What about setting limits?

Of all the issues that come up for parents one of the most difficult and confusing is the one of when to say Yes and when to say No. And yet it’s the issue that comes up most often. No wonder so many parents are stressed.

The reason it comes up so often is that children have wants – and lots of them. They want to explore their world, to stay at the park, to have ice cream, to watch that movie on TV and for you to buy them the latest toy or game. It can go on and on. Working out what to say in response to all that wanting can be difficult. It is an ongoing challenge for me to speak the simple words Yes and No with clarity, honesty and integrity. I am still experimenting and learning every day and I want to share what I have discovered so far.

All this wanting only becomes a problem if a child does not get what they want. Saying Yes to my child is wonderful if it is done with honesty and integrity. That means that the thinking behind my Yes is important to me. I don’t want to play at saying Yes when I secretly feel an inner No. I call this giving in. I might do it in order to appear nice or to get my child to go away or because I have been worn down into a state of submission. Giving in does not feel good. This is because it is dishonest. I can tell if I have been dishonest because I end up feeling resentful and blaming my child for being “demanding”, or “making me” do something. If I persist with this habit it will crush my spirit and confuse and distress my child.

On the other hand, helping my child with an honest Yes brings me great joy. I don’t believe that giving my children what they want will bring them lasting happiness, but it feels good. I am happy for my children to experience abundance in their lives and also to experience the natural consequences of their choices. I am available to help them in their learning process as they work out how they want to live their lives.

If I am not sure that I want to say Yes to what my child wants I might let them know that I am willing to think about it. I wait until I feel clear about my response or I can offer some alternative options. Instead of an outright No I might suggest something that I find more acceptable – homemade ice cream instead of the shop-bought variety, for example. If the item is outside our budget I might suggest that we wait until we have saved up some more money. My intention is to find a way to help my child if I can.

If I want to say No then I do so but I aim to be clear about my agenda. The thinking behind my No is very important to me. I draw a distinction between imposing a limit as an exercise of parental power and a situation where I say No because what my child wants and what I want conflict.

My child will find a natural “limit” if I say No because I simply don’t want to give them what they want. For example, if my child asks to be taken to the movies on a day when I am feeling really tired I might say “No. I don’t want to go to the movies today. I am just too tired. Perhaps we can go tomorrow.” I am being true to myself in that moment and I am expressing it peacefully.

In contrast, if I was imposing a limit I might say “No. We only go to the movies once a month. You will just have to wait.” I might say this if I believed that children should learn that they can’t always get what they want. My agenda would be to teach my child this lesson.

Some other common beliefs that motivate parents to impose limits are;

  • Children need to learn that they shouldn’t want so much.
  • Children need to learn what is acceptable and what isn’t.
  • Parents know what is best for their children.
  • Parents must impose limits to keep their children safe.
  • Children need limits to feel secure.

One of the most powerful ways to get clear around what I say to my children is to uncover my own agenda. What is the thinking and beliefs behind my No.? Once I have pinned these down I can question them. I can ask “Is this really true?”

Over the years I have questioned many of my own beliefs. These are some of my discoveries.

Rather than believing that children should learn that they can’t get what they want, I now want them to know that they can get what they want. I often don’t know how or when their desire will be fulfilled and I certainly don’t feel responsible for giving them everything that they want. I do trust that if they really want something that they will find a way to bring it into their lives and that they have my support in this process. Rather than teach my children a negative lesson by limiting something they want I would rather provide a positive example of someone who is gradually unlearning their own limiting beliefs.

I no longer believe that I know exactly what is best for my children. I don’t impose limits on things that my children want as a method of trying to teach them a lesson. I tried imposing limits on lollies and sweet foods when my eldest was young. I wanted to teach him that these foods would damage his health. I know that most parents take this role for granted and see it as a normal but for me it only brought stress and conflict into my life. It was awful. Eventually, I realized that a major overhaul of my thinking was the way through. I questioned the conventional belief that parents should control what their children eat. I don’t believe this any more. I still have ideas, opinions and information that I readily share with my children. My knowledge and experience has not given me all the answers but I am happy to share what I think will be helpful. I offer foods that I think will support their health. I let them know when I think something is likely to be harmful. We talk about nutrition. And it is all open to question. How often have I seen dietary advice change? Can I really know with certainty the effect that can of Fanta will have on my child?

I value the freedom of an open mind. I also want to support my children’s learning; about their own bodies and health and how to get along in the world. They are each on their own exciting journey in life. Limits are a far less effective way to support their learning than discussion and their own direct experience. My children get to explore their own comfort zones. While they like to experiment and try new things in bursts, they really value their own safety and security too.

There is an alternative to imposing rules and limits that works and that maintains the respect, joy and closeness in the parent-child relationship. In our family rules and limits have been replaced with other processes. We have grown in our skills. We have conversations that don’t involve blame and judgement. Instead we speak clearly about how we feel and what we want. Above all, we know how to find solutions to conflicts that are acceptable to all of us. Nobody gets told what to do and nobody’s needs get top priority – we work together to find creative solutions.

This doesn’t mean that I never take action to protect my child, myself or someone else. I certainly took action when my children were young to protect them from immediate physical danger. However, the motivation behind my actions was always important to me. When my actions were motivated purely by a desire for my child’s immediate physical safety it did not feel stressful for me even when I used physical force. I took sharp knives away from them or kept them out of reach. I would physically pick my children up and move them away from a situation I knew was dangerous. I have also deflected blows, and protected myself and others from being bitten or scratched. Again, my actions were not to teach my child a lesson. No reprimand from me – just helpful action.

I do not hesitate to use a clear No in a situation where a child is in immediate physical danger. My children intuitively understand the energy behind my No. They never fail to respond when there is immediate danger, even if they are not aware of it. In other situations when they were not in real danger but were doing something that I just didn’t like they were more likely to ignore me or argue. They can tell the difference and it matters to them.

It has taken some time, but now that I have examined and questioned the beliefs behind my Yes and my No it has become much easier to use both freely. I say No much less often, but when I do it comes out clean. I like relating to my children without an agenda and I like being true to myself. Peace prevails between us – and I love that.



  1. I enjoyed reading this post about setting limits. I usually find that explaining the reasons, or feelings, behind the answers you give to your children really works well and helps them learn about how to balance everyone’s needs.

    Your approach sounds very close to Jane Nelsen’s (http://www.positivediscipline.com). Of all the parenting methods we’ve tried, this has been the most successful!

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