elevating child care

The Secret to Setting Limits (Without Bribes or Threats)

Hi Janet,
Please help! I’m having to rethink my strategies with my 4-year-old.  Normally bedtime is effortless — a great routine, quality time, and straight down. The only caveat is that I’ve used TV as an incentive and threaten to cancel play dates the next day if she doesn’t stay in bed (and have consistently followed through). Now that I’ve removed this “motivation,” which in fact are maybe just “bribes,” she is getting out of bed constantly and screaming and yelling when I take her back. I stay calm, and I acknowledge feelings.
The same thing is happening for independent playtime. Before, it was going wonderfully, but now without the motivation of screen time, she keeps coming out of her room. She has a Gro-clock in there, so knows when the time is up.
What am I supposed to do? I feel like giving up and reverting to the old negative-but-effective patterns of parenting. What limit can I set that is respectful?

Hi, Chrystal:

The difficulties you’re experiencing suggest you might be missing one crucial element of respectful discipline: certainty.

To comfortably accept a limit, our children need us to feel really, really sure about it. When children don’t sense this certainty emanating from us, they tend to keep pushing the limit. My thought is that it was easier for you to project conviction when you could negotiate what felt to you like a fair deal: “Okay, you give me some time to do what I need to do in peace, and I’ll give you some TV.” Or, “If you won’t go to bed without a battle, I won’t give you what you want (a playdate).”

Those kinds of agreements helped you to feel that the limits were established with benefits for both sides, so you were able to sign off on them with confidence. After all, you were being fair. But it was that comfortable conviction on your part that registered for your daughter more than the incentives themselves.

The incentives may have also served the purpose of causing her to behave out of the fear of losing something she wanted.  If our long term goal is to nurture our child’s sense of security and a parent-child relationship steeped in trust, it’s best not to stoke anxiety or fear to gain cooperation. Instead, I would embrace these situations as opportunities for an honest connection – as a loving leader to our beloved and understandably impulsive young child.

An important element of respectful discipline is that it requires us to find that sense of certainty in ourselves as loving leaders for our children. It’s a tactic-free approach and doesn’t rely on bribes, threats, or equipment like timers or Glo-clocks.

Once, in a Facebook discussion group, I referred to this conviction as “being the gate.” A parent had asked how to handle her child’s constant requests for attention when the parent needed to separate to do housework. There had been a gate across the child’s play area, but the child could now open it. Gates are certainly helpful for offering us the opportunity to focus for a few minutes on something other than our children with peace of mind. A gate can also encourage them to explore freely in a safe enclosed place without the interruption of our “No, you can’t do that…” I recommend them, but not as replacements for our inner conviction. Children still need us to be the gate when we express limits like, “I’m going to make our dinner now.” They might express their displeasure by whining, pleading, howling, or screaming, but our inner gate helps us accept these strong objections with confidence, perhaps reminding ourselves that young children will often need to express an intense mix of feelings and stress at the end of their day… and that’s a positive thing. We trust and hear and acknowledge them all – willing to truly see our child in her pain and support her to express it. We understand that these seemingly unreasonable requests and feelings are healthy venting rather than a sign that we’ve done something wrong.

In your case, Chrystal, I noticed a second baby in your Facebook profile pic (call me nosy), which means that your daughter likely has an abundance of uncomfortable feelings to share about this change in her life. If she’s like most children her age, her feelings will be expressed at bedtime and/or in response to various limits, or during transitions throughout the day. Often they won’t appear to having anything to do with the baby or seem at all reasonable (feelings often aren’t, even for us as adults). Your limits expressed with certainty will help her to safely share and relieve herself of these feelings.

So, be the gate when she pops out of bed after you’ve said, “Goodnight, my love” with conviction. Calmly and boringly walk her back to bed, so that only she is the emotional one. This isn’t the time to try to connect, and don’t negotiate. Allow her and trust her to vent these feelings.

During her independent play time, set your boundaries, and let her try to push them as you remain the gate, even if she is following you around. She does this because she needs this dynamic with you… again, sharing her complaints.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to trust rather than fear our children’s feelings. Interestingly, the conviction this approach gives us continues to grow and build on itself, and the result is a calmer, happier home. Denise shared an encouraging success story about certainty and fearlessness:

“I have a 6-month and a 2.5-year-old. I heard about RIE just before the little one was born and have tried to implement it since. At first I found that even if I did the right things and said the right words it would not help. Then I discovered that the key for me is gentle leadership. Having conviction in what I say and do, and trust that my children will appreciate it.

For example, if I put the little one in her crib and tell her, “Have a great nap, I’ll go do laundry now and will be nearby when you wake up so I can come in when you would like me to pick you up,” and then leave thinking I hope she doesn’t scream when I close the door, she will for sure cry and scream. But if I put her down picturing her fast asleep, then she most likely doesn’t even fuss.

Same with my 2.5-year-old. If we need to leave the house and he wants to keep playing even after lots of notice, I say, “You want to keep playing, but we have to leave now, please put on your shoes.” In my mind, if I’m afraid he will keep stalling and whining, then he most likely will. On the other hand, if there is no doubt in my mind that he will sit in his car seat in a couple minutes, then he cooperates.

Unfortunately there is no switch that you can turn on to make this happen, but over time it will become easier and easier.”

Projecting certainty doesn’t always work as quietly and agreeably as Denise’s examples. If only! As I shared with Chrystal, when children are sitting on feelings they need to express, they will instinctively use these situations as their channel. But either way, our fearlessness around feelings that might range from whines and complaints to tantrums and meltdowns is an essential for projecting authentic conviction. Finding this belief in ourselves and faith in our kids provides them the leadership they need to flourish.

There’s more about setting limits with confidence and respect in my book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame (which is now available in Spanish)

(Photo by Donnie Ray Jones on Flickr)

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26 Responses to “The Secret to Setting Limits (Without Bribes or Threats)”

  1. avatar Kitchen fairy says:

    Janet, your thoughtful instruction always finds me at a time of need. I am grateful for your gentle reminders and encouragement, and I look forward to improving my parenting relationships accordingly. Thank you for your work.

    • avatar janet says:

      You’re so welcome! Thank you for your kind words.

  2. avatar Mary says:

    Thank you so much, this is exactly what I needed to read this morning.

  3. avatar Richelle says:

    Thank you! The only thing that doesn’t quite sit comfortably with me is the example of a child not wanting to stay in his or her bed. Perhaps that child is needing to be close to his/her parents at night and is uncomfortable sleeping in another room at night away from the parents? We are the only mammal who leaves a child to sleep alone in the dark away from the caregivers. Intuitively, the child (and ideally, the parent) would pick up on this, so children’s out-of-balance behaviours surrounding bedtime need to be examined for this very reason. We can “be the gate” that gives no option to have this core need fulfilled, or we can take a look at our options for having a more harmonized night time practice.

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks, Richelle. If your view is that children have an innate need to sleep near their parents, then I agree that this approach will not be helpful to you. Personally, I see many, many distinctions between humans and other mammals and also between evolved humans and primitive man. Our lives are very different and the expectations for our children are very different. I agree with Magda Gerber that it is positive for children to learn to be content alone, play alone and sleep alone, etc. I realize that others approaches take a very different view.

  4. avatar rick ackerly says:

    another really good one!!!

  5. avatar Adie says:

    I am amazed at how well this inner certainty translates to my toddler. It really feels like a Jedi mind trick “you want to lay quietly for this diaper change” fingers wave. And suddenly the diaper change is different. I also found that warning or reminding my child not to do something that they know not to do (i.e. I have told them a million and one times) makes him instantly do that thing. I switched to just expecting things to go ok, and stop warning, and things are miraculously better. Thank you, Janet, for tirelessly reminding me to trust and project confidence. For us, a change in my attitude helps my toddler change his behavior on a dime. The change in me is subtle, but the results are powerful.

    • avatar janet says:

      I am so glad to hear that, Adie! Thank you for sharing.

  6. avatar Amanda Colclough says:

    Oh, boy, this is a hard one; For me, definitely, for my husband nearly impossible. His parents gave him a very “happy” childhood with extremely clear boundaries for staying “in line”, accepting his parent’s decisions without argument, and according to his mom NEVER ONCE saying “I hate you” to either of them. Yikes.
    So, as parents of a 3 and 7 year-old whom are testing limits constantly, when the kids don’t blindly follow directions, Dad freaks out, even with all of our RIE (since my oldest was a baby) and parenting knowledge between your blog and Conscious Discipline, etc.
    We know what the problem IS, but how does an adult magically learn to be ok with big feelings when they were taught the opposite?
    Do you address this more specifically for the parents (and their inner child, emotional hard-wiring) in your books?


  7. avatar Gemma says:

    Hi Janet,

    I wonder if you can help. My son is 15 months and in general is happy and curious about the world. I have read your and Magda Gerber’s books and have been trying to take this approach since he was just a few months old. However, as we move into early toddlerhood I can see more and more the start of testing behaviours. For example, when I need to get his shoes/coat/hat on, he now runs away from me, or, he comes over puts one arm in and then moves away. I try to remain calm, sportscast and so on, but it gets to the point where I have to physically put him in his shoes etc. He gets very upset. I don’t want this to become a battle ground now or in the future (at least not a big one!) – how can I approach this without spending a really long time waiting for him to be ready and/or having to restrain him into his clothes? Thanks, Gemma

  8. avatar Jess says:

    Hello, Janet!
    I have a clarifying question. In this scenario,

    “So, be the gate when she pops out of bed after you’ve said, “Goodnight, my love” with conviction. Calmly and boringly walk her back to bed, so that only she is the emotional one. This isn’t the time to try to connect, and don’t negotiate. Allow her and trust her to vent these feelings.”

    What does it look like to allow the child to vent her feelings? Staying in the room to acknowledge the feelings until the storm has passed? Leaving the room and allowing her to cry (scream, kick the bed, etc.) alone? This is where I lose certainty. I feel cruel to leave her, but I feel manipulated when I stay.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Jess! Acceptance and acknowledgement are the key. Accepting, in this case, probably means leaving, because staying says, “I’m worried about you having these feelings.” So, yes, I would nod your head and acknowledge, “Ah, it’s hard to get back to sleep, but I know you can do it,” and then leave confidently. You will obviously listen to make sure she calms down eventually, but what she needs is to be able to let go of you. And that has to begin with us letting go first.

  9. avatar Lisa Mager says:

    Sheesh, I wonder if this is my problem (a lack of certainty)? My son is almost 2.5 and it feels like we have so many power struggles and conflict throughout the day. My husband and I are starting to feel like nothing is working. We’ve read No Bad Kids and try to set expectations, give options and verbalize understanding for how our son is feeling and we try to come up with natural consequences … but it doesn’t seem to help. We still have tantrums/kicking at diaper changes, avoidance of teeth brushing, hitting whenever upset, running away from us in public places (which is obviously really scary) and attempts at getting out of bed a few times in the night. Some days seem better than others and we try to figure out what is unique on those days (i.e. more sleep, better diet, ???).

    I think I sometimes lack conviction because I feel the limits we’ve established are arbitrary. For example, we let our son watch some tv in the day, but try to limit the time. He asks CONSTANTLY to watch tv … sometimes I let him (maybe more often when it’s convenient for me) and sometimes I don’t . Then I feel a bit guilty because I realize that I have a double standard about tv. I don’t feel like I can give him something concrete (such as two shows per day), because I’m not sure he’d understand that quite yet. Maybe I’m underestimating him?

    I don’t know. Sorry for the rambling post … I think I just feel really down about my success with setting limits/discipline, feel at a loss for what to do next and wish someone had a magical “fix all” suggestion. Maybe I just need more certainty.

    • avatar CandiCane says:

      It sounds like confidence could definitely be in play for your situation. However, it also sounds like some normal behavior for a 2.5 year old. He is in the boundary setting stage and needs clear/firm boundaries with confident follow through. That doesn’t mean that miraculously he will stop being 2.5!

      As for the tv – you might find consistency is the key. For example, he may watch after breakfast and after dinner but no other times. If you ‘miss; a session, no big deal. But having a consistent routine with it may help you be firm with the rules and help him with expectations.

  10. avatar Lucy says:

    Interesting article. We struggle with the same thing now, sleeping was always an issue in our house but last months everything was going great. Now our daughter once I put her to sleep keeps coming out of the room, screaming I mean SCREAMING, asking for water, cover, pillow, her doll…. I do bring her back but she keeps coming out, easily for another hour. I wouldnt mind it as much but as a rule it wakes her 14 months old sister and then I need to carry her back to bed with baby in my arms for another 20 times… I am at my wits end 🙁

  11. avatar Lou says:

    Hi Janet,

    My son usually doesn’t want to get out of the bathtub after his bath, he spends a lot of time in there and I usually tell him that I’ll be waiting outside for him to read a book a book to him when he comes out. If he spends more time in the bathtub, he has less time to read more books before bed. Is this bribery/threat?

  12. I can so relate

  13. avatar Christy says:

    I’m thick in this struggle with my 5 year old, with bedtime often being a nightmare of my daughter getting out of bed over and over and over. You say, “So, be the gate when she pops out of bed after you’ve said, “Goodnight, my love” with conviction. Calmly and boringly walk her back to bed, so that only she is the emotional one. This isn’t the time to try to connect, and don’t negotiate. Allow her and trust her to vent these feelings.”
    When I try to walk my daughter back to bed, she stiffens up, resists, moves out of the way, etc. At 5 years and 50 pounds, it’s difficult to ‘guide’ her to her bed when she has other plans, and I don’t want to get into a physical struggle. Suggestions?

  14. avatar Allie says:

    One thing i struggle to understand is how to handle a tantrum. I understand that i must stay calm and unruffled but im not sure about the suggested phrases as my son is so loud and so distressed that he can’t hear me (i can’t hear myself as i try to speak in a calm soft voice). Im also unsure if i should walk away (if for instance i need to get onto something) or if i should stay near him. Most of the time if i stay near.
    Would love some clarification. Thank you

  15. avatar Marian says:

    Last night led to my waking today, So Proud of myself. In a moment of rage (only in my mind and body), I was able to pull strings of insight from your various articles and usher peace, knowledge, understanding, strength, good will and love into what was looking to be a difficult bedtime.

    At the bottom of the stairs, my daughter started putting up a fight. My husband’s hours have me with morning and evening routine, and the evening one triggers me, as it did my widowed mother.

    I stood there, exhausted, but, when I really asked myself what was going on, I was Afraid. I realized I didn’t think there was any way out of this situation except by getting loud/stern/tough/rigid … My mother.

    I asked myself, is that the truth? Is there any other way? I said there was, I could do nothing … I can put her things down, let her stay upstairs, and I can go back to reading my book: take care of me.

    I opened your Elevating Childcare and read what didn’t pertain to the moment, per se, ‘talking with your child’, but I took a moment to quiet the argument, my mothers tape, in my mind about ungrateful children, etc etc. I told myself not to play that tape and just Read.

    Focusing on your words allowed my body to relax. I was feeling enjoyment and peace.

    My daughter came into the living room with her things and I spoke honestly, “I want to have fun at bedtime, too.” There was calm in my voice, I was truly no longer raging, no stuffing of my feelings. She knew I Adored her. Love.

    We went upstairs and all was well and then her issue, as you mention in this article, came up: School.

    We were reading a Shirley Hughes book and the big sister does somersaults on the bed. You’ve mentioned kids need to work stuff out through their bodies: I trusted that she wouldn’t do somersaults all night, so I said, Go ahead and do three–she was so excited and surprised I was sanctioning this at bedtime!

    Then, I did the L. Markham suggestion of holding and saying, I am never going to let you go! Which my daughter adores and just before she is about to break my hold, I say, Oh! My arm broke! And then we start over.

    “I won’t go to school?” No! I will never let you go! All joy and smiles.

    I let this run its course and then I said, ‘You know, I get sad when you go to school.”

    “You DO?! … but you’re in my heart ….” she said, as I say to her.

    I did a reversal and said, Do you promise you will be there when I pick you up after lunch?

    She said yes and we went back to the books and routine of slipping off to sleep.

    The following morning, thinking about this, I realized I was actually raising my grandchildren, too–just as my grandmother raised me through my mother …. I am raising the future children of our family line and raising them through love, confidence, fun, strength, courage, awareness and joy.

    Thank You, Janet Lansbury, thank you.

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