll try to touch on them all here.

What you need to know is that limits are vital to young children! Absolutely vital. And when you set a limit, you are using power, your power to stop your child from doing something that, in your judgment, doesn't make sense. Using that power is OK. It’s part of your job. When a child can’t think well, her behavior goes off track, and she can’t get back on track without your help. So setting a limit with an off-track child is a form of love, of assistance, and insures the safety of all.

For example, if you manage to tolerate huge messes being made meal after meal, your own upsets are bound to accumulate until you reach a breaking point. Your upsets will then splash out onto your daughter in the form of some kind of sudden, active upset, aimed at her and her behavior. So even if she’s exploring how gravity pulls plates and bowls to the ground, and what foods stick best to the wall, a limit needs to be set. To rock your equilibrium by throwing food is not in your daughter’s best interests!

Notice When Limits Are Needed

Your job is to notice when your child is not able to be relaxed, flexible, and in tune with you and others, and to simply stop the unworkable behavior, then to listen to the feelings she has about the changes you judge necessary.

There is no age at which it’s too early to set limits. For instance, if an infant is crying passionately and in her upset, she’s scratching her own face and scalp, a loving parent would keep listening and trying to understand the child, but would also keep a gentle hand over her fingers. The baby can move as much as she wants, but can’t harm herself in the midst of her upset.

Ways to Set Limits With Small Children

When I worked in infant care, I often set limits with children who were 7 or 8 months old, and wanted only the toys that another infant was holding. I would gently hold the child around the belly as she made a grab for another child’s toy, and say, “No, Alice, there are other things you can play with.”

Then, I’d make loving eye contact, and listen to the child cry until her mind cleared. At that point she felt better connected with me, had released the upset that had her locked on the thought, “Only one toy can make me happy,” and could be happy with unclaimed toys.

Evaluating When to Say “No.”

You’re right that your daughter might need some messy playtime to satisfy her instinct to play and learn with foods and textures. But this need doesn’t have to be filled at mealtime.

You could provide a place and time for messes outside where you can hose things down afterward, or inside, with a plastic tablecloth placed under her high chair. Call it Special Time, and let her play with things that have texture and color—playdough, baking soda and water, soaked oatmeal. Let her play, throw, smear and have fun. Get in close, enjoy, and promote laughter if you can.

It might be that 20 minutes of messing around every few days would begin to satisfy her desire to learn in this way.

Don't Just Say No, Show No Too

However, when it's mealtime and she begins to throw and to smear, set a limit. Don’t expect words to work. Words don’t work well in setting limits with children of any age! Move in close, offer a tone of generosity and warmth, and gently but firmly stop her.

How does this look? When she starts to pick up her bowl, hold the bowl to the tray so she can’t. Or when she raises her arm to throw, hold her arm gently and don’t let her complete that motion. Then, you can use words. “No, sweetie. Not now. You can do that outside/this afternoon during Special Mess Time. Right now, it's time to eat.”

That's all. Don't say much more. Provide just enough physical resistance so the limit is kept, and make eye contact.

She will writhe, refuse to look at you, fight you, get hot and sweaty, and eventually, she’ll cry up a storm. You don't need to hold her, but do put a hand supportively on her back or her leg, to communicate your caring. And let her rip.

Why Letting Them Cry Helps Long-Term

This is the emotional release she needs to do in order to become more flexible, in order to be able to do something with food besides make messes. If the emotional issue hiding underneath this behavior is a big one, she may need to cry again and again for several weeks. Or she may need only a few cries like this before she can settle in and think about eating. You'll just have to see how it unfolds. In any case, listening to her feelings is honoring her experience, while holding a safe and sane limit.

Patty Wipfler

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