Parents Struggling With Boundaries – 3 Common Reasons

One of the most disappointing things I hear from parents I consult with is that they aren’t enjoying parenting, especially when it comes to setting limits, which has become a source of confusion and often guilt. What’s most concerning to them is that they sense their children aren’t happy either. It’s usually because they’re both confused about boundaries.

These are parents who will never need to worry about being overly strict – it simply isn’t in their constitution. Like me years ago, they are drawn to Magda Gerber’s parenting approach and her recommendations to respect babies as whole people, trust their intrinsically motivated development and encourage their self-directed free play.

Trust, empathy and unconditional love seem to come naturally for parents like us. Boundaries, not so much.

It can be easy for us to become so focused on giving our children trust and freedom that we overlook their even more crucial need to feel securely rooted. Too much freedom actually makes our children feel the opposite of free, and they often express their discomfort through limit-pushing behavior.

To experience true freedom and happiness, kids need gentle leaders who are clear about house rules and expectations. They need a healthy balance between freedom and boundaries. In my work with parents over the last twenty years (and as a parent myself), I’ve noted some of the most common reasons many of us struggle to find this balance:

  1. We’d prefer not to upset our children (who wouldn’t?)

Discomfort with our children’s strong emotions is the number one reason parents struggle to provide clear boundaries and can cause us to question and doubt every decision we might make:

Hmmm, I guess I could carry my five-year-old down the street after all, even though my back is aching.

Why not just give him back the blue cup? So what if he screamed, “No, I want green!” and then changed his mind again? Sure, I’m annoyed, but it would be so easy to try one more time to please him.

Since I’m really in no hurry, I might as well wait another fifteen minutes for her to decide she’s ready get into her car seat.

Our children’s age-appropriate resistance and intensely emotional reactions to our boundaries can make us feel guilty and worried, wear us out, ruin our whole day. For limit-setting to work and for parents to enjoy (read: survive) the toddler years, getting comfortable with this basic dynamic is essential:

We confidently establish a boundary. Our child expresses displeasure (which can include frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger, rage). We stay anchored during this storm, patiently accepting and acknowledging our child’s displeasure.

Children often push for our boundaries because they know intuitively that they need the safety of our calm, confident responses, and also to release uncomfortable feelings simmering inside them. Our acceptance of these feelings eases the need to test and is one of the most profound ways we can express our love. It gets a little easier for us with practice.

  1. Confusing advice

Lately I’ve been disappointed by advice I’m reading from non-punitive parenting experts, especially when I notice how misleading, confusing and discouraging these suggestions are for the parents reaching out to me:

Only set limits with your children for safety reasons

This is a formula for insecure children and miserable parents. What about emotional safety and peace of mind – the relief of knowing that we’re not expected to call all the shots when we’re only 2 years old? And does this mean parents don’t have rights to their personal boundaries and self-care? What’s that line from “The Elephant Man?”: “I am not an animal!”

Don’t set limits that might feel like punishments to your children

This one could get us questioning ourselves all day long because it plays right into our doubts and fears about upsetting our children. As respectful parents courageously committed to non-punitive discipline, we need to grant ourselves permission to make the decisions we deem best for us and our children.

Yes, it’s okay to move to another room if our child won’t stop screaming at us, even if they find that upsetting. Yes, it’s okay to say honestly, “We won’t be able to leave for the park until you help me pick these toys”, or “Please come brush your teeth now, so we’ll have time for an extra book”, or “I see you want to play with the folded laundry, but I don’t want it unfolded on the floor, so I’m going to pick this basket up. Here’s an empty one you can use.”

If we decide later that a decision we’ve made is unfair or unnecessary, we can always apologize and change our minds. But to foster a sense of security for our children we must make these decisions from a platform of strength rather than hesitancy. To be gentle leaders with self-confident children, we must first trust ouselves.

When children push limits, make them laugh.

I’m a silly person and there’s nothing I love more than sharing my silliness with children, but I believe it is asking way too much to suggest we can take the annoyance (or worse) we might feel when children push our limits and try to turn that into games and laughter. Yet this is exactly what some gentle, non-punitive parenting experts advise us to try first, even in response to our kids’ aggressive behaviors like hitting and biting. I see so many problems with this advice I don’t know where to begin.

It isn’t beneficial to us or our children to pretend to feel silly and perky when we are actually annoyed or angry. Shouldn’t we be modeling authenticity? And doesn’t this teach children that their negative feelings are not okay? They should laugh when they’re angry?

What if our children’s behavior angers or enrages us? Is this a healthy time to be rough-housing, tickling, blowing raspberries on our kids? Not in my experience.

Ironically, these are the experts who also purportedly advocate for allowing children to express their strong feelings, but rather than help normalize this challenging experience for parents, their advice is essentially saying, “Only let your children cry as a last resort, do a song and dance first and get ‘em laughing if you can.”

  1. We are afraid our limits might crush our child’s free spirit

Truly, this works exactly the other way around. Over the years in my classes, I’ve worked with many parents who have had difficulties setting limits. When they eventually figure this out and make changes, the transformation in their children’s behavior and demeanor is dramatic. Formerly clingy and demanding children are suddenly able to stop trying to control every situation with parents or peers. They are able to focus on play, socialize with their peers, participate in snack time, loosen up enough to laugh and express joy. This is freedom.

And there’s much more help on the way for you in my No Bad Kids Master Course! Discover what it’s all about here: Everything you need to be an authentically confident loving leader for your kids 💜 You’ve got this!

Other recommended resources:

Positive Child Guidance: A Look At Discipline vs. Punishment by Amanda Morgan, Not Just Cute

The Secret To Turning A Toddler’s “No!” Into A “Yes!” and Let’s Talk by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby

How To Raise Decent Children Without Spankings Or Time-Outs by Emily Plank, Abundant Life Children

I Stuggle To Balance Boundaries And Freedom and The Most Valuable Parenting Phrase After “I Love You” by Suchada Eickemeyer, Mama Eve

Entitlement And The Pursuit Of Happiness by Rick Ackerly, The Genius In Children

The wonderful handbook 1, 2, 3, The Toddler Years by Irene Van der Zande


(Photo by Nevil Zaveri on Flickr)


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

  1. Thanks for this. I find your articles to always be thoughtfully written. What I often struggle with is the how. How do I set the limit if it’s not something that can be removed or avoided, how do I stop an unwanted behaviour? I completely get the theory, but have a hard time putting it into practice at times. For example, my daughter (2.5) often runs and hides under the dining room table when it’s time to leave. I calmly ask her to please come out so we can go to school. There is no choice or resulting consequence, so I am left with seemingly no options to get her out in a respectful way if time is a concern. Any thoughts on the how? I love the laundry example (can be removed and another choice offered) and many other simplified examples, but sometimes there isn’t always a choice or a quick fix like removing the toys that are being thrown about. Finally, in the case of the blue/green cup example, are you suggesting we should stick with the original cup color the child choose despite the outcome or the fact that it’s a simple thing to say yes to in a day full of struggles (at times)? Is it best to always be this rigid? Will it help if I start looking for more opportunities to say no?

    1. I´m not sure about the blue/green cup, but my daughter also runs when it´s time for bath. What I do (and it works most of the times with no struggle at all) is asking her if she´ll like to walk to the bathroom or if she´ll like me to carry her? Sometimes she´ll walk other times she´ll start running so I chase her, and when I pick her up she´ll start laughing, so I´m guessing she sees the “carry option” as a chasing game. Other times when she really doesn´t want a bath she´ll cry and have a melt down when I pick her up, I acknowledge her feeling (which it usually calms her) and the proceed to the bathroom. Either way I try to remain in my calm bubble 🙂

    2. Thanks, Erin. I think it will help if you acknowledge what she’s doing rather than asking, “Will you please come out?”, which can come off as tentative and bit desperate no matter how calmly we say it. I would acknowledge lightly, “Hmmm… you are in a hiding mood. You don’t feel like going to school right now…” Then I might get down to her level, make eye contact, and say, “Hello, hiding girl. Can you come out of hiding now, or do you need a helping hand?” If you feel totally unthreatened and confident that this will work, it likely will. She may need to you skootch her out gently…which might possibly make her cry…that’s how you’ll know that she has some feelings she needs to release. And you’ll acknowledge, “You didn’t like that at all. You wanted to stay in your cozy hiding place.” I’ve noticed that this honest way of connecting seems to feel positive and loving to our children, even if they cry about it.

      Regarding the cups, this would of course be up to you in that moment, but generally, if a toddler keeps changing her mind, I would kindly make the decision for her, again acknowledging her desire, “oh, now you want blue again, but we’re going to stick with green. It’s so hard to decide sometimes, isn’t it?” If she explodes over this, I would feel certain that she needed to explode.

      When we are tentative in these situations, and our objective is to keep the peace, we end up creating more of them… because we are not demonstrating our competence as leaders and also allowing our children to release their feelings. If we face and accept this dynamic, we build confidence…for both of us.

      1. One follow-up question: Is this language – this way of speaking – detailed in MG’s Book? (the orange and white one)

        I teach music part-time – and have no children at home; I’d love to be able to just rehearse these and practice the language so that I can actually and simply just get the language down. Perhaps even practice on situations I observe in daily life between parents and children (practice silently, of course!). Of course, the language is here in your book as well.

        What would you suggest?

        Gosh, Janet, I’m wondering if I might even use this language on myself! How many feelings do we bury, whether parenting-related or not? Recognize – accept – relax is how I heard a Buddhist teacher once describe it. MG’s philosophy is very sensible and logical (and even Buddhist!).

        Would love to hear your suggestions.

    3. Give reasonable choices that still end up with the same results: would you like to open the front door yourself, or would you like me to open it. Either way the front door will be opened, but you are respecting the child by including her in the decision. Or under the table: I see you would like to be under the table, that’s fine, but remember we have to leave in 5 min. (use the five min. warning everywhere-at the park, on a play date, etc and ACTUALLY leave in 5 min no matter what, then you can use it when she needs five more min. to herself, but at the end expect her to come out-if she does not: Would you like to come out on your own or would you like me to get you? Children deserve respect and should be included, but they should never be expected to make family decisions as this is stressful to a child: in other words I’m sorry they dont like whats for dinner, perhaps they would like to help prepare it and make one vegetable choice to go with it. Children should be able to focus on being a child, not have to make adult decision. So sometimes what seems like you being authoritarian is really helpful to your child: think about when you ask your husband to just make a decision on his own and you will do it because you are too stressed to try to figure it out yourself! Now take a 2.5 year olds wisdom into account and imagine how hard it really must be to expect them to know what they want and what is good for them all day long!

      1. In response to Erin can you leave a little something (a toy she hasn’t seen in awhile) in her carseat as a surprise and build up some excitement around that?

    4. Try giving her the choice. “Ok. It’s time to leave. Do you want to go on your own feet or mommy’s feet?” If she doesn’t choose then you tell her you’ll choose for her and pick her up and take her to the car. In my experience they will most likely make the choice to come on their own. It has worked for me! Good luck!!

  2. I think people who say “When children push limits, make them laugh.” didn’t interpret what the author really meant. From what I understood, they meant to use play to heal trauma or to bond with children, or to boost their self esteem. I never understood you should pretend to laugh when you don’t feel like it..

    1. Yes, exactly. This was taken way out of context. It really misrepresents limit setting and learning through playfulness while getting kids to giggle which cycle down their anxiety from the traumas that are underlying their undesired behaviors. When the anxiety is decreased through play they can then learn on a shame free environment. The limit and expectation that they use gentle hands never goes away just because you’ve taken a ‘silly’ approach to reminding them of the limit during their current episode of dysregulation. They won’t build healthy neural pathways to the prefrontal cortex or learning anything while feeling a sense of disconnection and shame. In kids with trauma histories or attachment issues, this authentic disconnection may very well help to cement the negative behaviors. Unfortunately, MG did not have access to the neuroimaging we have today. We know more now and it’s a disservice not to evolve with the knowledge. I’m unsure of why Janet’s version of RIE would be so quick to discredit these methods.

      1. Elizabeth says:

        I may not be well read enough on this, but I appreciated what Janet said here. I get the sense that she is affirming playfulness and silliness… I didn’t read it as discrediting this good research on the effect of playfulness on children’s anxiety or dysregulation.
        I read it as recognising something important for the *parent* involved – namely that if there’s a limit-testing/aggressive behaviour that’s annoying or triggering us, we may not be able to respond with playfulness – and actually that’s ok, because we want to model authenticity and acceptance of emotions etc. I personally appreciate that because, even though i often try to meet my children’s limit-testing and “difficult” behaviours with playfulness where it feels appropriate (but at least with a cheerful confidence), there are times I just can’t. I’m worn out, triggered, annoyed… and I can continue to be a calm presence as I hold the line for my little ones, but I can’t be playful. I just can’t. I’ve tried. Maybe some can muster it up, but I can’t – and I appreciate the “permission” and reality of this. There is a place for accepting our own emotions too (while choosing our behaviour and words carefully) as parents… And sometimes if playfulness is suggested as the dominant or primary strategy, it does communicate that we can’t let them cry.
        (I try to soothe and be present and not cause upsets unnecessarily or lightly… But to me it feels like Janet offers something coherent and realistic ).
        If that makes sense.
        But I’m no expert 🙂 on Janet, or on the advice she’s quoting.

  3. Great post.

    Our parenting tends to be in line with most aspects of RIE, and my 2.5-year-old responds to it well in general. He still sometimes gets angry or frustrated, but responding in a confident, clear way seems to work wonders.

    The one issue we still have relates to walking to and from his classroom at school. They encourage kids to walk to be more independent. Although my son is generally quite happy to take care of himself and be independent (e.g., playing on his own, pouring his own milk, pulling down his pants to go potty), there’s something about walking to or from his classroom that seems to make him anxious. He asks politely for up, and if I note that he wants up but that this is a walking zone, let’s walk together to point X, he sometimes starts to get upset.

    “I don’t want to walk. I don’t like all the big people around walking near me.”

    He will definitely walk sometimes on his own. Other times, he’s just not interested. I’ve pushed him on it a couple of times after school (“You want me to carry you, but we have too much to carry, so let’s walk together holding hands”), and most times, he has an absolute meltdown. (And my son rarely has meltdowns.)

    My perspective on it has been that as long as we don’t have too much to carry, I will encourage him to walk on his own, finding little goals for things to walk to. But if he doesn’t feel like it, I’d rather him be carried to the stairs and then walk into the classroom happily than walk the whole way in anxiety and upset going into the classroom because he’s been walking with lots of big people around.

    I imagine others may disagree with where the boundary should be here, and I welcome discussion on this.

    1. I have no disagreement, sounds like you’re being quite reasonable and handling the situation great.

    2. Thank you, Michelle. I would totally trust your son to request what he needs in this situation. Transitions, especially when they include separations from parents, are a big deal for toddlers. His confidence sounds wonderful! My take is that he needs this connection time with you before he goes to school…and I wouldn’t second guess him…but you know him best, of course.

      1. Thank you for your feedback. I realized after I posted that I occasionally have felt some guilt about carrying my son, given the “walking zone” signs and how many other toddlers are walking in without a fuss. But in the end, you all are right – we know our kids best. We can gently encourage them to become more independent, but I see no reason to force it.

        1. Michelle,

          As Janet says, increasing connection before school can make a huge difference, so definitely try that! I have another suggestion that fits with gentle encouragement if you would like to try it in addition to more pre-school connection time.

          Children’s reasons are great starting points. Since he said, “I don’t like all the big people around walking near me,” you could start there and show respect by taking him at his word. To do this, kneel down to his level, look around with him, and say things like, “They do look really big from here! Must be something we can do so you have enough space to walk. Show me how much space will work.”

          If it’s a reasonable space, you can offer to hold that space for him while he walks, and ask if it is still enough as you walk along. That way when you get to the classroom you will be able to point out, “You knew how much space you needed,” which will help build his trust in self.

          Each day you can check again, “How much space do you need today?” It could be a good way to guage his confidence as well as mark his progress, because as he overcomes his fear, the space he needs will get smaller.

          When children are validated and their needs for connection and power are met, their confidence grows and they overcome fears very quickly. So if he takes this challenge at all, it could take less than a week for him to master it, but be patient, follow his lead, and always check that what you are offering is OK with you, as Janet discussed above.

          On the other hand, if he says he says only a clear hallway with nobody in it will work, that tells you it’s really not about people “near” him. It’s probably more about connection with you as Janet suggested.

          In that case you could still say, “You wish it was an empty hallway, then you could walk! And it’s full of big people. Hmmm. Must be something we can do.” He will probably say, “Pick me up,” but if you don’t want to do that, you can offer to bend over to keep your face closer to him while you walk together (if that’s OK with you).

          As you navigate the hallway from his perspective, you can continue to comment on how tall that person is, or how that one’s a little shorter, but still pretty tall, so he knows you understand his fear. Have him direct you to the class and around groups of people if they look unnerving, so that at the classroom you can say, “You found a way to get us here through all those big people,” which will help build his confidence in crowds.

          If you want to know more about this 3-step approach, Janet has included my book in the sidebar: SAY WHAT YOU SEE for Parents and Teachers. It’s only 100 pages. I hope you find it helpful.

  4. Wonderful post Janet (as ever!). Recently a parent made mention of their toddler always wanting their phone and sort of implied that I’d had the same problem when caring for the child. I just said that my phone stays in my pocket so it was a non-issue. I suppose it is made easier because I have my phone on me for emergencies only when I am caring for a child/ren. Caring one-on-one in their home I wouldn’t text the parent until their child was sleeping. When I worked in a daycare my phone was always in my purse!

    I know many parents don’t want to seem mean, but little ones actually accept many more boundaries than they might imagine. I threw a mother into a panic once when her children, whom I nannied for several years, ran out of the house to say goodbye to me. They promptly stopped at ‘the line’ in the driveway we used whenever someone was leaving and then waved and waited for me to honk my horn as I left. Mom would rather have kept them at the door but then she’d never seen how frequently this boundary-setting routine had worked day after day!

    It also requires a vision for the future as boundaries get wider and wider as children grow – building in trust and responsibility. Thanks again Janet!

    1. Yes! “I know many parents don’t want to seem mean, but little ones actually accept many more boundaries than they might imagine.” That has been my experience, exactly. Wonderful example about the “line” at the driveway. As always, thank you so much for sharing, Helen!

  5. Ruth Mason says:

    Janet, you are a great resource for parents! Thank you for your wonderful posts. I especially love your very specific examples of acknowledging a child’s feelings/experiences. They go right to my heart. I wanted to recommend a book that echoes a lot of what you said here, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel And one last thing: Wouldn’t it be better to say it in a positive way: “We can go to the park as soon as we’ve picked up these toys?”

    1. Thanks, Ruth! Yes, it certainly would be better to explain about the park and the toys in a positive way. Great point. But I also don’t parents should worry about that too much. What’s most important is to be direct, respectful and honest about logical consequences like these. “We’ll need to pick the toys up…” is is not a threat, as some experts would have you believe. This is simply a truthful statement about our personal limits, which I would hope parents could be feel free to share with their children.

      And thank you for the book suggestion… Yes, I read that a while back and appreciated it, and I’ve also heard Wendy Mogel speak. She’s hilarious! She doesn’t mention it in her books, but she took RIE classes with both of her children.

  6. Hi there,
    I just love your articles Janet, thank you.
    I wish I could have you by my side some days when i am not sure what to do/say to my bub.
    He is 21 months old and is full of energy and love! One thing he does do is occasionally bite and/or grab other kids faces and arms.
    A friend recently said to me that when he does this my response is a little too gentle. I definitely don’t have trouble with loving him and being gentle, it is boundaries and limits I struggle with I’d say!
    What would you recommend we do when he does this?
    Everyone has an opinion and an idea… from biting him back, to saying “No” very strongly and clearly, to attending to the other child and ignoring my son…. the list goes on!
    Can you recommend a good book for me?
    I have been reading Magda’s “Your Confident Baby” and she talks about saying to your child, “I’m not going to let you hit, what else could you do?”, and that aggressive babies are fearful ones. Do you think he is fearful? Of other children, or because perhaps I am not solid enough for him to feel safe?
    I have also been reading some of Aletha Solter’s books and after this you don’t feel very good as a Mum. She basically says that aggressive children have pent up tension and stress that I have distracted somewhere along the way, and now this is how it is coming out. And that i need to let him cry more. He does cry, and when he does I really just acknowledge how he is feeling, and make eye contact, and wait for him to make the next move – a hug, boobie…. whatever…
    I’d love to hear your thoughts Janet please.
    Thank you so much.

  7. Hi Janet,

    I work from home and I need to set limits in order to get work done. For example, I tell my little one, “Mommy is going to work now while you play with your toys.” I’m confident when I say it (or try to sound as confident as I can!), and most of the time my daughter takes it well. Other times, she cries for me to come back or she sits in her rocking chair and rocks for minutes on end. Should I be concerned that she’s not playing, or that it’s a sign that maybe I should return to the room for a bit? Usually, after 10-15 minutes of rocking, she gets off and starts playing with her toys. Is this unhealthy or is it her way of managing stress? I don’t want to feel guilty but at the same time I want to do what’s best for her and me both.

    Thank you!

    1. Why would you think the rocking is a bad sign? She’s self-soothing in a healthy way!

  8. I am also interested in the laughter-as-a-release of tension, as another commentor above. I have tested this as a way to to engage with my daughter before she gets to the kinds of behavior that invites much stronger limit setting–when I notice that she isn’t feeling quite right and seems to be spun up. It seems like engaging in rough housing and interactive play with her, rather then telling her to stop running bacak and forth gets at her need. It does seem like a physical need to move and be active and a result of long winter days indoors, rather than a desire for me to set a limit so that she has something big enough to let out a cry about. I’m interested if you think there isn’t really ever a time for rough housing?

    1. Elizabeth says:

      I commented above, but I do reckon there’s a place for roughhousing, silliness, play. (I think from what she said, Janet does too).
      I think she was talking about integrity as parents. Which is great.
      Playfulness is a great tool, but if you’re feeling annoyed and frustrated and at YOUR limit as a parent, it may not be an appropriate or even a possible one. (I feel many resources don’t address this reality!) As well as modelling what we’re trying to teach them about emotions.

  9. Elanne Kresser says:

    I can always read a new post on boundaries and limits! It feels like the learning is never ending. Learning about my issues and learning about what my daughter needs! When I read this post I went to the post you linked to on gentle leadership because I wanted to read more. In the comments I noticed someone disagreed and linked to a post from the Parent Effectiveness Training folks. They had such a different take — don’t impose limits, let your kid know what you value and what effects their actions have on you. I scratched my head and wondered how in the world this would work with toddlers? But I didn’t want to judge it without exploring it a little more. So I tracked all the times I needed to set boundaries for a couple of days and would often first give my daugther an explanation as to why I didn’t like something and what effect it might have on me or others. This was largley an experiment to see how this might pan out. The morning began with her wanting chocolate for breakfast. So I said, “I don’t want you to eat chocolate for breakfast because I think you won’t feel well and it’s important to me that we all have a nutrittious breakfast together.” I bet you can guess that she didn’t look at me and say, “well mom, if that’s what’s important to you I can go with it.” No, she howled, “I want chocolate!!!!!” So I told her “We won’t be having chocolate for breakfast. I can see that you feel sad and angry about that and I’ll sit with you for as long as you need to share those feelings with me.” It became a great experiment. I got to see how many times I had to hold a limit and help her with it “I see you want to wear your shoes inside. They’re dirty and the house gets dirty if you wear them inside so I’d like for you to take them off.” (And according to the PET site, I’m supposed to stop there and let her decide? then what?) “It looks like I need to help you take your shoes off. We can do that and then find your slippers if you’d like to wear them.” Ahhh, thank you RIE!!!!
    Yesterday as we were driving to the grocery store she was in the back seat singing a song she was making up. The lyrics went, “I love you, I love you, I love you, I won’t let you, I won’t let you……”

    1. Amen, Elanne! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and share your story. Yes, I have often wondered at the frustration and resentment parents must rightfully feel when their children don’t aim to please them in these moments, as PET and others suggest their children will. I find it astonishing that experts could give our advice that sets families up for friction and failure, rather than offering guidance that understands toddler development. Toddlers, especially, have a need to disobey and defy us. This doesn’t mean they don’t care. This must not be taken personally.

      Oh, my gosh, I love the song!

      1. I had/have this problem. I read the PET book, and Alfie Kohn books and I love them…until I try to implement them and realize that my kids don’t care at all about how their behavior affects me. And it does/did breed resentment and anger. I’m trying to climb out of this slippery pit, but now I’m more confused than ever and my 5 yo is demanding, angry, and at times, aggressive. His little sisters are starting to follow his lead. I feel like I have to physically restrain him too often, and that things just keep progressing in the wrong direction. I wish I would have had more boundaries from the beginning, that’s for sure. I definitely turned into one of those parents that was like, “well, it’s totally inconvenient and unpleasant for me, but they’re just exploring so I shouldn’t prevent that….” Not good.

        Having said that, I do think that some children have personalities that do just fine with PET type stuff. They do have the self control and introspection at a young age, plus the connection with their parents that allows them to thrive with that. But a challenging child who is extremely independent? Yeah, not so much.

  10. I don’t know much about the current culture around what the PET folks recommend but I never thought it should be applied so literally to toddlers- and I went back to the book by Gordon. He explicitly says (chapter 5) that with children under three, do things like use active listening to determine their needs, and allow them to do as much as possible for themselves. There wasn’t a lot in the original book about young children that seemed to conflict with RIE.. And with older kids who can communicate verbally much better and have more developed problem solving skills, It still seems like a respectful starting place much of the time.

  11. i just wanted to say thankyou for this article … it was so helpful, and just what we needed to read right now … thankyou!

  12. Dear Janet,

    Your blogs are SO helpful for me! I really enjoy the toddler years now, due to just reading your blog: THANK YOU SO MUCH!

    One thing came to mind when I red this blog: of course there is a lot of confusion about setting limits and being a gentle leader as a parent: look at our examples. I think that since WWII we’ve collectively decided not to set limits anymore. Before you know it 6 million people are killed. And then I’m just talking ‘the West’, there are a lot of dictators all over the world.

    So just realizing that ‘setting a limit’ and ‘being with the upset’ are two different parenting skills THAT CAN BE COMBINED at the same time was so freeing for me! Before I came across your blog it felt like combining Hitler and mother Theresa in myself at the same time: undoable. But now I ‘m just me, with my own limits, which differ every day (who cares? I’m not, my toddler isn’t!), and I can just speak them, deal with the upset and move on. My toddler loves it. She now tells me daily she says (freely translated): “Mommy is kind, me so happy!” And my limits are not so kind at all, but my listening is. She hugs and kisses me far more that I’ve ever been hugged and kisses before in my life by anyone (it’s like the warmest nest, which sometimes scares me a little before I remember to enjoy it to the fullest).

    And that made another thing come to mind. If we, as parents are now able to put our examples aside, and let our children love us that much, because we give them what they really need…what kind of world leaders are we creating by that? Wow…

    So thank you again Janet! I truly believe we’re beginning to create world peace here. Not as an empty repeated wish at a Miss Something election, but for real this time.



  13. Janet-Another timely article! My children are both in their own ways pushing limits lately and both of them are really struggling and “off-loading” in their own ways. I appreciate your insightfulness more than you may know! It is a reminder to stay strong on this course. However, There are times I want to stay on this course, but struggle how to respond to screams or demands by my preschoolers. I stay the course but how do you handle it when they are so very loud, on and on crying and whining and after a brief waiting, I am speaking in normal range voice, acknowledging their feelings and still, very slow to calm-what do you recommend?

  14. Hi Janet, my son is two and a half and he completely freaks out if there is any deviation in his routines, especially in the morning. If I take out the milk before the cereal he explodes. Honestly first thing in the morning I can’t deal with this very well so I do try to be consistent, but often I let him cry and carry on what I’m doing because I don’t want to let him be a little tyrant or somehow develop OCD. He frequently tries to dictate where I walk or stand. Usually I accommodate if I think it’s reasonable and I don’t if I think it’s unreasonable. I don’t want to refuse just for the sake of setting my authority all the time. This morning I started singing to myself to try to stay in my calm bubble after a non-stop bunch of this nonsense (No I get raisins first! Not you!) (Some things I gave in to and some things I didn’t) and he started screaming at me not to sing. My husband’s reaction is usually to keep doing whatever my son wants us to stop. Sometimes I feel like my husband is acting like an antagonistic sibling but other times I think he’s right, I give in too easily. I guess my question is whether I am setting enough boundaries or if his dictatorial behavior should be a red flag to me that I’m not setting enough boundaries.

  15. “Unconditional” love – understanding what that means seems to be the problem. Like “truth” and “love” are somehow at odds with each other. It’s not true love to turn your back as a child walks out into a crowded street — that’s “abandonment”. when you talk about “freedom”, you seem to have that confused with “abandonment”. Love and truth come together by following laws of nature. There is order in nature, and if you follow that order, you get perfect harmony and peace, and there are natural boundaries that are simply part of that process – like the law of gravity; and the law of cause and effect. People can be trained to follow laws of nature, and this is necessary, because we ourselves have been warped in our thinking during childhood. International Montessori Society has developed a technology for following laws of nature in a scientific manner that anyone can use, to bring about the qualities of true natural development. check it out:

  16. Love this article and all the insightful tips. I have a question about how my son is after dinner. He is 18 months transitioned classes two months ago. Before he transitioned he would helped clean up after his meals. Taking 1-2 dishes to the sink and then 1-2 dishes to put in the fridge in his food area. But now, he likes to run off and giggle after he eats. He wanted to initiate a game of chase in essence.

    He sat at a weaning table from 12-16.5 months in his first class with one other, now he has a bigger classroom with a few more kids (5 total). Food is placed before them and taken away. They do not participate at school in these clean/set up.

    I have tried to avoid him to see if he comes back, but he doesn’t. So I go get him in a neutral way, ” I see that you want to run away and play chase instead of helping with your dishes. Would you like to walk back or for me to pick you up. Once we clean, you can play. Ok, I am going to pick you up now. Then we go together and both of us clean up (no problem), done and then we usually do something together or in the same room. Or I follow through and ask him if he wants to play chase. I question myself, if this is the best way or are their other things that might be worth a shot to try?


  17. I constantly feel so confused about limits, about freedom, abandonment, myself. I’ve read some books that say that children should do everything voluntary and this is true freedom and love, I meet people that say you should let kids experience on their own struggles like socialization, bullying…Not sure what to do any more…When I want to go out and my son says he wants to stay home, ot that he wants only to play on the computer if I follow the voluntary approach then there is no room for my needs…What modeling behavior is the passive behavior of not following yourself…? There should be a balance and this is a great challenge – where to find the balance between a parent’s needs and a child’s desires…

  18. I actually like the idea that I only set limits around safety. I tell my children that the only real rules of life/family is that we don’t hurt others’ hearts or bodies. And that if we do, we always find our way to apologize and do what we can to make it right. This is practical and I think concrete enough for a child. I can say, “I’ve told you that when you tell your sister that you hate her that it hurts her heart and I’ve asked you to go find another way to let your anger out, if you continue I won’t let you keep hurting her and I will put you in your room.” Anyway, it works when they’re pushing any boundary, because disrespecting someone’s boundary is always hurting either their heart or their body, and I think kid’s get that. What do you think, Janet?

    1. I’m glad this choice is working for you, Rachel. I believe children needs limits in other areas as well. For example, I would not allow a child to hug someone who doesn’t welcome this, or roll the car windows up and down continuously, or dump folded laundry out on the floor. I can think of many instances in which children need our guidance that don’t involve safety or hurting someone’s heart.

      1. Okay so HOW do you stop them from throwing the folded laundry on the floor? My 3 year old is fast and strong and will keep doing the unwanted behavior over and over again. No matter how calm I am and how many times I redirect him. I often finally end up getting angry. Help!

        1. Can you keep a door shut or place the basket beyond his reach? It sounds like he is doing this to get a reaction from you, so when it happens, I would not give it much attention. Make your response very minimal and boring, just calmly removing it from his reach. I’m not sure what you mean by “redirecting”, but I wouldn’t recommend that, because he is fully aware that he is doing something you don’t want him to do. I wouldn’t direct at all, but simply notice “ah, you’re having that impulse so I’ll move this out of your way.” Something like that. It’s also important to consider why this is happening — why he feels the need to make this “statement.”

  19. All of those examples you brought up make perfect sense to me as ways that could be hurtful to someone’s heart or body. (ESPECIALLY the hugging someone who doesn’t want to be hugged!) You state often in your writing, and I agree, that almost always when a child does one of these kinds of things, the problem is not that they don’t know, “we don’t dump water on the floor” or whatnot. So stating that over and over when they do it is not very helpful. What is usually helpful is narrating what is happening, sportcasting as you call it and doing what we can to help the child see the interaction for what it really is. I am suggesting that what pushing past boundaries almost always is, is mistreating someone else’s heart or body. Or I could word it, “putting someone else’s heart or body at risk of being hurt.”

    For instance, “When you dump the laundry that hurts both my heart and body because I put a lot of time and love into making these clothes organized and tidy for our family. My time and energy (i.e. my heart and body) are valuable and I will do what I take this folded laundry away from you in order to protect them.” That is for an older child, for very young ones I say stuff more like, “I won’t let you dump the laundry because my hands worked very hard to fold these clothes. It would make my hands toooo tired to have to fold them again so I am taking the basket from you.”

    “I won’t let you roll up and down the windows because it is annoying, annoying means that it hurts my ears to listen to it over and over. And doing something on purpose that someone else finds annoying is sending a message that their desires and feelings and boundaries as a person are of worth. I also won’t let you do it anymore because it could damage our car. I won’t let you do things that purposefully damages another person’s property because that hurts their body too, because if it breaks then they would have to sacrifice their self-care time to fix it or to earn money to pay someone to fix it. Well, I am not a gifted writer like you, Janet so this is getting long and cumbersome!:) It is much easier in person when we know the individual child and what stage of development they are in, to know how to “sportscast” how a heart and body are almost always at risk for hurt whenever anyone is pushing another’s boundaries. But the point to me is – it is a very, very small part of raising children, this part of life where children really don’t understand that hugging someone who doesn’t want to be hugged is hurtful to that person, this part where they are just plain ignorant, not limit testing. But I’m suggesting that it was really helpful to me when I realized I didn’t need to worry about which was which too much, because the same kind of sportscasting is helpful in both situations. Whether it’s purposeful or not, I have found it helpful to sportscast that pushing past someone’s communicated boundaries is putting that person’s heart and/or body at risk. Would be interested in your response.

    1. Hi, you reference the book: Survive. Who wrote this book?

  20. Hi Janet, As always, your posts are so helpful. I see that you recommended a book for further reading at the end of this post. I have not yet read one of your books. I have a 3.5 year old. Was wondering if there is a book you recommend for older kids? Or does the toddler book still apply? Specifically i’m working on encouraging independence, easing separation, and overall setting limits in a “calm, confident” manner. Thank you!

  21. Janet,
    For us folks who have difficulty with boundaries your posts are always so helpful. I really liked this piece and a post from awhile back that discussed if one was getting mad about a boundary then it was in the wrong place. Now for everyone who has toddlers remember all of this when your child hits the nine year change which feels very similar to toddlerville. The issue of boundaries comes around again with very strong emotions from the nine year old. And again around 16 years of age. Janet everything you advise makes the ongoing parenting process much more satisfying. I so appreciate the reminders from your posts on toddler behavior because this nine year change is also a moment of pushing limits and there is great relief for the nine year old when the boundary is clear without anger. Thank you for your great blog. It’s impact is far reaching beyond the toddler years.

  22. Hi Janet i just read your post i found online. Our daughter is coming up to her 5 birthday and even though we have had advice from family support groups and agencies my wife still refuses to parent using boundaries so unfortunately this is entirely left to me to do my question is is this damaging my relationship between me and my daughter as i feel im constantly playing bad cop HELP.

  23. I love your posts and podcasts and have found them extremely helpful for managing my almost 3 year old’s behavior and emotions, especially since we welcomed his baby sister about 10 months ago. I have been having an easier time setting limits myself but struggle with helping my husband reach this goal. When ever my son starts to meltdown or scream about something my husband panics and urgently tries to find a solution. Aside from forwarding links to your articles, which I already do, do you have any tips for getting a spouse on-board with this approach to parenting?

  24. It all sounds so logical, I always thought I’d know how to set healthy limits but now it proves harder than I expected. I was rised in the house of “parents know best” and “because I say so” and “can’t you just be a good child and do what I say, I’ve sacrificed so much for you and you can’t do a simple thing for me?”. Having a very controling mother I’m desperate to give my children freedom of choice and acceptance of their decisions that I never got, but I think I’m going too far. My baby boy has a very strong character and it makes it even harder although I know that for the same reason he may need boundaries even more than some laid back children. Do you have any ideas for some “mantras” that I could use when we’re struggling? I know the theory but it all seems to escape my brain in the heat of the moment when the little one expresses his frustration so the whole neighborhood can hear it.

  25. Hi Janet,
    Great post! Thank you so much for being a resource for us moms. My question is about setting boundaries during transitional times. I think I had read somewhere that it’s very important to continue to set boundaries during these times, but I also want to be extra loving. We have a one week old baby and my 20 month son has wanted his dad to hold him to fall asleep every night at bedtime and he’s been waking in the night needing this too. My husband has held him because we thought he might be scared of us leaving again after having been gone at the hospital for 2 days and then all of a sudden a new baby is in the house and Mommy isn’t allowed to lift him anymore but can lift the baby. It’s hard and sad on my heart. Holding him for 2 hours at bedtime and in the middle of the night until he’s out cold is not really something we can continue. Do we do it for awhile and hope it stops on its own? Do we let him cry? We’ve tried staying there with him while he’s in his crib and not holding him but he is screaming and begging which leaves me crying my eyes out. I just want to handle this transition with the new baby as gently and lovingly as possible. I would GREATLY appreciate your input!

  26. Another great and timely article, Janet! I’ve only recently realized that I have had a difficult time setting limits ever since my now 4.5 year old was born because of my own discomfort with his “negative” emotions. Your example of carrying your child despite your back aching is exactly I experience. My question is this: If when I attempt to set a limit and tell my son, “You really want me to carry you, but my back hurts and I can’t,” he will then protest and say, “I’m going to stand here for 20 minutes before I get in to the car.” If we need to get somewhere, or I decide this is not OK (because let’s face it, it’s really not), how do I get him to the car without picking him up? I feel like picking him up and carrying him
    to the car is then reinforcing his behavior. I’m curious how you would manage this situation.
    Thank you in advance. I’m really so grateful to have found your blog.

    1. Hi Jen! I recommend using what I call confident momentum. Sorry to send you straight to another post, but this post explains better than I can here in a comment:

      I hope that’s helpful! Mostly, I would not be at all intimidated by your son’s statements. I would say something like: “Ah, very interesting, well, we are not going to wait. We’re going right now.” In a very light, confident tone.

  27. Help me, please! I am struggling. I have a 16 year old who is crossing boundaries and a 14 year old (who follows in her elder sister’s footsteps).
    It seems the more firmly I sit on the boundary, the more rebellious she wants to become. Now she’s saying things like “I can’t wait until I’m 18 and can move out” -which, of course, breaks my heart and worries me to no end. Now, she’s a great kid and has never been in any real trouble, but her choice in friends is concerning. I just don’t know what to do anymore and I can’t do anything without guilt and worry.
    How do people survive these teen years??

  28. Thank you for this! I read all of the articles you send out and agree with them whole heartedly. I agree we need to set boundaries and weather the emotional storm and I am getting much better at that. I have a newly turned 4 year old, 2 and a half year old and a five month old. All boys! All very different personalities. My question becomes WHICH boundaries to set. I feel like I could manage boundaries and limits ALL DAY LONG. I start to question “am I being too strict?” “ am I allowing them to work it out and problem solve before interfering.?” and most recently my concern has been for my middle child. I’m starting to feel Like I’m expecting to much from this little guy because my expectations have changed as my four year old has grown and now I’m hard pressed to remember what’s appropriate to expect from my two year old. He’s VERY emotional. He goes from one extreme of happy to screaming and back again all day long and I’m just feeling insecure as his parent these days!

  29. Absolutely love this post and needed to read it today. I’d love to know your thoughts on biting – I have my own 18m son and care for other children of similar ages and they are all going through a frustrated biting stage. Some have great language some none but all understand very well. In a situation where they will bite each other over toys or when play switches up into a more physical thing, what boundaries can I set and how do I manage the situation. It feels very reactive and tense at the moment as I’m obviously very conscious of the fact we have multiple families involved and different parenting styles. All the children I care for are only children whereas mine is a third child so I’m a little more relaxed about life with children in general! I’d love to be able to pass on some strategies to my parents and use them myself. Thanks so much!

  30. Hello Janet,
    I think this a great post, and a helpful reminder to me and my husband as our son is about to turn three. My question is this: what to do when he says he doesn’t like his grandma? (My mom) It has become such a point of embarrassment and misery for all of us. She has walked off in tears, and I’ve asked him to be friendly and kind, but he’s so young. What can I do in this situation? My parents live down the street and I’m beginning to dread our visits. Is there a way to set limits on his expressing his opinion about others? Thanks so much for all you do!

    1. Edith E Esquivel says:

      My son was similar but mom is resourceful. He loves books so mom sometimes comes home with a new book in hand. Sometimes it’s not that they don’t like the person, but the situation it puts them in. For instance, he might not like your parents house, or the fact that you stop playing with him when they arrive. Ask them to come to your house, preferably when he’s fed, rested and happy. And a little bored. Not in the middle of great play with his parents. The best situation for them to appear with some treat and willingness to play with him at a time his parents won’t. And do it often at first. Daily if possible. Start spacing out the treats but not the visits. They need to build a bond with predictability. Your parents need to put in some work. Teach them it is not personal anything he does.

  31. PLEASE HELP – I am having a difficult time setting boundaries with my 4 month old. When she fusses and cries we need to determine if she needs changed, is hungry, tired, needs burped, is uncomfortable, etc, but a lot of the time she just wants to be held. She does not often have distinct cries for each of these. I will always take care of her needs, but am having a hard time with her wanting to be held often throughout the day. Where do you draw the line of giving her the closeness she needs with independence? Also, what if she is just legitimately uncomfortable in the position she is in at that time? I want her to be confident and not have “bad habits,” but not to lose trust! I have read a lot of your articles and believe you are talking about all ages in your teachings, but a lot of it seems more applicable to toddlers; however, I know I have to start early to avoid concerns down the line. I appreciate any help you can give.

    1. Hi Stacey – I would not set boundaries with a 4-month-old baby. Discipline begins with us creating a predictable routine for the day in accordance with our baby’s rhythms. Children will ease into a routine of eat, sleep, play, etc., when there is a predictable rhythm and they know what to expect. And babies do need a lot of touch and holding. When your baby is expressing something, I would work on calming yourself and entering into a conversation with her, gently asking questions and sharing your thought process. Magda Gerber said it so beautifully:

      “A crying baby responds to gentleness and calmness. Respond slowly and acknowledge that she is crying by saying, ‘You’re crying. What’s the matter?’ Next, make sure that her basic needs are taken care of. Be sure your baby is fed and warm. Some babies are more sensitive to a wet diaper than others, so check that. If she is neither hungry nor tired and seems to have no other pressing need, observe her to discover the possible source of any other discomfort. Tell her you’re trying to understand what she wants. This is the start of lifelong, honest communication.”

      I highly recommend Magda Gerber’s book, Dear Parent – Caring for Infants With Respect.

      If your baby objects to being set down in a supine position to play, this post might be helpful for you:

      I hope that helps!

  32. I am interested in reading the article about raising decent children without spankings or timeouts, but the link appears to be broken. Do you have another link?

  33. Edith E Esquivel says:

    Dear Janet, refreshing article. Thank you. I want to teach my four year old boy to say hello and goodbye to people. Even to me and his father he refuses. He only does it whenever he wants to. Not often. Is being polite considered a boundary and if so, how can we enforce it? Is it appropriate to take his hand to wave?

  34. Oh so timely! Thank you. It reminded me this morning that I really did not want my 3-yo on my lap during breakfast. I wondered why I did not just put him on his chair and it hit me that I was afraid of his emotional reaction!
    So I did it and followed through and it was not the most pleasant breakfast for everyone concerned. He shrieked and sobbed and I was just there. And I think the last tear is not shed on this issue, but after breakfast he started playing much nicer than for a long time. When I said bye because I had to go to work he hugged and kissed me and wished me a nice day. I was blown, because for ages he has been super moody in the mornings. A boundary seems to have been what he needed. I thought I had no problem wirh boundaries, but it just shows.

    1. Amazing story, hold onto that memory! And thank you for sharing with us

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