Setting Toddler Limits & Parent Permissiveness between First and Second Child
Today I had the rare chance to spend the day alone with Naomi. The day flowed slowly at her almost two-year-old rhythm. She took an hour bath, with plenty of time to overcome her reluctance at each rinse; I watched as she sorted and resorted all her clothes, then tried to put her feet into her shirt sleeves. Together we walked up and down the main street in town, pausing long to watch the birds in the store window, and returning ritualistically to see them on the way home. She was the leader, I the follower. Yet I was able to say, “no, I don’t want to read anymore” when I’d read my quota at the bookstore, and Naomi scooted off the bench and climbed onto the rocking horse; and when we reached the car I was able to say “I want to go right now. You can climb up on the car seat or I can pick you up,” knowing that Naomi knew I meant what I said and that she would shortly comply in her way.
With my first child I was not able to shift rhythms, to move so easily from the child’s point of view to the adult’s. Like Alice in Wonderland, I tumbled into his world unprepared and tried to follow his lead. When I was with him I gave in totally to being with him, trying to facilitate what he wanted, as if I were a nurturing environment for him rather than a parent and person in my own right. Eating breakfast, getting dressed and ready to go in the morning could take hours—and did, regularly. When his “needs were met” (the words I so often used) I dressed quickly, furtively, leading one friend to say that I looked as though I didn’t take good care of myself—and I didn’t. I was there only for him, nurturing him at my own expense.
Yet there were also rewards for me in this style of mothering. I was a sensitive and patient observer and enjoyed entering into my child’s world. There was excitement for me in the fine tuning of waiting for him to make a choice, of finding a way in which a limit could be acceptable to him, usually after much patient waiting and many alternatives. My difficulties began when my son began to want to test his strength as a separate person in the months before his second birthday and I was not a strong enough parent for him to test himself against. Instead of listening to what he wanted, being clear about what were acceptable alternatives and staying good humoredly firm with some compromises now and then , I would bend myself out of shape trying to please him, to “make things ok for him.” He, of course, could not tolerate that amount of power, and the more I gave in the more outrageous his demands became. I became the adult kneeling at the feet of a tyrannical toddler. That phase of our mutual dependence ended not in a gentle letting-go, but in an explosion. We are still painfully relearning how to be together simply, how to take turns leading and following. Relearning is hard.
Fortunately I have grown since my first child, and understand better what I learned in my internship with Magda Gerber. I have learned the hard way that the empathy that came so easily to me needed to be balanced by a clear, firm adult presence. Quality time emphasizes proceeding at the child’s rhythm without giving in to all of the child’s wants. With my second child I am unambivalently clear that I am the parent, and, while I give her quality time and try to respect her wishes, ultimately, I am in charge. I experience a sense of ease, relaxation and freedom in this relationship that I did not experience trying to be just a facilitator to my son. While I am still mostly “Mama” to my daughter, I sense that she is growing up respecting me as a person, too.
I entered parenthood eagerly, after years of teaching young children. How could I have gone so far wrong in knowing what it means to be a parent? In looking back, I sense that I identified with the child in me more than with the parent. That identification led me to interpret “letting children grow at their own speed” or “letting them move on to new experiences (e.g., weaning, separation, toilet training) when they’re ready” to mean that any adult intervention was probably harmful and that I should follow my child’s lead whenever possible, because he instinctively knew what was best. While identifying with a child is perfectly acceptable and recommended, merging totally or over-identification is not.
However, children need more than unqualified acceptance. They need more than their own reality reflected back to them. They need parents who appreciate children’s experience yet are not children, but adults, with adult needs and an adult point of view. We have all come to appreciate people who were important to us, but who were detached enough from us to facilitate our growth in a direction that we were unable to perceive. A mother who has decided to wean her child can, without making the mistake of setting her child on a rigid timetable, provide a cup, nurse her child at regular times, gradually eliminate nursings, and then, at what she feels is the appropriate time, say “We’re going to stop nursing now.” If she can initiate this kind of gradual, responsive weaning, she and her child will probably have less disappointment to cope with than if she, in effect, says, ‘You tell me when it’s time to stop nursing and how to stop.” Instead of assuming that in order to enter the child’s world we must remember that in the child’s world there is a place for us as adults—patient, impatient; sensitive, grouchy; often in charge.
As parents we can best enter the child’s world in observation and special moments where we can glimpse the child’s reality and appreciate it, but not attempt to stay. I feel some poignancy in realizing this, for I have experienced a deep tenderness in holding and rocking a child to sleep and remembering that trust and surrender, and I have felt an aching beauty in seeing the world through my child’s eyes. Yet I cannot give in to this over-identification, for to do so makes me a child again, and to be the most effective parent to my children I cannot be a child. I am sometimes sad that my children will never know me as the child that I was, that I cannot go down Alice’s rabbit hole again. I can, however, take special pleasure in following Naomi, for I know that I do so as part of a larger dance in which I also lead.
By Diana Rothman
Diana was a RIE Associate and an Instructor in the Family Life Program at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, CA. At the time of the article, Diana was the mother of Does, age 5, and Naomi, age 2.
Educaring® Volume II / Number 2 / Spring 1981