As an attachment parent, I often see someone that is new to the concept of AP viewing it at as permissive parenting; a philosophy filled with hugs and rainbows and candy and kids that tear the house apart any chance they get. But that isn’t the case. Well the hugs and rainbows are part of it, but not the rest. Usually.
Permissive parenting means no boundaries; always letting kids do whatever they want whenever they want regardless of the damage it may cause.
Attachment parenting means a lot of things, but when it comes to boundaries, it means setting the limit with connection and empathy. We do believe in limits, boundaries, and respect of personal space and property.
Our job as parents is to guide our children loosely. Allow them room to breathe and grow, but show them the way when they aren’t sure if something is acceptable or not. Ripping the blinds down or smashing all of your dishes on the ground usually isn’t an acceptable behavior.
What does it look like to set a limit with empathy and connection?
3 year old brother: Poking sister in the face repeatedly.
6 year old sister: “Stop poking me, I don’t like that.”
Brother: Poke poke poke.
Sister: “I said stop it!”
Parent: Kneels down next to brother. “Brother, sister said she doesn’t like that. She asked you to stop.” Waits for response.
Brother: “But I don’t want to stop.” Poke poke poke
Sister: “STOOOOOOP IT!!!”
Parent: “It looks like you are having a hard time stopping. We have to respect her words. She said stop. Let me help you stop.”
Steps in between brother and sister. Brother keeps trying to poke around mom. Parent picks up child and he melts down. She carries him away from sister. They sit down together while brother struggles.
Parent: “I know you are having a really hard time right now, but I can’t let you keep poking sister after she said to stop.”
Parent: “I hear you. I’m right here. I’ll keep everyone safe.”
Gently, but firmly holds struggling child. He gives up and sobs for a minute. Parent remains calm, patient, loving, and open to the emotions.
Parent: “I’m right here for you.”
Child finally feels calm again. Parent isn’t restraining, just embracing.
Parent: “Are you ok? Would you like to go play xyz with me?”
Brother: “Ok, mama! I feel better.”
Usually when a child is continually pestering another child it means they are bored, tired, or something else. They are seeking connection. Setting the limit is essential when it comes to respecting when someone else says they don’t like something happening to their body. This is a prime moment to teach about consent and respecting someone else’s body and words. Setting the limit isn’t fun and usually results in a meltdown. A meltdown is ok. Telling them to stop crying or knock it off isn’t going to meet the unmet need that is presenting itself in the form of the poking. It will just manifest in some other form. Connection and empathy are going to meet that need.
2 year old: picks up a candy bar in the store.
Parent: “I’m sorry sweetie, we can’t buy any candy today.”
2 year old: Shrieks “I want it!” And puts it behind her back.
Parent: “I know you want it, sweetie.” Kneel down if you can. Even kneeling lower than the child, if possible. And slightly looking up at them. This presents you as a teammate instead of a big scary giant bossing and intimidating them with your size, whether intentional or not.
2 year old: Refuses to put the candy back. It’s time to go because you are finished checking out with your groceries.
Parent: “We have to put the candy back, sweetie. We can make a -insert something tasty- when we get home.”
2 year old: Cries or yells and refuses to put it back. What to do? Carry them out screaming? Pry the candy bar from their tiny fingers? Hold up the line? The pressures of the stinking candy right at kid level.
Parent: “I know you really want the candy. We have to put it back now.” At this point I gently touch their wrist or hand that is touching the candy. At 2 I try to say it in a more chirpy voice of “Let’s try and put the candy right there!” Sometimes they go for it. Sometimes they don’t.
If they don’t…
I gentle try and remove the candy from their hand while guiding it to the candy spot. If they are extra determined they may not let go. I’ll try and move my cart out of the way and tell the cashier to go ahead with the next person and pick up the kid and the bar that they refuse to let go of and go to a spot that won’t get us run over with a cart. We have a chat.
Parent: “Sweetie, I know you really want the candy bar today, but we can’t have it. We have to put it back. Do you want to put it on the shelf or do you need me to help you put it on the shelf?” This usually works if it even comes to this. My 2 year old usually puts it back tearfully the first or second time I say that we can’t get it. Along with an, “aww maaaaan” and a bunch of tears.
Once the candy is away, pick them up and give them a huge hug. Empathize without any but’s. Try not to say, “I know you wanted that candy, but you can’t have it today because xyz.” They don’t need a but or an explanation. They just need to feel heard. “I know you wanted that candy, baby. You are so so sad. I’ve got you. It’s ok to cry.” Crying releases tension. That’s why people cry. They aren’t doing it to make you mad or frustrated.
I know I might get a few raised eyebrows on this scene. I’ve heard from many parents in forums and other places that they would use punishment in this scenario. Punishing a child for wanting something that super evil and smart marketers have planted in front of their face isn’t fair. Punishment isn’t ever fair. It doesn’t teach them anything besides pain in various forms.
Sometimes you just have to go and can’t take as much time to get a child to put the candy back either. Especially when you have more than one kid. The key is being as respectful as possible while setting the limit. And empathizing with them is the most powerful teaching tool in this. It teaches them that their upset is understandable and acceptable. They are having true emotions. They are having a hard time. They aren’t being spoiled brats. They aren’t being disrespectful. They want something, just like adults want things. And that want is being overridden by a stronger power; the parent. Feeling powerless sucks. Even for kids. So empathy in these “I want I want I want” situations will go a long way to building trust and emotional intelligence in the child. They will feel heard. That’s huge.
Some things we do to set our kids up for success.
- Set our house up as a yes environment. I wrote this article that describes how to create a yes space. Creating a yes space isn’t setting your child up to be spoiled or never able to hear no. It is setting them up to be able to explore in their own space freely. It fosters creativity, curiosity, and independence. The world is filled with no’s, so removing as many as possible from your house will empower them.
- Find ways around scenarios like the candy. If we have to go shopping with our kids, we distract them with a task or something else while we are going through the actual check out next to all of the enticing wrappers. Or we go to grocery stores that are more mindful without all of the candy packed at the check out line.
- If they hate leaving places, empathize, and then make it a game to get to the next event.
- Lower our expectations. This is the biggest one. Expecting a child to act maturely when they can’t is setting them up to fail. Expecting them not to have a meltdown sets us up for frustration when they do meltdown over something that seems silly. If I go to Target, I know my kid will want to look at the toys and want a drink from the cafe. If I don’t want to do these and don’t want to set them up for a fall out, I don’t go to Target unless I need to. And sometimes I do go there and set the limit. And sometimes we go there with the only intention of getting a drink and looking at toys without any need to get anything.
- Re-evaluating why we are saying no to something. Our kids are allowed, and even encouraged, to say no when they don’t like something (I wrote this article about why we should encourage our kids to tell us no). Sometimes they ask me why when I’ve said no. And I think about the why. Sometimes it’s some arbitrary reason that seems silly when I actually stop and think about it. And it teaches our kids the importance of saying, “You know, I was wrong about saying no. I’ve changed my mind. You can. Thank you for asking why you were being told to do something that you didn’t agree with.” It’s not always a change of heart. But I want kids that question right and wrong regardless of who set the rule.
Attachment parenting isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. It’s really hard work. To be able to respond patiently and empathetically requires a lot of self-growth and digging into our own hang-ups from our own childhood. The outcome is so worth it. My kids are only 6 and 2, but they are so thoughtful, respectful, and empathetic. And they’ve never been punished a day in their life. If you are interested in this way of parenting, you can join our community below. You can also join a great AP Facebook group here.
If you have questions about how to respond to certain situations, feel free to ask in the comments or email me!