Strong Wills: Learning Boundaries with Toddlers



It’s the mantra of toddlers. When my first son began chanting this word and supplying it as an answer to every question I didn’t feel particularly troubled by it.


I had a context for his no-way attitude. He was two. That’s what two year olds are supposed to do to exercise their developing wills. I had heard about this phase from every toddler mom I talked to, not to mention in parenting books and the media. We’re all familiar with it. The “no” phase is infamous.


A few months after “no” started, “yes” also entered my son’s vocabulary. I smugly counted another parenting victory. I had weathered the storm of no’s. We had peacefully coexisted as my son learned to express his own will appropriately. Check.


Then something started that I must have missed in consulting all my aforementioned parenting resources. Shortly before his third birthday, my son began experimenting with boundaries. And by experimenting, I mean to say pushing my boundaries to their limits and beyond.


No matter how hard I tried, I kept losing my patience with him and parenting in ways I never thought I would. I bribed, I used time out, I yelled.


I felt awful. My parenting ideals were shattered, and I felt like a total failure.


I talked with other moms about it.  There was some good advice: reminders to breathe deep and stay calm.


Mostly though, it was a lot of reassurances that I wasn’t doing anything wrong and it was just a phase. Yes, we can’t all be 100% patient 100% of the time. Yes, they too felt like their toddlers pushed their boundaries. I was reassured that I didn’t need to beat myself up about it, that even the most loving patient parents have limits.


This was the ugly phase subsequent to all the “no’s”. It wasn’t quite my son’s fault, I thought, but he was pushing me. It was a phase and it would pass.


Only it didn’t pass as quickly as I wanted it to.



Our family practices attachment parenting. My first son spent not just the first hour of his life in skin-to- skin contact, he was skin-to-skin for the first three days and every night for the first month. We held him and took him with us everywhere. During tummy time I would sit next to him talking and touching all the time. We were absolutely synched up, during the wonderful and the hard times. We shared our daily routine. We even shared our moods.


As much as I love him, and as wonderful as it is to have a newborn this time was also hard for me. I craved my independence at the same time that I deeply believed in being there for my son. The second time around things were different, I was more comfortable in my role as a mother and the circumstances of our life also demanded that I keep up work when my second was a newborn. But that first time, learning to care for new life consumed all of my energy.


Sure, I read books that fed my interests in during his naps. I even took a doula training course that allowed babies in arms when he was a few months old. But I hadn’t mastered doing everything one-handed. I missed being active and having my own un-interrupted thoughts.


So when he finally started walking and became more independent, I finally felt more independent too. I could work on my own projects without feeling guilty for not holding my son. His transition to walking felt like a natural step toward independence for both of us. He still needed a lot of attention from me, but I enjoyed my new found freedom. As long as he was walking around having a good time, I could comfortably focus.


Again, when he became more verbal, it was another step for both of our independence. He could ask other people for help with his needs, for one thing, but his attention span for interests outside of mama time had increased dramatically. I finally felt like I could commit to bigger projects and take on more work commitments.


His boundary pushing, and often breaking, was proving to be more than “just a phase” I could patiently sit through and let pass. After the intentionally (and at time painfully) orchestrated first two years of his life where I had taken every opportunity to be a gentle and loving mother, I was devastated to find myself yelling and requiring my son to spend time by himself when he acted up.


Somehow, I felt like there was still a missing piece of the picture.


Was it really my son pushing me?


As we had each become more independent, we were becoming less of a synched up dyad, and learning to be two individuals in relationship. Was I the victim of his developmental stage? Or was I contributing to it, the way I was relating to my son?


Now I was back to feeling guilty for not having enough patience. But I also knew that it wasn’t always just about patience. When it’s a matter of safety, I never feel impatient about asserting a boundary that exists for his immediate well-being. Where I was struggling the most was with boundaries set for matters within our household: tooth-brushing, the end of cozy book time, leaving the park to come home and make dinner.


And then it hit me, the issue was not that I wasn’t patient enough, it’s that I wasn’t setting myself up to exercise that patience successfully. Just like my son, ecstatic in his newfound ability to walk, was not stopping for anyone who asked him to go slower with his little cart through the grocery store, I was too enthusiastic about my own independence and was running around with my own metaphorical miniature grocery cart.


My expectations of myself had become too high. I was over-committing myself to projects and work. Not only was my child learning about his capabilities and their natural boundaries, I was feeling out my personal capabilities and limitations as a mother.


Now as a four-and-a-half-year-old my son still pushes, and I still set certain limits-- No he cannot have whipped cream for breakfast. No we cannot go to the park right now, it is brother’s nap time so we’ll have to go tomorrow—and still has a hard time accepting them sometimes. He will persistently ask about the same thing over and over.


But when I feel myself losing patience, I ask myself ‘What boundaries I’ve set for myself that are being pushed up against?’ Is my to-do list for today way too long? Am I expecting to get this project done more quickly than what is actually workable for my family? Does the laundry really need to be folded before we go to the library, or can it wait?


When I’m willing to renegotiate my own expectations of myself, it’s easier to be more flexible. Requests that might change my timeline a little bit, like five more minutes of playtime before coming home to make dinner, become east to accommodate. At the same time I experience more clarity in asserting boundaries when I do feel it’s necessary. I don't feel guilty about the boundaries I’m enforcing, and I don't feel pressured enough by my own expectations to lose my patience.


Being able to give up my own expectations in heated moments of conflicting wills has freed me to make the kinds of parenting decisions that support and guide my son, rather than coerce him. Things still get really tense sometimes and my patience is still tried, but now it’s so much easier to take all that good advice about deep breaths and just being present with my son while he has his own feelings of disappointment about butting against a boundary.


It turns out that learning boundaries and personal limitations isn’t just a phase toddlers go through, moms have to figure it out too.

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