Setting Limits with Children Effectively


When I read about respectful parenting or mindful parenting I was always confused about setting limits.  There are very few examples in the literature, which makes it hard to figure it out.  Once we did away with punishments, I found myself at a loss for what to do.  When I was no longer relying on punishments, I couldn’t quite figure out and effective way to help keep my children safe.  We spent some time trying to figure it out – which didn’t make any of us particularly happy, but has served us well in the long run.  But then, isn’t that how all change happens?  I thought I would share a bit about what I use to help set and maintain limits for my children, not because I am an authority on the issue, but because if I could help someone else through their parenting transformation, it would be a worthwhile thing to do!

When setting limits, the most important thing to do is to ensure all children are safe.  If the situation is something like a fist fight between children or they are engaged in an unsafe activity like playing with the stove for example, I stop the activity immediately.  Sometimes I can use words, sometimes a gentle hand to restrain a child, sometimes I have to put my body in the middle of it, and sometimes I have to move a child to a safe space by picking them up or guiding them there.  I try to communicate as clearly and calmly as possible through the whole thing what it is that I’m doing and why.  The key to success here is how I follow through on this.  Once I know everyone is safe, then I can take a moment to regain my composure if needed.

Most importantly, when setting limits, I need to keep my emotions under control.  If my children see me react in a big way, they know they’re hitting on something that is an emotional catch for me and will turn it into a power struggle in an instant.  This is the most important element for me, and the most difficult!  It is something that I still don’t do consistently, because, well…I’m human!  Before responding to any situation (unless it is a safety issue – as addressed in the previous paragraph), I try to take a moment for myself.  A deep breath often works well for me.  The point here is to gain some self-awareness about my own inner landscape and how it may be contributing to the situation.

When I started with limit setting over punishment, I began to notice my emotional reactions only after a blow-up – I would reflect on how I could have done things differently in hopes of making a different choice in the moment the next time around.  Then I began to intermittently notice in the moment that I was spinning my own emotional story about the event, which led to engaging with my own past hurts, judgements, etc.  This was/is a particularly difficult phase to be in.  It is painful to watch yourself do things you don’t intend…especially when they are hurtful to those around you!  Here is where I remind myself that no one is perfect.  Not only that, but it is in my imperfection that I am the most effective teacher for my children.  What my children see me do to ‘make things right’ after I have made a bad choice is the best kind of teaching – modelling!

Once I have myself as under control as possible I will relocate myself so that I’m close to the disruption, if I’m not there already!  Proximity can often solve an issue in an of itself.  When children know you’re nearby and will step in to help them if things go off the rails, they are far more willing to try solving the problem themselves because they feel supported in the process.  This comes with time, as it is related to building trust in each other.  I remind myself to trust that the children can sort it out themselves, and my presence reminds them that their safety is my top concern.

If the dispute is between my children, I will interject with sportscasting, narrating what I see happening – just the facts.  Often I will also use non-violent communication techniques to relay back to my children the information they’re telling me about their emotional state.  The key to both of these strategies is to avoid judgment.  Deep empathizing with their situation helps to reconnect us and it allows me to keep my perspective on their needs.  To do this, I listen to each of them, repeating the problem back in my own words if necessary to reassure them; showing that I understand.  I will often ask questions about their emotions.  Something like, “Did it make you feel angry that he took your marker?” or “Are you frustrated because you can’t get your shoes on yourself?”  I will ask if they need help to fix the problem, or if they know how to fix it themselves.  Often being heard is enough to help my children through a problem and I can stop here. Sometimes what they want me to know, understand or do is not appropriate.  So following the clarification of the issue, I will set and maintain a limit.  This sounds something like, “I know you are really excited to play at the park.  Right now, we need to go home for lunch.  I’m going to put you in the car now.”

If things continue, I offer my children a choice.  This allows them a way to gracefully exit the situation, saving face and avoiding a power struggle.  A situation like refusing to go to bed might have me offering a choice like, “You can go up to bed on your own, or I can take you, which would you prefer?”  If the child doesn’t answer in 20-30 seconds, I will take action on the choice that best suits me…so in this case, I will pick them up to go upstairs to bed.  I make sure to only offer the choice once and follow through with reasonable swiftness.  This ensures that my children listen to my words and trust that I will do what I have said.  Usually following through on a choice does not end in a grand display of refusal, since after a few times through this, children come to expect that you will take action.  In the event that they don’t respond well, I return to non-violent communication methods to understand their emotions, asking questions while I continue to follow through with the choice, reminding them they can make a different choice next time.

It sounds so easy in writing, but offering choices is difficult sometimes.  There are many instances where there is not a clear choice.  An example that comes up for us a lot is poor behavior once the lights are out for bed.  Knowing that unfavourable behaviours are rooted in unmet needs alerts me to take note and pay attention to what my children are saying so that perhaps the next day I can do something differently prevent this situation.  But noting that there is a need is not so helpful in the moment, especially when the kids are in an out of the bathroom slamming doors and yelling for us to come up for another hug and kiss…waking up the neighbourhood as they do!  The tricky part of this situation is getting them to calm down enough to communicate.  I try to use a non-verbal form of non-violent communication – empathizing with how difficult it must be for them to go to bed when really they still want to be near us and play.  If they can hear that I understand and answer a few questions, we can open the conversation.  Then a choice like, “Do you want to go back to bed yourself, or shall I take you there?” can be received.

The following are some paraphrased guidelines I use on offering choices from the book Parenting with Love and Logic:

  1. Choices shouldn’t include limitless options. Two clear options are all a child can really deal with in order to make a choice. Don’t add another choice because your child suggests it. Tell him: “That was a good suggestion. These are the choices I’m offering now. We’ll try your suggestion next time.”
  2. Use parent-approved choices only. Offer choices that guide your child toward the outcome you’re seeking. Make sure both options offered are 100% okay with you. If you offer two choices hoping your child will choose “a” instead of “b”, your hesitancy about “b” will act like a magnet and cause your child to choose “b” instead of “a” every time.
  3. Take action when a child doesn’t choose. If a child won’t choose between the apple or the cranberry juice you need to choose for her. Follow through and choose so your child comes to understand that when you offer her a choice and she doesn’t choose, the ability to choose goes away. You can say, “I know you’re upset that I had to choose the juice for you. I have another choice for you to try now. Would you like to drink what I chose for you now or not have juice right now?”

Examples of what I do are hard to come up with out of the moment.  The framework of how I progress with my children through a problem varies from situation to situation – like permaculture is site specific.  Setting and maintaining limits actually helps to build connection and trust.  As difficult as it is to see in the moment, situations where I need to set limits are the very things I need to pay attention to for growth.  They are the weeds in our garden.  They are the indications that there is a deeper unmet need.  Setting limits is really an art form.  Like with permaculture, a set of systems can be applied, but you have to just try them out, fine tune them, learn as you go…and get messy in the process!  This is why permaculture style parenting really needs mindful presence and to be treated as a process.  For this reason, when a situation is resolved and I consider that the storm has blown over, I take a moment to reflect on our interactions.  How did I do with regulating my emotions?  How did my children do with the limit?  Was it a necessary limit?  Do I need to revise the limit?  What could I do differently the next time to make it a better experience?

To sum it up, here are the strategies I use for effective limit setting:

  1. Ensure children are safe.
  2. Regulate your own emotions.
  3. Get close to the action.
  4. Sportscast or use non-violent communication to demonstrate you understand the problem, allowing children to solve it themselves.
  5. Offer a choice once and follow through immediately.
  6. Reflect on the situation – make changes if necessary.

Empathetic, But…

I have written before about how my family values extreme empathy.  We try to meet each other first by empathizing, whether it’s adults or children.  We try to validate feelings and then work to find solutions.  What is becoming clear to me is that even though we have this goal, it isn’t always achieved.  There are nuances in our language that are preventing our sentiments from coming through.

A huge culprit in the way of our empathetic encounters is the word ‘but.’  I find myself trying to work my agenda into  statements of empathy.  I say things like, “I can see you are upset about getting your diaper changed.  You don’t want me to change your diaper right now, but it’s time for your nap.”  or “I understand that you don’t want to put your shoes on, but we have to go now.”  The empathy is there, but it is inserted as a placation.  Real empathy does not have a hidden agenda.  Real empathy isn’t rushed through.  It serves to allow ourselves to truly hear the other side in an effort to understand what it might be like to be in a different position.

I have started to reflect on the use of the word ‘but.’  When I think of times I’ve heard it when all I really needed was to be heard myself, I can attest for the fact that it devalues an entire response.  Hearing something like, “I know you’re really tired and not feeling well, but I the kids really need to eat dinner.”  The value of expressing my discomfort of being tired and sick was lost as soon as the word ‘but’ joined the party.  It is as though the word negates everything that comes before it.  It’s a word that supersedes.  The word ‘but’ gets in the way of unconditional empathy.  Unconditional empathy speaks of unconditional love.  And so, it is no longer a word that is welcome in my home (although it still comes knocking from time to time).

The difference between using and not using the word ‘but’ may sound something like this:

“I can see that you don’t want to have a nap right now.  You look really frustrated, but it’s time to sleep”


“I can see that you don’t want to have a nap right now.  You look really frustrated.  It’s hard when you want to keep playing and mommy says it’s time to sleep.  I understand.  I want you to have a good rest so we can play together this afternoon.  It’s time for a nap.  I’ll see you when you wake up.”

In the second example, I did not change the outcome.  The child is still expected to have a nap.  I included a few extra sentences of empathy, without using the word ‘but.’  I also included and a separation of the empathy from what has to happen by explaining why it has to happen.

Here is another example:

“I know you want to buy that toy.  It is difficult to see something you want and not get it, but you have already got a firetruck toy at home.”


“I know you want to buy that toy.  It looks really neat.  What do you like best about it?  Yes, those flashing lights and sounds are really cool.  It looks like it would be a lot of fun to play with.  I want us to choose only the best toys to bring into our home.  We already have a firetruck, so we’ll leave this one for another boy or girl to buy.”

I feel like a bit more effort up front to find connection during my expressions of empathy goes a long way.  It’s rather like in permaculture where a lot of time is spent in the design phase before beginning the actual work!  I have been trying to revise the language I am using with the children and am seeing some amazing results.  Now, I just have to have empathy for my process of change, as I count the number of ‘buts’ that are still uttered!

Dirt Cookies: Sharing the Heaviness of Life with Children

How is it possible that we have people so impoverished that they have to eat dirt cookies in order to trick their stomachs into thinking they’re full?  They have no food.  My husband brought up that he had seen this video last week as we sat around the dinner table.  The children were curious, asking about what the cookies looked like, what they tasted like, and ultimately asked to watch the video.  We elected to talk about solutions rather than spending our time watching something that would perhaps be disturbing for them.  But what has been more interesting is how they have been carrying this idea with them, that there are children in the world who are eating dirt to survive.  They bring it up frequently, as it is something beyond their understanding of the world, and I presume the idea was a bit jarring, as it was for me as well.  My children have lived a very sheltered and privileged life.  We have never known hunger.

At first, my children wanted to bake some cupcakes and send them to Haiti.  After some discussion about what might happen to the baked goods on the long journey across the world, my five year old son has decided he will donate money to help these people find something better to eat.  He recently started a t-shirt business, upcycling t-shirts to fund a Lego police station that he wants.  He came up with the idea of getting the rest of the money to buy his Lego station (which is now only about 3 more shirt sales), then sharing the remainder of his profits with hungry children.  An admirable solution for a young boy!

When we first brought this up with the children, I was a bit fearful of burdening their young souls with life’s ugly side.  The side where people aren’t as privileged as us, to the point where they struggle for their necessities.  I questioned whether my children are too young for these harsh realities.  What I was surprised by was his willingness to rise to the occasion.  He expressed a genuine desire to help out.  We do a lot of talking about ‘the golden rule’ in our house and after the fact, I see this as an extension of that discussion.  I think our effort to look for solutions rather than wallow in what’s wrong with the world is where real change can be made.  I hope to inspire my children toward making a difference and teach them that along with their privilege comes an opportunity to help others.

The truth is, extreme poverty exists.  The more I can normalize it, the more my children can move beyond an ‘us and them’ mentality and can rise up to find small solutions to big problems.  We will continue to talk about dirt cookies.  I plan to fully avoid the ‘you should eat your dinner, there are children in the world who are eating dirt cookies instead’ angle.  This helps no one.    Guilt should not be a motivating factor towards action.  What I do hope for is that my kids will be able hold in their hearts the difficult reality that there are children in the world without enough to eat and that we can do something about it.

The Day After the Day After

A predictable schedule works for our home.  We have a predictable rhythm to our days.  But summer seems to throw a kink in this wheel, making it wobble and veer to one side.  There are more things to do in the summer, and as it seems, so many reasons to cast aside the schedule we’ve worked so hard to establish.  Our family rhythm really gives us a container to live within, but when it is gone, we’re more free to explore and flow through our days together.

The last few weeks have been a series of events that have taken us out of our normal rhythms.  We have had a wonderful time sharing in the company of each other and living without the stress of watching the clock.  I feel so much more rested as a mama, since I’ve had a break from my routine and an opportunity to cultivate diversity in my days.  My children are able to rise to the challenge posed by abandoning our schedule, but it is when we try to return to ‘normal’ that things start to unravel.

I find the day after my children get a solid night’s sleep they are pleasantly sleepy and contented to be at home (because usually the ‘busyness’ has taken us afar) but it is the day after the day after that we start to run into trouble.  Yesterday was that day for me.  I struggled through my post yesterday, as I was interrupted by a crying baby, a crying toddler and a crying child all trying to resist naps or rest time.  So much crying.  I became frustrated and rushed through my post, and will only get around to reading it again when I’m finished today’s!  I realized just how important my schedule is to my functioning.  My children also thrive with the predictability, and seem to understand what it feels like to be fueled with good food and enough sleep.

When they are tired, hungry, or have been eating poorly, they start to unravel.  Of course this doesn’t happen when we’re busy, engaged in new exciting activities, and ultimately overstimulated.  It happens when we start to regain the stability of our daily rhythm that these things seem to appear.  When my children actually begin to tune back in to how they are actually feeling, retreating from beyond their edge.

This time around the transition back to normal has been noticeably more smooth.  Perhaps we’re learning how to come back to ourselves.  My children have been letting their emotions out…a lot…but in acceptable ways.  Knowing our schedule, routine, rhythm will still be there for us when we’re ready to return to it.  But more importantly we’re working on really knowing that we’ll be there to support each other on the journey home.  In consciously pursuing radical empathy and compassion we are growing trust in our love for each other in spite of our imperfections.

Trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float.

~Alan Watts