There is an obsession with "limits and boundaries" when it comes to parenting. Regardless of the type of parenting you tend to align with it seems to be a consensus that these limits and boundaries create structure and security for kids. Even if they don't like 'em, they need 'em! Kids are wild little creatures who would eat sugar until they exploded and stay up all night running in circles if we didn't create structure for them... right? (Well, maybe not so "right" - but we will get to that later). Let's say it's true that kids need to be told "no" frequently for their own wellbeing. Sounds great in theory! ...but what does that actually look like?! When should you say "no"? Are these limits and boundaries rules for their own safety? If they are, then what is the danger they are being protect from? How do you know what is dangerous and what is safe? SOOO many voices with soo many different ideas, most claiming to be "evidence based" (what does that even mean anymore?!). Or maybe the limits and boundaries are meant to teach? ...but what are they teaching? "Right from wrong"? And, let's say you DO figure out exactly where the boundaries "should" be placed - how do you enforce them? Do you use consequences? And if so, are these consequences meant to scare them from crossing the boundary, or make them feel when they do to deter them from crossing them again? For some things, boundaries do seem pretty straightforward. Particularly when the society you are in has created the rules for you or has a pretty unanimous position. Like, wearing a seat belt, for example. But they get murkier when things become more personal (like bedtimes). And they become downright elusive when the circumstance you find yourself in is something extremely unique. ...like toddler breastfeeding. In my county of Windsor-Essex, Ontario, Canada, in 2018 (pre-pandemic) only 16% of babies were breastfed at 6 months. (This number has likely decreased quite dramatically given the extreme reduction of support to breastfeeding mothers in the pandemic, but I digress). So, breastfeeding your 18 month old, or 2 year old, or 5 year old, makes you pretty "weird" and even most professionals have no idea how to support you at best (or make you out to be a complete weirdo at worst!). In a world where you are told that you need to create structure for your child's wellbeing, and the answer to all of your parenting woes is to "hold a boundary" - it is frightening to step into a space as a frontier, where no one you know has traveled, and feel a sense of urgency to detect the dangers and draw lines around them (heaven forbid you don't and your child becomes feral!). ...it's terrifying. I have been there.
How much screen time is too much? If my child sleeps in my bed with me, will it be impossible to "get them out"? If I don't restrict sugar, how will they ever learn to have a healthy diet?
This has become our definition of a good mom. Giving their children just the right amount of stimulation. Holding the right limits. Just the right amount of love and the right amount of structure. Keeping them away from the scary unpronounceable food ingredients and never letting them "get away" with poor behaviour. The pressure builds. Working to create the perfect home while feeling the crippling weight of pressure as you try to determine all of the right boundaries.
But what if there was a different way?
I'm going to drop some truth bombs on you. Hold tight. Bomb #1 - YOU need limits and boundaries.
Bomb #2 - Your children already have boundaries - inside of them. Bomb #3 - Creating boundaries because you fear danger will actually make your kids feel ANXIOUS not secure.
Let's break them down!
Truth Bomb #1 - YOU need limits and boundaries!
When you feel the need to put a limit on your child, stop and ask yourself - "Who is this a problem for?" It's very easy for us to feel our children's behaviour is the source of our discomfort. "If they would just stop xyz..." or "If I could just them to actually abc..." everything would be easier. We often tell ourselves that it's important for them to learn to listen, or to behave in socially acceptable ways because it will serve them later in life. But is that really true? When your child is jumping from the coffee table to the couch, or nipple twiddling at 2am, or asking for a snack 10 minutes before dinner is ready... who is the one that is having a problem? I'm willing to bet it's you. You are the one who is frustrated that the couch might break, your body is being used as a fidget toy, or the dinner you spent an hour cooking will go uneaten. You are the one who has a need for structure and security. YOU. It's so common to not be able to own our own needs as women. We have been told we are being selfish or demanding for advocating for ourselves (or watched other women being told that), so instead of recognizing that the need is *ours* - we project it out onto our child and make it about them. THEY need structure. THEY need security. But really, you do. And that is okay. It's okay to say "no jumping on the couches" because YOU need those couches to stay intact. It's okay to say "no" to nipple twiddling because those sharp little finger nails are about to draw blood. It's okay to say "no" to a snack before dinner because you want the family to sit down and eat together.
Truth Bomb #2 - Your children already have limits & boundaries inside of them.
Your children do not need you to control them to keep them safe. Their little systems are wired to get their needs met. They are jumping off of the couches because they are getting needs met for risk, play and sensory input among other things. They aren't climbing onto the roof and jumping off because they actually DO have limits and boundaries inside of themselves. They know their limits. They know where they feel safe and where they do not. They are nipple twiddling at 2am to help stimulate a letdown and to have sensory input to help them calm back to sleep. They are listening to their bodies as their bodies guide them to get their needs them.
They are asking for a snack 10 minutes before dinner because they are listening to their hunger cues and, wouldn't you know it, their bodies know it's dinner time! They see the limit and boundary of how much hunger they can feel before they need to seek out something to eat!
Yes - there are times where they need some support. Dangers they couldn't have considered or pieces of their intuition they haven't consciously explored yet. But that support expands their ability to clearly recognize their OWN boundary.
Truth Bomb #3 - Creating boundaries out of fear ruining your children WILL backfire and create anxious children instead secure ones.
The line that boundaries "create security and structure" for kids is very misleading. When you are creating boundaries because you FEAR that without them your children will become entitled or come to expect the world will always give them what they want - no matter how calmly you explain things, or how gentle you set the limit, your limbic system will sabotage your efforts to hide your fear and stress. Unconscious messages will be sent to your child that there is danger here. The subtilties of your body language and tone of voice will alert your child's neuroception (their unconscious scanning of their environment for safety and danger) that the cues their bodies were given them were wrong... and not just wrong, but dangerous.
This leads to people pleasing, doubt in one's self & fear that the world is unsafe. You believe that you are holding these limits for your child's own good, but the truth is that the limits you need are the ones that are for YOUR good.
Different boundaries - same house
Okay, now you know that you are the one who needs limits and boundaries, your child already has limits and boundaries, and that putting limits and boundaries on your child because you believe that is what you need to do in order to stop them from becoming entitled will backfire. But, how are you supposed to make your boundaries and their boundaries work in your home when they are often at odds? #1 - Be sure of your own, personal boundaries and hold them to support yourself in feeling safe and regulated.
Say "no jumping on my couch" or "nipples are for mouths, not fingers", or "dinner will be ready in 10 minutes, you can eat then."
Not holding the boundaries that you need to feel safe and secure will ALSO cause your limbic system to communicate to your child that something is amiss and there is danger present!
#2 - Acknowledge the wisdom of your child's innate boundaries
When your child's expression of their boundaries (their big "no" or "demanding" tone) is at odds with yours, that's okay. Don't get offended by their behaviour. Appreciate the wisdom of it. Consider if in another context what they were doing would actually be beneficial! It's not their behaviour that is a problem, it's that it's not aligning with your boundaries.
Use your words, tone and action to show them that the wisdom of their boundaries is welcome. That you have enough strength and space for all of it - and that you appreciate the beauty of their little bodies and minds navigating this big world!
#3 - Hold your "No" but also offer a yes.
Holding your limits and boundaries does not have to be harsh or shut down your child's wisdom. State your no, and hold to it. But ALSO, consider your yes. What are you willing to offer? There is generally a need behind your child's behaviour. Their boundaries are serving a purpose. How can you support that in a way that also supports you?
This is *VERY* counter-culture and likely far from the way that you raised. It will take some practice. Give yourself space and grace to experiment and try it out even if it feels awkward.
A few examples might be: "You cannot jump on my couch. Would you like to play leap frog on the floor?" or "Mommy's nipples are for mouths not hands. Would you like to nurse on the other side?" or "Dinner is in 10 minutes. I know you are hungry and it's hard to wait! Go and grab the plates for the table so we can eat even faster!"
How was this for you, mama?
I go even deeper into setting loving limits in a truly loving way in my guide "Making Changes: how to say 'no' to a feed, while saying 'yes' to the need" I created it specifically for moms breastfeeding older babies and kids so that they could feel confident creating a pathway forward that was right for THEM despite not having examples of how to parent while "extended" breastfeeding. I know the weight of doing the "right" thing can be heavy. Drop a comment or send me an Instagram Dm to let me know how this resonated with you!.