I’m writing to ask you for your advice about how to get my seven-year-old son to accept that I mean, “No,” when I say things like “No, you can’t play a game on the computer right now!” I try to be pleasant about it and explain my reasons, and I give him lots of suggestions about other fun things for him to do. But none of that seems to make an impression upon him. He keeps on bugging me and arguing with me, until I blow up and yell at him to stop driving me crazy! I hate doing that, and sometimes I can see I’m making him cry, which makes me feel terrible. But, honestly, I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do. Can you help?
— “Worn Out on Woodside”
Dear “Worn Out,”
Setting and upholding limits may be the toughest job of being a parent. It wasn’t my favorite part of being a Mom, and I can understand if you don’t like it either. But children really need to learn to live with reasonable and respectful limits as an important part of learning how to live well with themselves and others.
Of course, children are always going to test limits, too, just as you might push on a balcony railing to see if it is strong enough to trust. But that testing is minimized when you state your limits clearly and firmly, showing your child that you, too, are strong enough to trust.
It’s possible that you are talking way too much, and giving your son so many explanations, entreaties, and suggestions that he is confused into thinking that you are willing to engage in a whole conversation with him about what he wants! A simple, firm, “no” with a deeper than usual voice and a resolute expression on your face can convey that you “say what you mean, and mean what you say.”
It also helps to remember that it’s reasonable for children to feel irritated with the limits they have to live with. How could it not be irritating to always be at the mercy of someone else’s schedules, priorities, whims and opinions?
“Can I have a cookie?”
“Can I go to Joey’s house?”
“No, we have other plans.”
“Can I watch TV?”
“Of course not! You should go outside and play!”
You can remove much of this irritation by planning more and involving your son in the process. As the parent, you can say how many cookies, play-dates, and TV watching you are willing to agree to. But within your limits, invite your son to work with you to plan a fair and reasonable snack schedule, play-date plan, and TV watching agreement.
Then, when he asks, “Can I have a cookie?” you can cheerfully answer, “I don’t know, what does the snack schedule say?” Or when he says, “Can I go to Joey’s?” you can reply, “Hmm, according to the calendar, he is coming here tomorrow!” And when he begs to watch TV, you can refer to the agreement you posted on the refrigerator about TV time.
I appreciate that this pre-planning and working out agreements ahead of time may sound like a lot of work, but it will be much less trouble than dealing with the fussing, complaining and negotiating. Maybe you felt angry when your son tested your limits because you felt as if he did not respect you. This is the reason why pre-planning and making agreements in advance works so well. It restores respect to the process for both you and your son. You experience the self-respect of setting and upholding firm and friendly limits. Your son enjoys his own self-respect by having a say, even though he doesn’t always get his way.
Naturally, this isn’t going to make upholding limits easy and pleasant. There will be times when your son wants to change the schedule or agreements, and he may beg you and bug you to do so. But if you have a regular planning and problem solving forum set up, like a weekly family meeting, then that is the time to revisit and discuss changing schedules and agreements.