If Gentle Discipline Isn’t Working, This Might Be the Reason

If you’re reading here because you’re committed to guiding your child’s behavior without spankings or punishments, I salute you, especially if you were punished as a child and are looking for a better way.

Setting limits without punishments works. In fact, it works so beautifully that you’ll find you need to set fewer and fewer limits, especially once the toddler years have passed.  Many of you have sent me inspiring stories about the positive results you are experiencing, often immediately.

I also hear a lot about what isn’t working from parents who believe they are practicing gentle discipline.  Parents share about behavior that might have started as minor testing but has become more aggressive, destructive, defiant, or deliberate. I hear about needy, demanding five-year-olds, preschoolers intentionally hurting their peers, and children who seem either fragile or angry much of the time.

Parents wonder: How can my child keep acting this way when I’m committed to respectful, non-punitive guidance?

I had a sudden inkling about the reason while re-reading blogger Suchada Eickemeyer’s post: “The Most Valuable Parenting Phrase After ‘I Love You”.  The important phrase she refers to is, “I won’t let you.” Suchada remarks, “This phrase has helped me become the disciplinarian I want to be: in charge, but not controlling; gentle, but firm; honest; clear; and direct.”

There seems to be a common misconception that gentle, non-punitive discipline means avoiding a direct confrontation with the child rather than providing the simple, connected response children need when, for example, they hit the dog.  In this case, appropriate discipline would mean getting down on the floor next to the child, making eye contact, and saying calmly, “I won’t let you hit the dog, that hurts” while holding the child’s hand or otherwise blocking the hit.

My sense is that many parents over-complicate this issue, perhaps because of confusion about some of the terms commonly used in regard to discipline, terms like ‘connection’, ‘unmet needs’ and ‘playful’.


Yes, children need to feel connected for discipline to be successful. But how? When I hear the word ‘connection’, hugging, laughing and running through grass together come to mind, not saying “no” and possibly upsetting my child.  Connection during boundary setting doesn’t look warm and fuzzy, but it is crucial. Here are the two most important ways to connect:

1.  Just talk to your child

Most of the advice I hear about setting limits suggests wording that subtly skirts a direct confrontation and distances us when we should be connecting.  The verbal examples are commonly in the third person, “it is not okay to…”, “Mommy doesn’t like it when you…”, or “Joey isn’t allowed to…” Then there’s the philosophical approach: “Faces are not for slapping”, “Streets are not for running into”, “Friends are not for biting”. Or, the royal “we”: “We don’t throw food” (while our perceptive toddlers are thinking, “well, some of us don’t”).

Personally, I’m even a little uncomfortable with “Honey (or Sweetie, or Pumpkin), don’t hurt the dog.” Terms of endearment at times like these sound phony and patronizing to me, especially if the adult is feeling annoyed while faking calm and affection.

“I won’t let you” (or “I can’t let you” or “I don’t want you to”) instantly connect us person-to-person and clarify our expectations. This is the connection children need first and foremost when they misbehave. Toddlers don’t miss a trick, so they need (and deserve) a respectful, straight answer. We can run through the grass together afterward.

2. Acknowledge and empathize

Children need their perspectives and feelings acknowledged when we are setting limits. (I describe this in detail in “The Key To Your Child’s Heart”.) It is usually best to empathize after first setting the limit (“I won’t let you”). But empathy means understanding and supporting, not going down with the ship.  In other words, reflect verbally, (“You were upset about not getting another cracker” or “you want to stop playing outside and come back in the house.), but don’t get upset or discouraged when your child has an emotional reaction to your limits. That level of connection isn’t healthy for either of us. It wears us out and clouds our perspective, making effective guidance less possible, and our child is without the strong anchor she needs.

Unmet needs

By the time they are 18 months of age, most children are fully aware of many of the things we don’t want them to do. So, why do they do them? There are many possibilities to consider, but only after we fulfill the child’s number one need in that moment of limit-pushing behavior.  If we hesitate to set a limit with conviction because we’re trying to figure out what is driving our child’s behavior, he or she is left with a faltering, vague or inconclusive message instead of real help.

The most common need children have when they act out is our attention, beginning with a very specific kind of attention — a kind but firm acknowledgment of their behavior and of our expectations.


Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’m a silly, playful person and parent.  I love the genuine, spontaneous playfulness and joking that happens with children when I feel confident about my leadership. Playfulness is wonderful when we’re “feeling it”, and it helps us encourage cooperation for cleaning up toys or brushing teeth. But I don’t advise playfulness as a technique for limit setting when it replaces (or dances around) the connected, honest, clear response children need.

I also think advising playfulness imposes even more pressure on parents to keep children happy all the time, which most of us would do if we thought it possible or healthy or the route to true happiness.  But always smiling isn’t real life or a real relationship. Our kids know better, and they deserve both.

I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my new book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Photo by roland.lakis on Flickr)


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

  1. LOVE it! Thank you so much, Janet, for yet another fantastic post. And, thanks for the link!! This is such a critical message. I am so happy that we found each other!! xo, Emily

    1. Thanks, Emily, me too! I so appreciate the incredible community of mindful parents and educators I’m meeting online. You are definitely one of the great “finds”. Thanks for all you do.

  2. Another timely post for me. I’ve been struggling with this a lot lately. My daughter, who will be three in about three weeks, has begun ‘shushing’ us. She does this when we tell her something she doesn’t like typically speaking. She also tells us “Don’t do that” “you can’t…” “Stop it” and other such phrases. I realize she’s trying on being in charge and seeing where we will set the limits, but how do we best deal with this? I guess, my problem is that I don’t know what the next step is after telling her that I won’t let her talk to me like that (or shush me). Obviously, if she’s hitting, I can hold her hand, but this is all verbal, so I’m always at a loss. I do empathize with her – or try to at least – but it’s hard when she just keeps interrupting me, shushing and telling me to stop it.

    1. Susan, I would definitely try to keep your sense of humor about this… It sounds like you are giving her lots of power to bother you. I would say lightly, “Oh, you don’t want me to talk. Interesting!” And then continue. Or, “Oh, you don’t want me to do such-in-such. Thanks for your opinion!” (said genuinely) And then carry on, “Here’s what we’re doing…”

      Yes, she’s trying out being in charge, but remember, you ARE in charge. She’s tiny (and sounds adorable) and you are her big confident leader.

      1. Thanks! I will give this a try – You may be very right about giving her power to bother me.

      2. Melissa C says:

        Janet, You have a knack for making the answer sound so completely obvious. I am always left thinking “why didn’t I think of that?”. Thanks for responding to these very specific queries…my son is almost two and doing lots of testing and it is really helpful to hear your advice on specific scenarios. Melissa

        1. Thanks for the supportive feedback, Melissa. Just remember that your boy is doing exactly what he is supposed to do and this is not to be taken personally!

    2. I am in the same exact boat and my son is the same age!! Thanks for sharing.

  3. “But always smiling isn’t real life or a real relationship. Our kids know better, and they deserve both.” That statement stuck out to me; it’s such a valid point and speaks truth.

  4. Excellent insights, Janet. This point really hit home for me- “If we hesitate to set a limit with conviction because we’re trying to figure out what is driving our child’s behavior, he or she is left with a faltering, vague or inconclusive message instead of real help.” I can see I’ve done this many times, instead of being direct. This is something I could be more mindful of, as well as my husband.

  5. Great article, thank you. I am one of the parents you are writing about. I am really struggling with my almost 6 year old daughter. I am missing something from A to B and I can’t put my finger on it. Your points are good but in the moment with my daughter, I lose my thought process and either dont’ say enough, or end up angry. What would be very helpful would be some real life scenario examples. Our two biggest struggles come when it’s time for my daughter to help out or clean up after herself. I just can’t find an empathic way to get it done.

    1. Holly, it would help me if you could provide a specific example, and details about the way you have been handling it up until now. “Losing your thought process” sounds like you are getting triggered by your daughter’s behavior. It’s very important not to take resistance personally. Six can be a resistant age (it’s classically the even numbered ages that are the most rebellious).

      1. Glad to hear that – my three boys are two years apart so we’ll have one “easy” year followed by a ridiculous year. Poor planning… 🙂 I’m liking your melding of empathic parenting with directness and not always trying to play games to get things done.

  6. This is a great, direct phrase that we can use right away. Thank you. I think my kids will respond to it. When I tell them to do something and they don’t or are dilly dallying, I say, “I am not asking,” in a firm voice. They immediately respond, because they know I mean it. We have a fun and playful time so often that I need to say something crystal clear to get them to hear me. Now, I’m going to add in your phrase, “I won’t let you.” We just went to the store tonight and they were touching everything and acting as though I fed them spoonfuls of sugar for dinner. That phrase may have helped us navigate our errand a little more smoothly!

  7. I used to teach basic dog obedience classes. When people came in with their kids, I could always tell which were going to do well immediately with their pups/dogs – they were the ones with well-behaved children. It may seem surprising, but much of the learning and behavior theory transfers between the two.

  8. love love love this. you know, as always!

    this in particular: “Playfulness is wonderful when we’re “feeling it”, and it helps us encourage cooperation for cleaning up toys or brushing teeth. But I don’t advise playfulness as a technique for limit setting when it replaces (or dances around) the connected, honest, clear response children need.”

    i’ve never been able to fully digest the “playful” approach for this exact reason. i *totally* use play and playfulness often – but ONLY when i’m in a place to genuinely enjoy it.

    i’ve had moments of sheer desperation (sigh) where i’ve tried to downshift into playfulness when my heart wasn’t in it and it just feels wrong. it’s not fair to anyone, really.

    and i’ve also had moments where i’ve known i’m just at the *cusp* of feeling playful but i’m not quite there because i’m tired, irritated etc, and i’ve been willing to initiate play and it ends up working awesome. and sometimes is just what i need to turn it around *for myself* which then turns it around for the little one, too. and, really, everyone in the house!

    playing through irritation and genuine inauthenticity sends such a mixed, confusing message and also muddies the waters of true, genuine play, too.

    i really think that staying true to how we’re feeling makes the fun times more fun and the limits more clear and less confusing – which, in turn, makes for a more secure child! the cycle of positivity is so much nicer than its opposite, right?!

    love the post – it’s the perfect thing to come back to and re-read when i need it.

    hope you’re well! xx

    1. Thanks, Sara (and yes, I am very well, hope you are, too!) I appreciate hearing your process around playfulness.

      I agree that staying true to ourselves is key. So is our perspective. Sometimes a little playfulness (if we’re feeling it) will help us to realize how silly it is to feel threatened by our child’s behavior.

  9. This is powerful from my perspective as a teacher and not a parent – discipline is a huge issue at schools, and the inconsistencies among adults with whom the child interacts makes the job all the harder. Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts – it is worth sharing with teachers of young children!

  10. Fantastic post, Janet. Thank you for linking to me — even though I wrote about “I won’t let you”, I still need the reminder that *I’m* the leader and it’s my job to stay calm through the inevitable storm of emotions that come with growing up. I totally needed this reminder! <3

    1. Thank you, Suchada! I think we all need this reminder… I know I do.

  11. I thought this was a great post with wonderful insight. I often wonder what the “best phrase” to use is. Something short and to the point, but that really conveys the right message to my son.
    I do think it’s important for it to be clear, direct and first person… but, I find “I don’t want you to” and “I can’t let you” to be somewhat confusing for him. What does he do when I am not there? I grew up in a home environment where pleasing the parent and punishment were the ways we learned to behave. I always wanted our kids to have more of an intrinsic motivation, and for them to understand that certain behaviors hurt others, some aren’t safe, etc… So when I talk to him I explain “that’s Dad’s, let’s put it back”, or “if you hit, that hurts” things like that, instead of me trying controlling him, I’m working on him learning self-control. Obviously at this age, he’s almost 2, I am there to help him when he needs help. To hold his hand back when he can’t stop throwing, hitting… etc… But in my words, I say “if you hit someone, that hurts, if you want to hit, you can hit a pillow”… “do you need help finding a pillow to hit?”
    I’d love any feedback on these ideas.
    Maybe I am really saying the same things in different words?

    1. Deb, sounds like you are connecting in a direct and honest way and I love your consideration of intrinsic motivation. The explanations are wonderful. I would just consider your boy’s ability to make a choice about hitting… And I also wouldn’t worry about “controlling” him and what he’ll do when you aren’t there. The way non-punitive discipline works is that our children internalize our rules and values because they are given with love, fairness and respect. Our limits create self-discipline that can be relied on whether parents are there or not.

      1. Sometimes my son makes amazing choices not to do something and I am honestly thrilled… but I just simply say “great choice!” I do find, just like most kids that when he’s “done”, tired, overstimulated, and sometimes for reasons completely “toddler” and unexplainable to me, he just keeps putting paint or shaving cream in his mouth, or throwing everything possibly in his view….
        I do think we take with us the things we grew up with, and even though we may be working very hard to do things very differently with our own kids, things do slip in, like you mentioned the concern that he won’t do things when we are not there… for instance… Thank you for mentioning how this works.. that kids do internalize our rules and values BECAUSE of how they are given. I really appreciate your work.

        1. Thank you, Deb. Yes, continuing to put shaving cream and paint in his mouth is quite clearly an “I need help, so please stop me” ALERT. It is definitely not an “I hate you, Mom, and am refusing to listen”. This is where some parents might get confused.

          1. Hi Janet, I am reading through this post and these responses quite a few months later BECAUSE I am in a different stage with my son and the concepts are still the same… thankfully.
            He is now almost 28 months old.
            He is very sweet, kind, mild-mannered, and gracious just about all the time. I find though, that he is incredibly impulsive especially when he is tired or doesn’t feel well. For instance, he will continuously try to open the cabinet or drawer, keep taking things out, or whatever it is, over and over and over… while I’m getting his food ready or trying to do something I have to do. Which means I need to keep stopping what I’m doing. When he is not tired or sick he never does this… so it’s clear why he does it. And I see that he is trying to get my attention… but at the same time he is doing this he is asking for his food, and I can’t do both at the same time…(redirect him and prepare his food). Explaining this to a tired and hungry toddler doesn’t work! Imagine that!
            It’s not a simple answer.. you can’t just say, don’t let him get tired… he doesn’t always sleep when you put him down to nap, and he will wake up earlier than expected at times, so he is more tired than he should be. I try to avoid these moments by having his food prepared in advance, but I don’t always get that done.
            The last few times, I have had to put a baby gate up for a few minutes so that I can prepare his food or finish cutting up things for dinner, so that I know he is safe. I don’t like doing that, and most of the time I am able to redirect him to do other things and play independently. I am finding myself getting frustrated with him and I have to keep reminding myself that he has not been feeling well…Since this is usually lunch or dinner time we are both tired…
            Any ideas!?

            1. Hi Deb! I wouldn’t feel bad about the gate at all. For me this would either be a choice of the safety gate or deciding not to worrying about him taking things out of the drawers (if that is even a possiblity), or maybe just moving the dangerous stuff. The important things here are 1. safety, and 2. your peace of mind. If you are reacting with annoyance to the drawers and cabinets being opened, this makes it a far more interesting, button-pushing impulse for him.

              1. So totally true! I’m sure he is finding it delightfully interesting that even though I’m trying to maintain a calm demeanor…I’m sure I’m not after the 10th time he does it! After all, I can’t get a thing done! ; ) It’s so interesting that kids find our responses so fun!
                I do think the gate is the best option… Unless we completely lock all cabinets and drawers, which we don’t want to do. We will be moving out of this house in the next 6 months, and rubber banding the cabinets with knobs is working fairly well on those.. it’s just the other cabinets and the drawers that are at issue! I guess there is a part of me that wishes he would magically “stop” when I ask him, or be able to be redirected…
                The key for me, is to remember that he does indeed do very well with responding beautifully to me almost all of the time. He also plays so nicely… and not get caught up in these challenging times. He is a toddler and all toddlers have very difficult moments, especially when tired, hungry and sick!
                I think as parents, it can be easy to get stuck in these tough moments and feel like we are failing!
                Thanks for the encouragement!

  12. I love everything you write, Janet, but I’ve always been concerned about using the phrase “I won’t let you” with my daughter because she a) understands exactly what I’m trying to do, and b) reacts in such a way that I believe she feels like I’m attempting to manipulate her instead of guide/support her.

    I 100% believe in respecting your child as a person, so for this technique, I imagine what it would be like if my boss said “I won’t let you” to me. I would feel really disrespected and fairly angry.

    Do you find that “I won’t let you” has adverse reactions with some kids?

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Shasta. If I was behaving in an out of control manner — doing impulsive, dangerous or annoying things — I would hope there would be someone who cared enough to let me know and stop me. I would not feel disrespected. I might feel angry, if I was out of my head and on a rampage. Then, I would hope the person would understand and forgive me for how angry I was, but stop me anyway!

      I have never known “I won’t let you” to have adverse reactions if it is said calmly. I HAVE seen it bring great relief to children.

      I’m curious, Shasta… What are you doing now? Does it help your daughter?

      1. Ah, I see the distinction now. Using “I won’t let you” in the context of an aggressive state makes sense. I was thinking more along the lines of it being used in EVERY scenario, including minor behavioral violations – e.g. “I won’t let you put your cars in the dog’s water bowl”. That just seems condescending to me, but I guess that’s why tone of voice is important!

        I’ve found that my daughter is a keen observer of people and social situations, and she’s more than capable of understanding behavioral expectations as long as she’s provided some explanation or guidance. A change in tone of voice and use of short sentences tells her that she’s doing something inappropriate for the context – e.g. “Please stop jumping on the couch” in firm, even tone. A “Hey, not OK!” for things like squeezing the cat too hard or throwing things on the floor indicates displeasure at (presumably) undesirable behavior; the interjection of ‘hey’ acts as an attention interruption to temporarily stop the behavior.

        Thank you so much for the reply!

        1. I have an idea for the cars in the dogs bowl. Why not say, Let’s not get the (dog name) bowl dirty. Is there anywhere else you can put your cars that won’t make (dog name) dirty? This I think encourages the child to find their own solution… if he ignores and continues..then I would say “I won’t let you put the cars in the dogs bowl. It will make it dirty. Where else can you put your cars? Do you want me to get your own bowl of water?”

  13. Another fantastic post Janet! I love, love, love the emphasis on connection and that you followed up “I won’t let you…because.” To me this really embodies a wonderful way to offer the child an opportunity to have an awareness of another’s experience {i.e. empathy of hurting dog}— while fully respecting the child and modeling the normalcy of having boundaries.

  14. I get what you’re saying, I really do. But I’m still struggling with this. At two years old, my daughter is really testing the limits and in certain situations I’m just utterly at loss what to do. Recently she has taken to taking her shoes off and throwing them in the street (from the stroller). At first I went the firm way and told her “shoes stay on” but she just laughed and giggled. So now I’m just picking them up and not participating in this “game”.

    Still I don’t get how do you say “I won’t let you throw your shoes”. I have to get places and can’t realistically not let her. I just pick them up and when she say “walk myself”, I tell “you can’t, you took your shoes off”.

    1. Hi Kay. Discipline problems are usually a direct result of the approach we’ve been using… So I would find a plan that gives you confidence. You may have read my post “No Bad Kids”: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/04/no-bad-kids-toddler-discipline-without-shame-9-guidelines/

      It’s hard for me to get a clear sense of what you are doing from what you’ve given me…but regarding the incident you mention, do you notice her taking her shoes off? That would be the time to stop pushing the stroller and intervene. You could then say, “Oh, are you taking your shoes off? Okay, I’ll take those for you.” If you are too late, I would just pick them up and say calmly, “Please don’t throw your shoes” without getting angry. Then when she asks to walk… Is that really an option that would work for you or not? If not, be clear rather than blaming it on the shoes. “I know you want to walk, but we don’t have time right now. We can walk together after dinner” (or whatever). If it is because of the shoes, say, “I won’t let you walk barefoot here. Maybe later when your shoes are on.”

      Most importantly, stay confident and decisive…be a leader, but diffuse battles whenever possible, while still being honest and respectful. Don’t let your two year old daughter’s behavior get to you. Does this make any sense?

      1. Thanks so much for replying! Actually now that I think about it, saying “Oh you’re taking your shoes off? Okay, I’ll take those for you.” is brilliant. Diffuses the situation quickly before it becomes an issue.

        In many areas I feel very confident (she’s already tried hitting me or kicking, and that defused quickly) but with incidents on the street I think my confidence wavers and that is the issue. Her behavior is getting to me and I’m letting it. She is testing me and I’m delivering an upset reaction. I think I am slowly getting it.

        1. Kay, sounds like you’ve nailed this. “…I think my confidence wavers and that is the issue. Her behavior is getting to me and I’m letting it. She is testing me and I’m delivering an upset reaction.” YES! The testing will lessen when you feel more on top of things. Don’t take her behavior personally…it’s normal! It’s as if children have to keep testing until they bring out the calm leader in us.

  15. BrendaMod says:

    Janet, I appreciate your blog, and I read every one. You’ve opened my eyes to the RIE approach, and I’m so grateful for that. I have a frustration to express though. The thing is, I am giving this parenting thing my all. I’m still figuring out how to find my footing with saying the right words in the moment (“I won’t let you kick me. Kicking hurts.” rather than “We don’t kick” or “Stop kicking me, that hurts!” (during a particularly frustrating time, like this morning). All in all, though, the RIE approach feels natural to me and makes so much sense. But my little guy is a delightful little firecracker. He is funny and sweet and, ohmylord, so energetic, and has a very strong mind of his own. I’m glad he has a strong will. It’s part of who he is, but it’s challenging sometimes. ANd it can feel at times as though all day long it is one challenging interaction after another. I just don’t know how to keep totally calm through all of this. Sometimes I get mad! And I usually try to step away from the situation for a minute and say something like, “I’m frustrated and I need a minute.” But I get the sense when reading your posts sometimes, and also the book Toddler 1,2,3, which I am enjoying right now, that I am doing something wrong because my little guy sometimes goes berserk on the changing table or because sometimes, no matter if I say, “Would you like to climb into your carseat by yourself, or would you like my help?”, right now my sweet boy FREAKS OUT getting in his carseat. Argh. Help.

    1. Brenda, thanks so much for your honesty and kind, supportive words. I have the sense that you are being hard on yourself, rather than accepting your “delightful firecracker”. It’s going to be challenging sometimes. Think about it… Why would any toddler want to go in his car seat or be stuck on a changing table? There’s no good reason. That’s okay! Accept who he is. Don’t expect a compliant, “Yes, I’m happy to stay put while you change my diaper”. Acknowledge everything, “Wow, you are so upset about the car seat. You really did not want to get in. Getting stuck in that seat is so not fun for you.” Let it be. That is the key to staying calm. “Stop kicking me, that hurts!” is not so bad, BTW, as long as you don’t sound like a victim. Remember, he is a small child and you are a big adult. Children like him need an especially confident leader.

  16. I just wanted to chip in and say that I’ve noticed for definite that “I won’t let you…” defuses the tension like nothing else with my 22-month old boy.

    When he feels thwarted or angry or frustrated he grabs my face and neck and scratches me. I take his hands firmly and say: “I won’t let you hurt me” and it’s like his whole body changes — the sense of relief is almost palpable.

  17. Hi Janet – I am thrilled that I have found your blog. My son has been very strong-willed ever since he was born. He is now 3 and as of 10 months ago his father and I have separated. I now live with my parents. We share Ryder equally so he is at my parents 3-4 nights a week. What I am struggling with with him is he yells at people. If my mom or dad comes home from work and says hi to him… he yells, “NO!” in a very snotty tone. Even if someone just looks at him…he will make a whiny grunting noise or say no again. It really bothers me. I feel like it must be very confusing and stressful for him to be living with all these people and not having me to himself but I can’t let him so disrespectfully yell at everyone. My second issue is when random people…family, friends or strangers say things to him, he will not respond. If they say hi…he won’t say anything and I will say, “can you say hi to them ryder?” and he says no. He is a very loving and funny and smart child and he can be such a swee child but he is also VERY difficult and hard to understand. Do you have any suggestions for me? thank you in advance!

    1. Hi Laura,
      It sounds like your little guy is hurting and this is no doubt due to this change in your life together. I would not ask too much of him right now regarding saying “hi” if he doesn’t feel like it, etc. Just give him a moment and if he doesn’t respond let it go. If you feel the need, you might say gently and non-judgmentally, “Ryder has a hard time saying Hi sometimes.”

      But I would respond differently to the rudeness with his grandparents. When he shouts at them, or is otherwise disrespectful I would take him aside or into another room, “I can’t let you speak that way to your grandpa… Let’s have a little talk”. Then, “Are you feeling upset? Are you angry? Do you need more time alone with me?”, etc. Come from a place of acceptance and compassion, not anger, and allow him a healthier way to express his feelings. Let him know you understand, but make it clear that the behavior is unacceptable.

      1. Thank you very much! I will give them a try. 🙂

        1. Oh, and you may have to insist that he goes with you to talk and he may even cry or have a tantrum… But that’s okay. Those are the painful feelings being released.

    2. Rather then say “can you say hi” just model it for him. He’ll get the cues. Or say “would you like to say hi?” Thing is we as adults are allowed to choose to say hi to someone we don’t know. Why should a child not be given that same choice.

      Language and communication are complex. It takes years for “social graces” to be understood. Model and model and give suggestions for alternatives. I was the kid my parents just expected me to go the “right thing” without giving alternatives. So it talking about how he felt and what could be alternative ways to practice it, and if he is ready, do a “do-over” and role play. Considering that what part of the pre-frontal cortex is there is not connected to the emotional areas and must grow and how we help them, helps builds those connectors.

  18. I love this advice. We do dip into time out territory and we know his daycare uses it.

    My problem is often in getting my eldest to do something simple (like going up the stairs) when I’m holding the baby.

    If I’m holding the baby or doing something that needs doing, I just can’t get him to do anything I ask. If he knows I can make him do something or do it for him, he will often do it himself. But if I can’t, I get defiance, which often ends up with anger and crying (sometimes on both sides).

    There doesn’t seem to be a natural consequence for that except my frustration. Any advice?

    1. I would love an answer to this too. We have a particular problem with leaving the house on some, but not all, work days. Without warning she refuses to cooperate but we have to catch the train. She wouldn’t get dressed today and was naked. She’s too big at four for me to force her, and I don’t want to. She finally agreed when she realized I was serious about putting her in the baby’s stroller nude!

      1. Di and Miranda, thanks for your questions. The little “blip” I see (for lack of a better word) in both of your situations is that the trust children need to feel in us when we are setting limits is getting undermined by your responses.
        Di, this happens when we use punishments like Time-Out…because the message there is “shame on you for doing what you did…I’m angry with you. I’m against you right now.”
        Miranda, this undermining of trust also happens when children believe we would allow them to do something shameful or embarrassing if they don’t cooperate…like going out naked. Trust gets broken. And trust is necessary for children to want to follow our directions.

        1. Deborah Pastor says:

          Janet, I love your advice but I disagree with your time-out assessment. If one of my kids hits the other one or does something hurtful in a playdate, I tell them calmly that they can’t play with other people when they hit. I give them a time out in their room; they can play with their toys (and of course, go to the bathroom when needed)and use the time to collect themselves. Usually, when I come back in 10 minutes, they are sound asleep. I think many misbehavior problems are due to lack of sleep or too much stimulation. When I come in later, we have a good talk. But I present the timeout not as a shameful punishment but as a way to calm down. Sometimes, my kids have suggested that Mom needs a timeout – and sometimes I take one!

  19. Janet, thank you for another valuable post that I will be sharing with my readers. I just wanted to highlight the “internalization” point you made in one of your replies above, it’s such a good one. To me, internalizing is what role-modeling is about. In this case, not only are the responses “I won’t let you” and “I don’t want you to” wonderfully clear and authentic as you pointed out, they role-model a comfort with boundary setting that children need to see in order to be able to do it for themselves. I like, “That’s not OK with me,” for the same reason. Easy to say, simply true, and something I would be delighted to hear my children say later on. Thank you again for sharing your wisdom with us all.

    1. Thank you, Sandy. Yes, I like “That’s not OK with me”, too, because it is very direct and honest.

      1. Oh! I am adding “That’s not OK with me” to my repertoire! Thanks for that suggestion.

  20. So needed the affirmation of this post right now. I use these phrases with our kids but I have been feeling worn out and almost defeated thinking that it isn’t working with our newly adopted children because we have had a lot of testing of limits and anger bc of boundaries we are setting. But your post hits home to let me know that the negative feelings the kids are experiencing are normal and I shouldn’t let that discourage me from continuing on a positive parenting path with our new children.

  21. I’ve really enjoyed clicking around your blog tonight, Janet, and have learned so much! I’m anxious to integrate some of what I’ve already learned here with my boys and will absolutely be back to learn more 🙂

  22. I found this post really helpful. I was only saying to my husband the other day how I find it really strange that I seem to slip into the third person when talking to my son and I have no idea why. Your post has made me even more determined to stop it. I really like the “I won’t let you do that” phrase. I think when I first read about positive parenting I got confused and thought it was permissive parenting rather than setting clear boundaries and gently but clearly enforcing them. Since we have started enforcing limits and using natural consequences it has made our lives more pleasant and our son seems to know what to expect.

  23. TracyLynne says:

    The most common need children have when they act out is our attention, beginning with a very specific kind of attention — a kind but firm acknowledgement of their behavior and of our expectation.

    My son 3.5 who is an only child has been struggling at daycare for a number of weeks and has been acting out alot which he does not do at home-the daycare told me that I need to find a new place for him because he is acting out too much. I know his acting out is because he is seeking attention and the teacher does not acknowledge this. The director told me that I should place him in homecare instead of a daycare setting because he has difficulty being around other children.(this I know is not true as he has alot of friends outside of his school and does not have this issue when he plays at home) I do not have alot of options since I live in a rural area. Would it be wrong to find another daycare or should I try homecare? I have found a daycare that I think would be more challenging and stimulating for him but I am also worried that he may have the same sort of discipline issues at the new place. What do you recommend?

    1. TracyLynne, I think the most important thing is to find out why your son is behaving this way at daycare, because he will likely continue this pattern elsewhere. How do they deal with his behavior? What is their limit-setting strategy? And, perhaps more importantly, how are you setting limits at home?

  24. I’ve just found this site recently and I had never heard of RIE before but I am finding this to make a lot of sense. Not to mention it’s really helping take off the pressure. I am currenlty not a mom (sadly) but I am trying and hoping that will be in my future soon. I grew up with very corpral, physical punishment. I made a vow a long time ago which I reaffirmed to myself when I began TTC that I would practice gentle discipline. I was often afraid of what that meant though and wondered how I would stay in control. I read everything I could find but it seemed like the tennents of “gentle discipline” were rather fuzzy on what that meant. A lot of it was just distraction which I knew never lasted long and wouldn’t solve the long term issue. This makes me feel like there is hope for my future children to be raised with love and confidence on both our parts. Thank you!

  25. Thank you for a wonderful post. I’m a full time mum of a 14 month old boy on maternity leave as a prep teacher (first year of school). The philosophical approach and practical strategies you have suggested resonate strongly with me and as a teacher, felt that I was able to respond calmly and positively when my students were “testing limits”.

    Recently, I’ve found it difficult to remain calm and in control of MY emotions when my son has been hitting me and other children. I’ve tried using a strong voice, redirecting, modellling “gentle hands”, praising when he is gentle but when he will either temporarily stop and gently stroke me or others a few times before hitting again, or just continue hitting.

    Can you please clarify what to do after I say “I won’t let you hurt me/other person”, and he keeps doing it?

    I think my son is trying to communicate that he is either bored, tired or wanting to play. I really want to respond to his “hitting” in a clear, calm and loving way. Thank you for the inspiration.

    1. Thank you, Mel. I think your son is letting you know that words aren’t enough — he needs you to follow through by gently, but firmly holding his hands or otherwise blocking him from hitting you. This is VERY common behavior and not meant to be defiant. He’s simply trying to find the boundary… He needs to know that you are fully capable of calmly stopping him when he does “out of control”, unsafe or annoying things. I’ve written a lot about this in other posts… Here’s one: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/09/biting-hitting-kicking-and-other-challenging-toddler-behavior/

      1. I have been using this approach for a couple of months now and my 4 year old still knocks his brother down, hits him, pushes him, etc. He has stopped hitting his Father and myself, but his little one year old brother has not benefited from this technique. I think it is because we can grab his hands due to the fact that we see it coming. The baby can’t and it seems to happen so often that we can’t always see it to stop it. Help!

        1. Kristi – how do you react to this behavior? To some extent, abusive behavior is expected between siblings and it is generally for the parent’s “benefit”. It is an attention-getter that pushes our buttons. So, staying calm is extremely challenging, but really important. When the hitting or pushing happens I would say matter-of-factly, but firmly, “Please don’t hurt your brother” and then address your little guy’s needs calmly and evenly (no drama), “Are you okay? Oh, that really upset you, didn’t it?” Then you might try to figure out what caused the hit. “Were you wanting your brother to move away from you? Please tell him, ‘Tyler, get away’ rather than hitting.”

          The mistakes parents often make are 1) getting upset, and 2) taking sides — making the older child into the villain and the little guy into the victim (which isn’t good for either child), rather than trying to understand both points of view, coaching and empowering them to figure out their squabbles. Siblings Without Rivalry is a book I can’t recommend highly enough!

  26. Janet I want to say that while I’ve only discovered your page and RIE recently I’ve been eating up the reading. It all just makes so much sense. I don’t have any kids yet myself (though I’ve been trying for a couple of years) but this semester I began student teaching and after a lot of reading I decided to put a little of what I had read into practice and see what happened. Today the teacher was sick and her assistant and recently switched rooms and she didn’t have a new one yet so I was a lot more involved than usual with helping keep order.

    Because so many of the kids had been sick we were washing all of the toys today so it was a little chaotic. One little girl kept sticking her hands in the sink and snatching the toys to suck on them no matter how often the teacher asked her not to do that. Finally, I decided to step in since the teacher was sick and clearly needing some help. I blocked her hands when she tried to stick another toy in her mouth, looked her in the eye and said as firmly and as gently as I could, “I will not let you stick this toy in your mouth. If you do it again, I will take it away.” She nodded that she understood but almost immediately stuck the toy in her mouth again. I took the toy from her and said, “I’m going to take this since you’re having trouble keeping it out of your mouth.” She picked up her other toy looked at it tentatively for a moment as if she wanted to put it in her mouth then handed it to me instead and went off to play with the other kids.

    Later, at lunch time, one of the kids kept putting his vegetables in his cup and them throw them all over the table. He wasn’t listening to the poor worn out teacher so finally I went and knelt beside him, held his hands to stop him from tipping the cup full of vegetables and told him firmly, “K[child’s name], I will not let you throw your food all over the table. If you continue to play I will assume that means you’re finished eating and I will take it away.” As soon as I left the table he threw the vegetables everywhere. I went back, blocked his hands before he could tip the plate as well, took it and said, “I’m going to take this now. Thank you for letting me know you’re done.” He looked surprised for a moment, stared at the empty table then said, “you’re welcome,” and sat quietly until everyone else was done eating.

    I was shocked at how well this worked even when trying it for only the first or second time!!! It was really gratifying, I can’t tell you how much. It was the first day I didn’t feel completely overwhelmed in that class (which is full of 2 and 3 year olds). But I had a question. Throughout the day I found issues with direct results easy enough to handle (like the two above examples or similar) but at nap time there was more trouble. There is one three year old boy who is always a lot of trouble throughout the day (he was the child throwing his food) and it was next to impossible to get him to lay down and not disturb the other children who were trying to nap. I started out telling him, “K, I see that you aren’t tired right now but the other children would like to sleep, so you may lay quietly on your cot and look at a book if you’d like.” He seemed to approve of this so I let him choose a book and he lay down and was quiet for a little while but then got distracted and was getting up, yelling and singing, pulling covers off the other children etc. I wasn’t sure at this point how to get him to quiet down. I tried telling him if he couldn’t lay down quietly I would have to move his cot but there aren’t really THAT many places in the class to move it to as it is a small classroom. What is a better way to deal with nap time difficulties in the future?

    1. Hi Nickelle! I’m glad these simple, direct and non-judgmental responses are working for you. They really do work! When you get more comfortable with this approach, try to remember to add acknowledgements whenever possible, i.e., “you are really enjoying sucking on the toys, but I can’t let you.”

      Regarding naptime…quite honestly I don’t know how teachers do this with a group of children…and it’s definitely not my specialty! But if possible, I recommend shadowing this little guy and calmly staying next to him, giving him gentle reminders in hopes that he will settle down. If he tries to get up, gently hold him still and say, “I know you want to get up, but now is time to relax and rest. I’ll stay here with you.” You will have to stay VERY calm for this to work. Sleep is about letting go, so if you can be in a calm “letting go” place, he has a far better chance of releasing his need to test, disrupt, etc. Good luck! 😉

      Please let me know how this goes, Nickelle!

      1. Janet, thank you for the advice. This was the first time I’ve really tried putting any of these concepts into practice after reading about RIE for the last few weeks but I will definitely try to remember to add acknowledgments in there as I get more used to and comfortable with using these concepts.

        As for nap time, I will give that a try when I go in next and see if that works. Maybe it’s just me and I’m imagining it but I feel like with this particular boy I can see him unraveling at the seams, like he’s just begging someone to tell him what to do. He seems like a strong willed little guy and it sort of looks like he is just allowed to run wild and do as he pleases. But earlier when I took control of his throwing his food he really seemed to respond well and be comforted and that was with just the little bit I was putting in to practice for the first time.

        It really makes me feel that the long term benefits would be so amazing. Thank you so much for your site and your suggestions. I feel like this will really help not just in my future endeavors as a parent but as a teacher.

        1. It’s a pleasure to connect with you here, Nickelle. Your assessment of this boy sounds very accurate. His behavior is the common result of unclear boundaries (or not enough boundaries) at home…and he is unraveling… Without gentle leaders children really do get lost. I have noted that “comforting” effect of boundaries you describe many times, especially with the children who need but aren’t getting them. Perhaps you could share these experiences with the parents (in a nonjudgmental manner): “I’ve been noticing that Johnny calms down and seems so comforted when I’m firm and direct with him.”

          Please keep me posted!

  27. The challenge I have with “I won’t let you” is that it requires my eyes on my children and my body within arms’ reach of theirs, for their every waking minute. And you know, sometimes I need to turn my back to get a glass of water, or use the bathroom, put laundry in the dryer, or focus on getting something into the oven, or off the stove. They seem to choose those moments to hit each other, grab away toys, or scramble up onto the table and dace around. Behaviors that to me just shout “set a stronger boundary!” I am not a mom who spends all day on the phone or computer. I am right with them, playing, reading, going to the park, you name it, all day every day, with a few exceptions, during which my husband is with them. Mind you, with my 18-month old, I would never do a time out, but my almost-three year old’s behavior was getting increasingly aggressive and he just seemed very frustrated and out of sorts, a lot of the time. We have had a couple of very calm time outs (by which I mean, I was not acting in anger, but was totally calm and matter of fact). They were an unmitigated success, which actually surprised the heck out of me. Trying to set a limit on behavior with “I won’t let you”, for certain things, just was not working for either of us. I felt extremely frustrated, and I thing that energy really came across. Maybe what matters most is to refine your own set of limits and disciplinary options, rather than to try to mold yourself to any specific philosophy? All I know is, previous to the timeout epiphany, I felt I unempowered going into each day. Despite being an intelligent person, and understanding the logic of the no-timeouts method, in practice I would get into situations too often where I would just freeze, and all I could think of we’re all the no-nos. don’t raise my voice, don’t punish in any way, don’t do a time out, don’t show any emotion, and on and on. I felt a horrible sense of failure going into and out of each day. For whatever reason, I was able to use a time out very calmly and unemotionally. I no longer felt like I was futilely trying to reason with a toddler (read: at his mercy). Instead I felt empowered and in charge. And my son was, honestly, *happy*. When the timer went off after 2 minutes, he came bounding gleefully out of his room. Compare this to full-body flinging tantrums that would go on for 20 minutes solid… Anyway, this all just shifted for us a week ago, so it’s new. We have had a whopping 3 time outs total, and fewer meltdowns overall. Maybe it has more to do with the sense of empowerment I feel now its early to say for sure. All I know is, allowing myself to try out a method I thought I would never, ever use was a huge learning experience and so, so liberating. Just a different perspective fwiw. Maybe “I won’t let you” is that empowering, liberating, clarity-granting tool for some moms. I certainly use it a lot and with success. But for me, it wasn’t quite enough.

    1. Giulia, I am so glad you are finding your way and I would never question your choices. Your confidence is the key. My sense it that your boy appreciated you following through calmly with a boundary. This often brings welcome relief.

      I realize that “I won’t let you” doesn’t work when we are not able to physically stop something from occuring. Then I might say, “I don’t want you to…” Personally, I would not get wound up by the boys fighting, because they do need to work out their relationship. Most siblings fight. Magda Gerber used to say, “whenever there are two children in a family, there is abuse.” I highly recommend the book “Siblings Without Rivalry”, if you haven’t already read it.

      I love your comment about “freezing” because that is the exact problem I meant to address with this post… When we get caught up second-guessing ourselves and not acting confidently and honestly in the moment, our children feel a lack of the leadership they need and then usually continue to test.

  28. Janet, this is so to the point! You’ve reminded me of where I tend to slip up:
    “don’t get upset or discouraged when your child has an emotional reaction to your limits.” Sometimes, I’m not in a position of emotional strength, so I get unnerved by my son’s screaming. I don’t back down from the limit, but it can make it hard to listen, reinforce, and connect with calm and empathy. Parenting is emotional work but I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

    1. Sylvia, thanks for this feedback. I recently worked with a parent on this topic, so it’s fresh in my mind. You are getting emotionally “tired” because you are allowing yourself to go to an “uh-oh” place. Try to stop yourself before you go there. A healthy child will disagree with our limits! And the stronger the reaction, the stronger the child. This is positive! Your son’s feelings are NOT your responsibilty. Your only responsibility is to accept and acknowledge them. So, try to feel good about the emotional reactions…have a “bring it on” attitude to these necessary storms and they will pass quickly.

  29. Oh! I wish I had seen this years ago. With all of the articles I’ve read on ‘yes’ parenting, and validation, and gentle everything, I’ve felt helpless about setting boundaries… I’ve gotten clearer about them as time had gone on, but it still feels messy… Feeling powerless about setting boundaries has led me to lose my temper on so many occasions. Ugh… 🙁

  30. I like the way this kind of breaks down the process of the child’s behavior. For me, it was so much easier to be patient when I knew what a child needed by his behavior. I’ve been a primary Montessori teacher for several years now, and I love that RIE and Montessori complement each other so well!

    While I agree with each point, as a teacher in a childcare setting, I see the value in separating my own feelings from the situation, and still being able to connect with the child. Mostly because as one person caring for 20+ children, it’s impossible to remain calm and be connected to each situation without going insane. There is a certain amount of distance that is required for the child to autonomously make the decision not to hit. Therefore, it worked well to talk about hitting as a rule: “It is not OK to hit our friends. It hurts them.” And we would go on to talk about whether people want to play with someone when they hit (totally different from not being a friend, or not wanting to be near someone – we made that distinction as well). It made it less personal when the child hit again. It was more about the safety rule, and how the friends felt when they got hit. If I said, “I won’t let you hit your friends,” I would look unreliable to all the children when he hit again.

    Of course, at home, there are fewer opportunities for positive peer pressure, and the parents’ connection to the child and the situation is way more valuable and helpful. I hope, when I have children, that I will be able to remember and employ all the wonderful suggestions and information you post!

    1. Janell, thanks so much for your helpful input. Makes perfect sense!

  31. Great article, thanks! I need to use “I will not let you…” With my daughter, I’ll definitely try it. She just turned six. The past year has had quite a lot of ups and downs as I was pregnant and my second daughter is now 7 months old. My 6 year old has showed more defiance since her sister was born (she shows nothing but love to her sister, though, except for being unintentionally rough sometimes). We have had to step up our game and give consequences such as no TV, no bedtime stories, etc. if she doesn’t follow instructions. I hate giving them (especially about bedtime stories) but sometimes have no choice. She will say things like “what will happen if I don’t get ready for my shower?” Or whatever the direction is. I tell her that she has to and she repeats “but what if I don’t?”. As if she’s working out whether it’s worth it to receive the consequence. I also read your article about siblings and I think perhaps I haven’t given her enough space to work out any negative feelings about having a sister. For the first several months she was picking battles over her food every day. I understood that it was because of our new family situation, but I didn’t talk to her about it much.

  32. I really loved this post Janet and am a big fan of your teachings. Thanks for being so passionate and committed to helping us parent better. The world is a better place with you in it 🙂

    1. Awww, I’m going to go to bed happy now, Lynne… Thanks so much!

  33. Janet- this is good, as usual. I have had some big insights with the book “Bringing up Bebe” (French parenting). I am a teacher, and generally have figured out how to set limits with children. I am generally successful. The problem I have is in giving support to parents. The book describes well the American tendancy to feel reluctant to or unable to set limits and follow through, from a different point of view. It is facinating to read the cultural assumptions and how different they are, and how pervasive they are. It is hard to describe an attitude or tone of voice in a web post or conversation, and the book describes this well. It is not a parenting book, it is a memoir of her life as an American parenting in Paris, and is witty and wise, but there are great, helpful insights in it, for me. (French children also eat hugely varied and healthful foods and enjoy them…:)

    1. Thanks, Mary! Yes, I have certainly noticed how difficult it is to convey respectful limit setting through words alone. Before I began blogging, I had always demonstrated these concepts in person, which is SO much easier. And the second easiest way is by phone, which is why I decided to begin offering my consulting service to online readers: https://www.janetlansbury.com/call-me/

      And thanks for mentioning “Bringing up Bebe”. I still haven’t read it, but I hear that many aspects of it are enlightening.

  34. Wow, I have soooooooooo needed this! Am reaching the point of wondering if I am doing the right thing in choosing to parent our little one gently as we now hardly go to nay groups as she pushes, scratches faces and once bit another boy 🙁 I have been mortified- at home with me she is 90% wonderful and I can enjoy and celebrate time with her- she tends to lash out at her dad sometimes, we say things like Ouch people are not for hurting but people understandably do not want to spend time with us as you cannot spot the change in emotion- – I have tried puppet play, saying use your words and invested in some emotion books for children but 6 months on it is the same- – I wonder if this is the key, my exasperation? She is 2 and a bit and I understand the bit where if she doesn’t feel good she won’t act well but I am struggling!!!!!!!! I just wonder as I never seem to get there at the time to block the hit would ‘I won’t let you’ still work? I tend to pay attention to the ‘victim’ and apologise and say I wonder how we could help ‘x’ feel better, she now tends to wander off whilst I do this 🙁 Sorry to write so much I feel on the brink of understanding this a bit more ………….. The one time she bit someone I said how worried I was other children wouldn’t wan to be around us ad we’d have to go home, she said ‘good too busy’ so also am I letting her down by wanting to do a few groups a week- I find it very isolating on my own at the mo, Thanks in advance

    1. Hi Lucy! “A few groups a week” is a lot for most two-year-old’s. She may be indicating through her behavior that this is too stressful for her. And when you are in these groups, it’s very important to stay close and CALMLY shadow your daughter while she is exhibiting these unsafe behaviors.

      Yes, very likely a key point > “I wonder if this is the key, my exasperation?” Also, the puppets, mini-lectures, etc., are turning these behaviors into a major event, rather than just addressing them as minor impulses that she needs you to be fully capable of handling calmly.

      Remember, she is just a tiny girl and you are much bigger. When you are intimidated, thrown, exasperated by her behavior, she does not feel safe. Try to project EASE when you are helping her with this behavior. It is normal for children to try these things out to see what will happen…and what they want and need is a calm leader who can adeptly contain their behavior, while addressing the feelings and desires behind the behavior. For example, “I won’t let you hit” (while stopping her) and then, “Were you uncomfortable when Billy came so close to you?”

  35. I appreciate that to empathize is good….but I don’t think empathy is necessarily interpreting your child’s behavior. “You wanted my attention while I was talking to grandma so you threw the food…” You are making an assumption about your child’s behavior. And though likely true, you are not a mind reader and your child doesn’t need to think you are. Its actually an aggressive act to jump into somebody’s head like that. Can you imagine your partner constantly explaining your own behavior to you? I would crack him over the head. Motivations are not anybody’s business, even parents. Behavior is. You can speculate….”if you want my attention you can say my name” “if you were angry about not getting a cracker then tell me, I AM ANGRY.” But don’t assume you know more about your child’s interior workings than she does. Maybe you do…maybe you don’t. But do or don’t its hostile….

    1. Wayne, thank you for this feedback, your point is well taken. I totally agree with you! I believe very strongly in not assuming emotions (“That made you angry…” Or, “The dog scared you…”), and assuming motivations can be just as inaccurate and disrespectful. When in doubt, it’s always safest to ask or suggest rather than assume, i.e., “Were you trying to get my attention?” Or, “It seemed you wanted my attention…”

      I do think it’s extremely important to convey to children that we understand their perspective…and by doing so, assure them there are no wrong desires, only wrong actions. We’re saying no, but we’re on your side.

      I apologize for my less than ideal example.

  36. Wow, makes so much sense and so simple…. Can’t wait to read more!

  37. OK – so I’m trying to do gentle disciplining, but my daughter can be incredibly challenging sometimes. To start, when she is doing something I don’t like she will purposely refuse to look me in the eye. I could be in the most delightful mood, but when she is doing something she knows I don’t want her to do she will avoid looking at me. Here are some examples of her behavior.

    3 year old daughter jumps on one year old brother seemingly unprovoked and “hugs” him tightly around the neck from behind. I pull them apart. I make sure son is OK. I pull daughter aside and try to look her in the eye and say, “I will not let you hold your brother that way. That is not a safe hug. You may hug him around the belly, but you must let him go if he doesn’t want to be hugged. Right now he doesn’t seem to want to be hugged. Would you like to give me a hug instead?” Unfortunately, she will not look me in the eye and trying to force her to look me in the eye seems unnecessarily aggressive. Within 15-20 minutes she will often try it again.

    The second scenario goes like this: Daughter dumps the water she was drinking on the ground and throws in her dinosaurs proclaiming that they are taking a bath. I say, “Daughter, I don’t want you to dump your water on the floor. If you want to play with water, I can fill up the sink for you to play with. All you have to do is ask me. Let’s clean this up together.” I give her a towel and I get down on the floor with her to clean it up. We start drying the floor together and then she starts wringing out the towel in another spot on the floor. I again try to get her to look me in the eye to let her know that dumping water on the floor is unacceptable and she refuses. We then clean up the new wet spot and she again wrings out the towel in another spot. I give up and tell her she has to go play with something else like legos and I finish cleaning up the mess.

    Any suggestions?

    1. Kate – my suggestion is to 1) recognize that this is typical, impulsive sibling behavior; and 2) say much less. This is too much focus and lecturing: “ I will not let you hold your brother that way. That is not a safe hug. You may hug him around the belly, but you must let him go if he doesn’t want to be hugged. Right now he doesn’t seem to want to be hugged. Would you like to give me a hug instead?”

      Your daughter may be looking away because she feels your disapproval, when what she needs is to know is that you understand her impulses and will prevent her from following through with them. If you get there too late or are unable to prevent the action, just give a brief reminder: “I don’t want you to hug his neck, that isn’t safe,” and then completely let it go. At another time mention to her, “I know how hard it can be to have a little brother… I imagine he makes you angry sometimes. I always want to know want to know what you’re feeling.” Both children need to know we are always on their “side” and that we’re coming from a helpful place, regardless of their behavior.

      Also, it seems you are misunderstanding your daughter’s behavior. I don’t believe that is strangling her brother because she wants to hug…and she is not dumping water because she wants to play with water. She is doing these things to express her feelings (anger, rage, jealousy, etc.) and also to gauge your response… She knows full well that this is unacceptable behavior, so your responses are only reminding her that she’s being “bad”…and the danger there is that children can begin to identify as the “bad, disappointing one”.

      So, the best way to help her stop doing these things is to understand, and calmly stop her without a lecture or emotional reaction. It will be easier for her to make eye contact with you when you see her with more patience and acceptance. Matter-of-factly say, “I don’t want you to dump the water. Can you help me clean it up?” Keep it light so she can choose to help while still “saving face.” Then, let it go, forgive immediately and believe in your daughter, so she will be able to garner your attention in more positive ways.

  38. Such a smart post (as always). We seem to get into a series of bad days and keep riding the train of just trying to make it through the day until it de-rails and everyone is left feeling completely exasperated and frustrated and at a loss as to what to do. They we sit down, re-think everything and get back on track. I just wish that we would STAY on track. It’s SO difficult to re-train everyone’s brain, well, the adults at least. Seems the children are quicker to adapt to new techniques than we are! Anyways, thanks for the excellent post…exactly the reminders and tips we need especially with going back to school.

  39. Paula Musso says:

    Thank you for clearing this up. I was wondering when, one of the many peaceful parenting blogs that I subscribe to, was going to give this info.
    God bless:)

  40. Hi, I have and incredibly smart and sweet almost 3 yo girl who is also strong-willed. And she started to show a weird behavior – when she meets a kid, she has to have this kid’s toy (she will use a force if she has to), or do exactly what this kid does and get in his/her personal space. Words like “I know you want to play with this kid, but he doesn’t want it so lets find a different game” is being absolutely ignored. How can I teach her to respect other people feelings? Thanks!

  41. So glad I found this! I have attempting to transition to peaceful parenting for a few months and it has been ROUGH. I am a new step mom to soon to be 2&3 yr olds . its a long and slightly complicated story but their mom is in and out of the picture. The youngest isn’t phased much because she considers me her mom but the oldest is deeply affected and has the most behavioral issues. I want to transition but find myself reverting often. It seems the peaceful tactics make it worse and completely out if control especially when her mom pops up. (Not bashing her mom we have a good relationship. she is planning on moving closer when she can) i want to try again though! I know a peaceful environment will be better to help her deal with her complex emotions. Any advice for, new transitioners?

  42. I just found your post tonight. I am wondering, is this method mostly aimed at young, toddler aged children? My 7yr old has been lying & stealing. I would love to stop the behavior, however this is happening at school. If I say “I won’t let you”, he is smart enough to know that I’m not there to actually stop him. I would love to set fewer limits on my children & see amazing results.

    1. Heather – how have you been responding to this behavior? Children usually lie because they are afraid to tell the truth…so I would consider why he might be afraid and not feel safe to have conflicts with you at home.

  43. I am new to RIE parenting. I see the value in it both for kids and parents and we are using this approach with our 5 year old daughter. What is the best way to react to very rude language from her and her constantly interrupting us when we try to talk with her. For everything else we are all enjoying the peace respectful parenting is giving us as I know my daughter is sensitive to angry voices and it always would break my heart to spank or put her in a time-out. We are unsure about how to react to her rudeness though. We have been careful to watch how we ourselves speak to her but we are not sure how to react to and address her talking back.

  44. Great article. I feel like I knew this but this helps make the idea more concrete and easier to implement.

    But I have a question! What do you do when your child is super emotional and has meltdowns all the time? Like just flipping out over things for no apparent reason. I don’t feel he is testing us, and he’s clearly not in control of his emotions, but his behavior is not what we want. Setting limits at times like this makes him sink deeper into his emotional abyss. He’ll just shut down. Feels like the opposite of connecting.

    1. Hi Lisa! “Super emotional” children need to express their super-intense emotions. The reasons children “flip out” are often not apparent to us, but these outbursts are never random, accidental or wrong. They happen because there are feelings that desperately NEED to be released. Can you please explain “he’s clearly not in control of his emotions, but his behavior is not what we want”?

  45. This was a very timely article for me. We just had an issue with our daughter about an hour ago. I am a big user of the WE thing and I wish I could find a better way. I think using “I won’t let you do that.” will help me to connect and be clear on boundaries. Thank you so much for posting this!

  46. Mia Jacqueline says:

    My 2.5 yr old son often laughs after I tell him I don’t want you to… Especially after squashing his baby sister, which he continues to do. It really bothers me and makes my husband want to discipline him or take his toys away .. Any advice?

  47. Agnieszka says:

    I don’t have much problem NOT letting my daughter (now 4.5yo) do something. I do exactly what you recommend and it works quite well. But I have an enormous problem when I need her to do something… The more I need it, the bigger is her resistence. As if any pressure would make her sabotage my concept. E.g. she won’t get dressed so that we could go out, she won’t go with me to do shopping (when I don’t have anyone to stay with her at the very moment), etc. I feel frustrated when I can’t make plans, I can’t be anywhere in time, I can’t be sure if we do anything provided it needs her to cooperate. I’m wondering what’s wrong, what makes her be so opposed to my plans, and how – without using force, punishments etc. – to make our family life easier.

  48. I’ve loved reading your articles, Janet! We’ve been trying to put these principles into practice and are definitely in the learning process. I have a question. When you are setting limits and saying, “I won’t let you” or “I don’t want you to” and the child immediately repeats the behavior, do you just keep repeating those phrases and blocking that behavior or give a natural consequence instead? For example, during mealtime, my 17-mo daughter always tries to remove her bib. When we see her going for it, we will say “I won’t let you take your bib off” sometimes adding “It keeps you clean.” We will block her hands from taking her bib off. But then a few seconds later, she tries again. Do we just keep saying, “I won’t let you take your bib off” and blocking her hands? We’ve tried doing that in clear, firm tones and we aren’t flustered, but the behavior doesn’t stop for the entire meal. Is there a point where we should impose a natural consequence like, if you take your bib off, you’re finished eating?

  49. Danielle Carr says:

    How can I get my 20 month old to not scream, hit others, biting his hands, and hitting himself?

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