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The Art of No
Setting healthy boundaries is a skill every parent needs

A familiar scenario unfolded recently at my playschool program, Magical Child. Josie wanted to go outside in her new shoes and her mama said, “No, it’s wet and muddy outside. You need to wear your boots.”

“Please,” begged Josie.

“No.” repeated Mama. Josie asked again and Mama replied the same. Josie began to cry. Mama felt embarrassed and relented, and Josie went outside in her new shoes, which of course got all muddy. Mama got mad and yelled, “Those are brand new shoes and they are ruined!” End result: two unhappy people.

One of the hardest jobs on a parent’s docket is saying “no” in a benevolent way and sticking to it. I have worked and played with children for almost 30 years: as a mom, art teacher, workshop presenter, preschool teacher and director, child development specialist and grandmother. The children have ranged from babies to teenagers.

Over these years I’ve seen it get harder for parents to say “no” in a healthy way. Often once parents say the word, they don’t follow through, so then they need to say it again and again and again—and wonder what’s wrong with their children. “No” needs a follow-through, a consequence. In the case of Josie and her mom, it’s highly likely that if her mother had set a limit, Josie still would have cried or screamed. But I guarantee that sooner or later Josie would have stopped. The shoes wouldn’t be ruined and Mama’s nerves might still be intact.

Preschoolers are in the developmental stage of autonomy. They realize that they are separate from their parents and that they can do things for themselves. They are learning that their parents do not know every single thing, and that they can’t always control them. They want to do for themselves whenever possible. Young children are expansive beings and are just learning the art of containment (something many of us are still learning!) They will push to the outer limits to see where the buck stops. The fuzzier the limits are, the harder they look for them. They will do whatever works to get what they want: crying, screaming, you name it.

Parents are in the developmental stage of authority. Don’t let that word scare you; you don’t need to be a heavy-handed autocrat. Your task in this stage is to learn how to be the one who says “no,” the one who sets the containment: the limit-setter. Thank goodness this isn’t your only job or you would be one cranky parent! Setting limits, though, is an important part of your job description. No one can have everything he wants. Life has rules which we all need to live by. As the days pass, your child will internalize your sense of authority and set limits for herself. You will then know you taught her well.

How do we do this? We don’t need to scream. We don’t need to be a heavy. We just need to be able to say “no” in a way that says we mean it and will follow through. Setting boundaries is a skill every parent needs to have in his or her toolbox.

With your permission, I would like to walk you through how to set a clear, healthy boundary. This is a scenario that I came up with to teach parents at the Children’s Museum., where I work as a child development specialist.

Imagine that your child is drawing with markers on a piece of paper at the kitchen table. He decides to draw on the table. Maybe he is experimenting with the marker; maybe it was an accident and he then liked how the colors looked on the wood…but you want him to draw on the paper and not on the table.

Here’s a basic formula you can follow before you set a limit:

Tell your child what he CAN’T do.
Tell your child what he CAN do.

Calmly walk over to him (don’t yell from across the room—all communication works better in close proximity) and say: “You can’t draw on the table. You can draw on the paper.”

You have spoken in a clear, kind fashion, said exactly what you didn’t want, and then what you did want. You clearly communicated what he can’t do—draw on the table—and clearly redirected him to where you want him to draw—on the paper. You’ve said what you want him to do last because that is what you both want to focus on. Your child draws on the paper. Great! Acknowledge his good behavior: “Hey, you drew on the paper! Thanks!” You think, “Hey, that was easy” and feel proud of your new skill.

Your child is, well, a child…and in a few minutes you notice that he is drawing on the kitchen table again.
Now you are going to repeat what you just did, but this time you add a limit, a consequence: “You CAN’T draw on the table. You CAN draw on the paper. If you draw on the table again, I will take the markers away and you can have them another time.”

Say all this with as much calm and ease as you can muster! Stay calm, because, as with many new experiences, things can get worse before they get better!

Wouldn’t you know it? Your child is young, he is inexperienced, he doesn’t know that you are going to follow through (you never have before)—so he draws on the table again! Listen up, cuz this is the super-important part: You need to do what you said you would do.

I know it is hard. He might cry—and then you will feel bad about yourself. Don’t go there! Set a limit! Give the consequence of taking the markers away! Why? Because you told him twice that he could draw on the paper and he drew on the table instead. You said you would take the markers away if he drew on the table again. Setting a limit means that you want your child to know what the boundaries are and also that, when you say something, you will follow through.

You bravely take the markers away, and all hullaballoo breaks loose. He cries and throws a blessed fit. This isn’t really so bad. All people, including children, cry when they are upset and don’t get what they want! Crying is natural and normal.

Take some deep breaths to ground yourself. Stay close, offer comfort, even stop and offer your lap—but whatever you do, DO NOT give him back the markers yet. He needs to experience what happens if he doesn’t do what you ask. If you give him back the markers now, you will teach him that when you cry, you can get me to give you what you want. Instead, empathize: “You are sad that I took those markers away. This is hard for you.”

Everyone needs skills, including kids. We hope they will learn such useful tools as patience, and a willingness to negotiate and compromise, rather than learning to cry, scream or sulk more and more to get what they want. As parents, we need skills in setting clear limits with reasonable consequences. If your child can predict that when you set a clear limit you mean what you say, this will make life so much easier for everyone.

The next time he is drawing and you kindly communicate to draw on the paper or you will take the markers away, chances are he will love drawing on that piece of paper. It doesn’t guarantee that your table will stay spotless, but then again, who needs a spotless table? You definitely will have one when your children have left your nest.