The Secret to Setting Limits (Without Bribes or Threats)

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

Hi, Chrystal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there’s a lot more help on the way! I’ve created the No Bad Kids Master Course to give you all the tools and perspective you need to not only understand  and respond effectively to your children’s behavior but also build positive, respectful, relationships with them for life! You can check out all the details at ♥

(Photo by Donnie Ray Jones on Flickr)


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

  1. Kitchen fairy says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  5. Amanda Colclough says:

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


    1. Ah, I would honestly say that’s the biggest challenge for all of us. Changing our perspective around emotional expression takes a concerted effort and lots of thought and practice. Here’s a post I’ve shared that might be helpful to you:

      Learning to let the feelings be is also the theme of my podcasts. (I now have over 80 of them!) You and your husband might want to check them out if you haven’t done so already:

  6. Hi Janet,

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

    1. Hi Gemma – Young children need a lot of physical care, and that means helping them do what they cannot do in that moment. So, I would try to reframe “physically putting his shoes on,” etc., as positive, loving, Mama Bear taking care of her cub. If you wait for him, coax, etc., you will set the stage for a battle. If you are prepared to calmly and lovingly insist, you will override the “battle” and that’s what I recommend. I share more in this post:

      I hope that helps!

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

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

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

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

      1. Thank you, Janet! This really helped!

  8. Lisa Mager says:

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

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

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

    1. CandiCane says:

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

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

      1. Once when our TV’s electrical circuit was broken, we realized a powerful difference when our children understood they could no longer get their TV back by cajoling or whining, which had been pretty much constant before. When we could just shrug and say, “Too bad, the TV is broken,” it took all the rancor out of the equation, and they went outside and did wonderful creative play, rather than hanging around us and whining. It was so effective that we had a secret switch installed during a renovation, and once a year or so, our TV would “just be broken again” for a while! I did have some mild guilt for being deceptive, but it worked like a tonic for our family— perhaps not getting to the root of our problem, but giving us a season of relief from a damaging symptom.

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

    1. This is the same issue we’re facing. I walk her back repeatedly – honestly it can be 100 times not an exaggeration. But she screams or bangs the door also and wakes her sister. I don’t know what else to do. It’s exhausting for everyone

  10. Hi Janet,

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

  11. Judith Wood says:

    Hello Janet,

    I do in home childcare for my four year old grandson. I am a retired Preschool Director and know that bribes are not the answer for desired behavior, however, Grampy, my husband stubbornly, refuses to listen to me about many child development issues. If he was just the occasional Grandpa, there would be no problem, but he is a co-caregiver during the weekdays while our daughter is at work. I need a concise description, from someone other than me, of why bribing with ice cream, cookies or toys, is a bad idea, just to get him into the car or to stop an undesirable behavior. I know this is an unusual request since I have the answer, BUT, I would love to hear what you have to say about this. Thank you!

  12. “Calmly and boringly walk her back to bed…” I’m not sure about others but my child is super strong willed and would fight me even on this simple action. She’d likely yank her hand away from mine, run the opposite direction, all the while yelling and crying. It’s nice to think that the parent just has to simply lead the child back to their bed but what does one do when said child does not cooperate?!?! I’d like to see your responses include scenarios where the child does not cooperate on first request and what a parent is to do when the child is persistant. Thanks !

    1. Shannon Costa says:

      I’m in a similar situation. My son is almost 3 and he climbs out of his crib. He has no problem staying in at night but during the day when I put him down for nap he pops right out. I boringly walk him back and really believe he’s going to stay there. After several times I just get tired and tell him to play on his play room while I nap. Because I’m really tired and want to nap. I feel like I really need to add a different approach. Please help.

  13. I call this approach to setting limits the cloak of inevitability. You put it on and wear it with patience, and it all just unfolds before you.

  14. Jessica Hedges says:

    I’m not even sure how old or new this chain of questions/comments is however my daughter is 4 and she was doing great at sleeping in her own bed up until about 6 months maybe a little longer ago. Now she says they’re monsters in her room and she comes and gets into our bed, there just isn’t enough room in our bed so my wife has to sleep in her twin bed which obviously isn’t very comfortable. Some nights I’ll go put her back in bed and stay with her until she falls asleep again and then I’m go back to bed but as soon as she wakes up and realizes one of us isn’t in there with her she comes right back in our room and gets us and says she scared to sleep alone. We are at our wits end here, any advice will help! We do sleep with her until she falls asleep when we put her down at night, so we should probably stop that from what I’m reading here but how do we keep her in the bed all night?? Thanks so much for any advice!!

  15. Mieken Grant says:

    Hi Janet, I realise this is an old post and not sure if you still check the messages but I’ll try! My 4yo daughter is pretty good at staying in bed but will delay delay delay the last bit of the routine (2 books, a “story from my voice”, then a cuddle and then i leave an audio story on). Before the last cuddle she might be taking her time to tuck in her toys, or wants to show me something, wants to chat etc. My patience is very thin by this point – I’m a single mum and have her 70% of the time. I feel awful not giving her the cuddle if i was sticking to my conviction. I usually have had to say “it looks like you’re not ready for your cuddle so I’ll leave the room and return when you’re ready for your cuddle”. Then she’ll cry or whinge and shout out “mum i’m ready!!” – then i return and she will either want to talk again and i’ll leave the room again or she will be ready for a cuddle and shes fine. Is there a better approach?

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