I have an 18 month old who is into everything. I feel like I am always telling him “no.” What are the appropriate limits to set for him at this age?
If you are “always telling him ‘no,’” then you probably have that nagging feeling that you are not getting through or that he couldn’t care less. Some “experts” feel that 18 months is too young to set limits, given that children at that age have yet to understand the relationship between cause and effect, or the difference between right and wrong. I am not one of those “experts.” As you imply in your question, limits are necessary at this age, especially around the ever-present issue of safety. However, saying “no” repeatedly just teaches your child to ignore you. This is called habituation – when the brain actually pays less attention to the familiar. For this reason, I am a big fan of distraction – not headbutting – at this age.
The tired old adage, “practice makes perfect,” is a cornerstone of teaching acceptable, responsible behavior to a child. Limit-setting for about the first two years of life rests on you – specifically on your ability to distract and, if needed, remove your child to ensure safety and socially acceptable behavior. These actions (plus child-proofing the premises as much as possible) have been shown over and over to be the most effective ways to keep behavior in check without quashing a toddler’s delight in exploring and learning.
What is being taught in distraction and removal (along with a firm “no”) are patterns of what’s acceptable and what’s not. When your actions are consistent, each repetition sinks a little deeper into the well of your child’s memory. This happens even before his cognitive powers are up to the task of understanding the whys of safety rules or of more complex concepts, such as value and ownership, which govern what he can and can’t do with objects.
The first sign of memory related to limits is when you see your child looking over his shoulder as he moves toward some forbidden object. You probably noticed some of these “catch me if you can” grins and challenges to your “no” back when your child was just crawling. You also have probably experienced many a bout when your child has dissolved into tears after spilling or breaking something. Herein lie the seeds of shame – healthy shame, the kind that regrets an error or mistake. And, yes, there is a conflict. Your child’s desire to please you at this stage runs head-on into his need to figure out the boundaries in his world.
Fortunately, the solution to both sides of the conflict is the same – consistency on your part in maintaining the rules. Consistent repetitions of the same words and acts by you enable your child to begin to feel embarrassment and shame when he breaks the rules. This is a very healthy development, one that is central to his ability to control his own behavior in the future, when you are not around to act as police officer. If this process goes as it should, by 36 months your child should show the beginnings of self-control as well as the first signs of a sense of right and wrong. These are the foundations of conscience.
Unlike physical skills, such as walking, a conscience doesn’t emerge on its own. It is a product of parental guidance and teaching, and its early signs are clear markers that you are getting the job done.
Key to your success is your child’s desire to please you. These are important assets for you to use in this 18-month period. The process is slow and time-consuming, but in the long run more than worth the investment of your patience, time, and effort. This is when your approval is a powerful tool to coax a child to verbalize his wants and needs rather than to act out his emotions. Conversely, withholding your approval and/or showing disapproval are strong motivators for little ones to stop unacceptable behavior.
There is no denying that there is a rise in negativism around 18 months. Maybe they start to “act no” more often because they hear it so often! It is hard to know which is “horse” and which is “cart” here, but the new motility of toddlerhood is a heck of a lot of fun for any ex-lap child. Regardless, it is our job to keep them safe; therefore limits matter.
There are, of course, limits to limits. You can’t force your children to sleep, eat, go to the bathroom, think the way you do, or speak on demand. There are also times when it is necessary to back off – when they are spent and you are exhausted, or when you are going to lose anyway. Won’t eat any dinner? Okay, but no cookies. Don’t want to go to sleep? Fine, lie there then. This doesn’t mean you should NEVER cave, however. Surprise your toddler every once in a while, just for the sheer pleasure of seeing the amazement on his face. Saying “yes” occasionally will actually revitalize your “no.” Besides, perfect parenting is extinct.
Finally, and essentially, the way you set the limit is every bit as (and often more) important than what the limit actually is. Emotional intensity does not make limit setting more effective, it’s just the opposite. So keep it cool and business-like; limit setting should be customized, but never personal.