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Baby and adult playing with fall leaves

My three-year-old son has generally decided that he'd prefer not to do whatever I'd like him to do. Each of my requests is met with opposition, with opinions, with, "But, mom!"

My gut reaction, I'll admit, is to hear these responses as disrespect. I have to reign in my frustration quickly and squelch, "What I say goes!" and "Because I say so, that's why!" before they spill out of my tightly clenched teeth. Because, the truth is, that's not the kind of parent I'd like to be. And a blind follower who does what he's told without question isn't the kind of son I'd like to raise. The sort of respect that I hope for my son to develop for me doesn't just appear because I demand it. It has to be cultivated and encouraged. I want to show my son that I have his best interests in mind when I make a decision, so that he can trust my word.

I'm trying to perfect the art of choosing my battles-- of allowing him to voice his opinions, but also of standing my ground when it's important. Here are some of the tactics I try:

-Let him say his piece. This isn't always possible-- say, for example, when I'm telling him to, "Get out of the street!" But when it is, I give him time to respond, instead of cutting him off mid, "But, but, but... " When he has a chance to voice disagreement, I have the chance to explain why what I'm saying is still the rule.

-Speaking of which, explain. Oh, yes, it is really easy for me to default to my old-fashioned expectation that he should listen to me because I'm his mother, period, end of discussion. But the only way my son can learn why, for example, we have salad with lunch instead of candy, is if I explain it to him. He still might not get it. He still might disagree. But, at least he's learning that there is thought and reason behind what I tell him.

-Sometimes, compromise. Sometimes it's okay to let him "win." If I tell him to come inside, and he argues that he'd really like to keep playing with his trucks in the mud, it can be okay to settle on a agreement that he can come in half an hour instead. Or that if he wants to continue to play outside, first he needs to come in and clean up his toys. This sort of thing is less about caving (oof, it always feels like caving!), and more about letting him know that his voice is valuable to me, and that I take his preferences into consideration. Besides all that, when he isn't hearing the word "no" all day long, it has more value and meaning when he does need to hear it.

-Give him warnings and parameters. He doesn't yet know how to tell time, but I've begun to give him "five minute" warnings when it's almost time to finish whatever has his interest. No one likes to be interrupted unexpectedly in the middle of some fun, and that warning helps him to prepare himself to finish his play, while also shutting down arguments when time is up ("I told you only five more minutes.").

-Offer choices whenever possible. He's just beginning to understand that he has an individual voice, and that it can have an impact on his world. I offer him choices whenever possible- what he'd like to wear, what he'd like for breakfast, whether we walk to the library or the park. Even if the choices are limited and still fall within the realm of mom-approved, he has the chance to share his opinions and experience a small sense of control over his little life.

-Most importantly, loosen my definition of "disrespect." Disagreement isn't quite the same as disrespect. I'm much better at handling his barrage of opinions when I remember that fact. To be fair, sometimes my boy truly is just saying, "no" to be defiant. But even in those times, it's all part of the learning process. He's learning boundaries, and in part that means (unfortunately!) pushing them.

What tactics do you use to set boundaries for your children?

Liz Moorhead

Liz Moorhead is an English teacher-turned-writer and illustrator. She paints stationery, writes for a top wedding site, and blogs at Happy Sighs between walks to the park with her two boys.