My son, Miles, is at the age when everything is difficult. Having dinner is a battle. Brushing teeth is a battle. And God forbid you ask him to go to sleep. Many a recent night we have found him in his room, toys strewn everywhere, caught off guard by sleep in the middle of some unapproved playing time – resulting in some uncomfortable-looking positions.
Every day my wife and I are pushing back on him, setting boundaries that his three-year-old mind doesn’t understand, causing tantrums and emotional breakdowns over seemingly small issues. To him, going to bed five minutes later or having that extra cookie shouldn’t be a big deal, and we are being completely unreasonable by not allowing it. But as a parent, you have to be the one to see the big picture.
I like to envision the man my son will grow up to be. Processing that – his identity as a man, the qualities I want him to possess, how I want him to interact with other people – was a big reason why I started the little blog I keep, The Exceptional Man. I have to remind myself, day in and day out, that if I really want him to grow into the person he is in my head, it starts in a million small ways every day. If I want him to be kind, it means I have to require him to say “please” and “thank you” now. If I want him to live in moderation, it starts by saying “no” to that extra cookie after dinner. If I want him to have courage, it means encouraging him to do things that may be scary for him now.
Recently I read an article that articulated an approach to discipline similar to ours, appropriately titled, “Good Parenting Isn’t Always Fun.” The main premise is that children actually thrive under age-appropriate expectations, and that they can actually feel unsafe in an environment without these boundaries.
It also articulates something that’s been the hardest part for us: knowing exactly what we want. My wife and I have struggled with this over the past three years. Each having different expectations for Miles, we’ve had to come to the negotiating table to find common ground and be on the same page when enforcing the rules. We’ve argued about enforcing eating at the dinner table, bedtimes – even how much iPad time Miles should get. But when we decide a direction, that’s what we go with.
It also advocates letting go of the false expectation of perfection. When Miles is crying at the playground and all of the other kids are playing peacefully, it becomes easy to compare him to them. But the truth is that all children have tantrums, push their parents’ buttons, and take much longer than you would like to learn to behave.
But my favorite piece of advice the article gives — the one I’ve struggled with — is finding ways to accept the feelings of your kids as they come. Setting strict limits causes intense emotional reactions in Miles, as they would in any three-year-old. Instead of seeing the crying as a failure or expecting him to have the emotional intelligence of an adult, we try to help him work through those feelings and create safe places for him to do so.
Obviously we’re not perfect. We have days when we lose patience with him just like any other parent would. We also have days when we give in; when the limits we’ve set for him seem too much for even us to handle. I don’t always like being the bad guy, but most days I’m up for it if it means that in the long-term, it will turn my son into the hero.
What is your approach to setting limits with your kids? How do you handle the emotional outbursts that come with it?
Caleb Gardner is an amateur father and husband who writes at The Exceptional Man and dabbles in photography, design, and music. When listening to the cacophony of modern-day America, Caleb prefers a side of Scotch. He calls Chicago home, and in winter, less-nice things.