Setting Limits With Respect – What It Sounds Like (Podcast)

In the four years since I started my web site, I’ve written over three hundred articles. I have always tried to be as specific and descriptive as possible, because I am acutely aware how challenging it is to communicate Magda Gerber’s respectful care practices through the written word. To my amazement, many of you are understanding and successfully implementing these practices without ever seeing (or hearing) them demonstrated. My hat’s off to you!

But for others who prefer show and tell, I thought I’d offer a series of brief audio demonstrations via podcast. This first one is on a popular topic (at least here on this blog): setting limits.

I’ll be covering:

  • Confidently setting limits
  • Acknowledging feelings
  • Honest consequences

I offer these examples of respectful limit setting and encourage you to find your own voice and words.

I’d love to hear your suggestions for future podcast topics, so please share!

Transcript of “Setting Limits with Respect – What it Sounds Like”

Hi. I’m Janet Lansbury, and I’m happy to be sharing some examples of respectful limit setting.

Now, my overall recommendations are to approach these situations directly and confidently, which may mean acting “as if”at first, but with practice, true confidence will soon follow, and this will begin to feel natural. I also recommend being open and willing to fully accept our child’s different point of view.

Generally, when parents have difficulties establishing boundaries with children, it’s because we’re not comfortable with our children’s emotional responses. We’d like to avoid them, of course, but that attitude will get us into trouble.

Now, are we ever going to feel entirely comfortable when our children are expressing displeasure? Not likely. Not likely, but we need to recognize this dynamic between us as not only normal and healthy, but also necessary for raising secure, resilient, self-confident, happy children.

And our confidence regarding setting limits doesn’t mean adopting a stern expression or making a face or an attitude. What I’m talking about is simply putting a period at the end of our sentences, feeling unthreatened, and in control. Matter of fact conviction.

If you take a close look at your tiny child, why wouldn’t you feel unthreatened and able to handle any situation that comes up with him or her with ease, right?

We also need to approach these situations with confidence in our children’s abilities to handle disappointment, frustration, disagreement, and anger. To flourish as we’d like them to, our children need to know that they have unflappable leaders who will keep them safe and accept their feelings, and in order to develop an honest and respectful parent-child relationship, we need to be able to express our personal boundaries with our kids. We’re part of this relationship. That’s very important to remember.

Let’s jump into some examples:

Let’s say our infant or toddler tries hitting or biting us. When we’ve stopped her in time by blocking her hit or catching her hands, holding her hands, we might say, “I won’t let you hit me. That hurts. I see you want to hit.” Then, if she continues, “You still feel like hitting. I can’t let you hurt me, so I’m going to hold your hands,” or if I’m holding her in my arms when she hits and continues hitting, “I’m going to put you down. I can’t let you hit me.”

If our child hits before we can stop her, we still under-react, and then we’re ready to prevent the next one if it comes. “I don’t want you to hit. Please be gentle.” Now, only use “please” if you can say it without actually pleading because pleading with children makes them feel like we’re the weak ones instead of the strong ones that they need.

If you sense this is a reaction to this … that their behavior is a reaction to a specific event, you might acknowledge, “You seem upset that I said no to having another cookie. You enjoyed that cookie. You really wanted another. I see how disappointed you are. I’m going to hold your hands and keep you safe until you can stop hitting. I know. I see you’re disappointed. I see you’re upset.”

When possible, you might offer an acceptable alternative like, “You can hit this pillow, but not me.” Now, remember, when learning our limits, children need show and tell. Talking isn’t enough, which doesn’t mean they don’t understand our words. It means they need more reassurance. They need follow-through. So don’t fall into the trap of believing you can say something like, “Don’t hit me,” and have your child obey you, and then you’re going to get angry when your child is saying basically, “No, I need more. I need more from you. What are you going to do if I keep doing it?”

Now, why use, “I won’t let you,” rather than, “We don’t hit,” or, “Hands aren’t for hitting,” or, “Don’t hit mommy,” et cetera? Children learn best when we engage with them directly. They learn through our relationship, so we’re not talking about some general rules with this mommy person over here somewhere. We’re talking you and me. This is important. This is intimate. This is in the moment. This is about us.

Here’s another example, something less obvious than hitting. Let’s say you allowed your child to play with something of yours, but now, she’s making a mess or doing something that you don’t want her to do. Now, first of all, it’s better to avoid these situations completely by creating a safe “yes” play space for our child where we don’t have to interrupt her natural inclination to explore. Making messes of things is what children, especially toddlers, are supposed to do. That’s the way they learn. They experiment. They explore.

Putting them in a situation where exploring something fully is going to get them into trouble with us is unfair. But it happens. So let’s say that happens. We might say something then like, “Okay. I’m going to stop you from removing more pan from the shelf. I know I was letting you play with those, but I don’t want them all out on the floor like that. Can you help me put those back? Hmm, it seems you want to still play with them. I understand. I made a mistake allowing you to use this when I really didn’t want you to. I’m sorry for the confusion. Okay. I’m going to have to take these, and put these pan back, and close the cabinet.”

Now, let’s touch briefly on consequences. Consequences aren’t helpful to children or to our relationship when they are just another word for punishments. For example, “You didn’t clean your toys up, so you’re not going to get dessert tonight.” To a child, that feels like we’re against them. It feels unfair. However, when consequences are an expression of our personal limits, our personal boundaries with our child, then they are helpful because they are informing our child about us, and our relationship, and what we’re willing to do.

Now, let’s find an example like your child is splashing in the bath. Splashing, splashing, splashing. Having fun, but now, the water is going on the floor, and you’re getting uncomfortable, so you’re sensing … It’s always good when setting limits to sense your discomfort, and then to not be afraid to share your feelings with your child. “I’m not comfortable with you splashing the water. You want to splash. I don’t want you to splash in the bath. I see you’re still splashing. Okay. If you can’t stop splashing, I’m going to need to help you get out of the tub.” Child is still splashing. “Okay. I’m going to help you get out of the tub. Here we go.”

Right there, we gave a consequence. The child had to get out of the tub because they were splashing. Similarly, if your child is having difficulties getting ready for bed, they don’t want to get their pajamas on, they’re running all around the house, running all around the house, so you might let this go on a bit, and then at some point, you might say, “It’s getting late, and if you can come in and get your PJs on right now, we’ll have time for a couple of books, and if you don’t, we may only have time for one or even maybe just a song tonight,” and then it’s okay to follow-through with those consequences because you don’t want to stay up all night. You’re tired. You have limits, so it’s okay to be ourselves with our children. I think that’s really important to know.

And what will happen is these interactions will feel natural. We don’t need to use countdowns. “Okay. When I count to three, do this.” We don’t need to use timers. We don’t need these things between us and our child. This is our relationship. It’s something that’s going to last us throughout their adult years. It doesn’t have to change. Our dynamic together doesn’t have to change. We’re always going to be saying, “This works for me, and this is what I can do. This is what I want you to do.” We’re always going to have those boundaries in our relationship, so this is a natural honest approach, and you can do this.

For a complete guide to respectful discipline, please check out my new book: 

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

now available on Audio HERE

(Photo by Greg Westfall on Flickr)

106 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Thank you so much, Janet! I will try to be more nonchalant. She definitely does get to me sometimes!

    1. And that adds interest to this little test. “Wow, that got a rise out of them! Whoa, what’s up with that?”

      You’re so welcome!

  2. Great podcast! I always absorb more easily through listening rather than reading, and this helped put some things into perspective. Looking forward to hearing more of these. I am challenged with three children under the age of 5 and am alone with them most evenings since my husband and I work opposite shifts. I can be SO challenging to keep my cool when they are all having a hard time simultaneously. Thanks for sharing and giving me some hope that I won’t completely ruin these awesome kids. 🙂

    1. You are so welcome, Jennifer! I feel certain you aren’t ruining your kids!

  3. A great podcast for my students to listen to!

    Thank you

  4. avatar Stephanie says:

    Could this apply to teenagers as well? Considering listening for my oldest.

    1. Hmmm… probably slightly different, but the sentiments are the same!

  5. The audio isn’t working (for me, at least). There’s just a gray box with the soundclound logo in the middle. Nothing happens when I click it. I’d love to hear it! Thanks for any help you can offer

  6. Thanks so much for this – was great to hear some examples. I’m struggling with food at the moment. My 26 month old is refusing most food saying it’s “spicy” and instead only asking for custard and jelly. Not sure how to get my previously excellent eater back so a podcast on this topic would be appreciated!

  7. When I respond to my child like this he continues for so long that I’m unsure what to do. So today he wanted his dirty nappy put back on and not his clean one. I said to him ‘you want your dirty nappy on but I can’t let you have your dirty nappy on. It will make you sore….you’re angry and it’s ok to feel angry but I don’t want you to get sore.’ I felt my tone of voice was right etc but this wet on for 45 minutes. What should I be doing during this time? I feel I end up stuck with him and continuously repeating myself until I can’t bear to talk him through it any longer! At what point do I carry on with what I’m doing and wait for him to finish releasing his frustration?

  8. This was very helpful! Thank you!

  9. I didn’t read the comments so I apologize if this has been asked…this is for when setting a limit which I interpret as “stopping a behavior” I.e stop hitting, stop splashing…but what about when you want to make (for lack of better word) them so something? Like picking up toys, put shoes on. Things that at her age are capeable of doing but in the moment they refuse to. Thanks!

  10. I would like to subscribe to your podcast.

  11. Love this post Janet. Great to hear your voice. Thanks for all your other awesome articles. Your advice has been so helpful to me as a parent.

  12. I am trying to implement the techniques mentioned in this podcast, as I have tried some of the things you specifically mention that don’t work (like ‘if you do that one more time no cookie after dinner…’). I don’t think it worked and I’m not sure she gets the idea of the consequence of something being in the future. Right now my daughter who is two years old and generally loving to her 4 month old brother will scream loudly when she doesn’t get her way. So, say I just took her plate away at lunch because she started playing with her food instead of eating after the warnings like ‘I see you are playing with your food. That means you are done eating. If you keep playing with your food I’ll take it away and clean your plates because you are all done.’ She’ll scream a piercing scream and her little brother will start crying. Then she will wait until he calms down and do it again. I can understand how to stop a child from hitting by holding her arms, but how do you stop a child from screaming in a similar situation?

    1. Carrie, I hope Janet will chime in here but it seems to me that her screaming is her natural reaction to the consequence, and she has a right to express her disagreement and anger over what has happened. Maybe you could say, screaming hurts my ears. Can you try speaking to me more softly? Or something like that?

  13. When you say, “ok you wont stop splashing, I’m going to help you out of the tub now” then the child starts crying and begging not to get out, what is the next step?
    I would usually say, “Are you going to stop splashing then?”, and the response would probably be yes and I would let her continue her bath. Is that ok, or is that giving her too much power?

  14. Well, this is wonderful! However my kids are now all in their 40’s and I failed MISERABLY AT THIS! I wish I could go back and have a do-over! I did my best being an unmarried mother of 3 with an incomplete education, terrible jobs that paid awful and undiagnosed ADHD and learning disabilities. OY. Miraculously they all turned out wonderful–oldest owns a million dollar salon, son is an actor and graduate from Vassar and youngest is an MD/PhD on fellowship at Harvard as a neurologist! WOW God gave me amazing children. I expected to be obeyed and I got angry when they didn’t. I was more Father than Mother, there was no father. There were many many ups and downs. I did my best. Life goes on.

    1. Aww, I imagine you did quite well. You had a huge amount on your plate and your children sound wonderful! I have a daughter at Vassar 🙂 If anything, this approach would have probably made your job a bit easier.

  15. avatar Anouska Lyons says:

    HI Janet loving your podcasts – do you have one on getting perspective right – because sometimes i can have the right words but my heart is wanting to say something quite different! I’m the scary mum who says ‘sorry i wasnt there to stop you with gritted teeth’ Thanks Anouska

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