There’s a cute video clip I saw recently on the TV show America’ Funniest Videos. A toddler is sitting within reach of a tumbler glass that is too big for him to hold. As he reaches for it, off camera his mother tells him “no.” He stops and then looks at his mom. He reaches again and is told no again. He stops, and looks at his mom again, this time as he tries again to reach out for the object. This dance occurs between mom and toddler multiple times, with each effort increasingly exaggerated, much to the delight of the audience. I think it won first place that night on the show.
This clip is so funny because all of us parents have been there, done that. We caution our kids and they try things anyway. In fact, I believe kids are hard-wired to test limits. In Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, one of my imperatives is, Kids Will Always Test the Limits. Why is that, especially if it almost always leads to trouble?
The answer is that kids always test the limits to be sure that they are there. Limits are about having/setting healthy boundaries. Permissive parenting leads to wide exploration of boundaries. This is a good thing because it encourages exploration, creativity, and problem-solving. However, it can also encourage worry and anxiety. In addition to the fun stuff, the unknown is also out there and might be dangerous. As parents, we want to encourage our children’s exploration of their world, but within healthy limits. We want to have their backs.
Mom brought her 5 year old Andy to my office and told me that she just can’t control him and that he runs wild all the time. Andy proceeded to demonstrate his mom’s concerns by opening doors, touching things, and generally misbehaving, all the while having a smirk on his face, while mom’s words of restraint fell on deaf ears. I gathered Andy up in my arms, gave him gentle words of calm in his ear, and firmly explained the rules of my office. He calmed down a little bit, but still looked to mom to see if I meant what I said.
Our kids are doing great? Fantastic. Celebrate and enjoy a teachable moment. Will they also test the limits? You betcha. Be ready with firm boundaries, and don’t threaten if you are not going to follow through. By confronting, setting firm boundaries, and being in charge, you are easing their worry and anxiety, while also freeing them up to safely explore and have more fun.