Please do not hold the limit firm if your child is resisting, angry and crying.
The emotional-relational impact is more damaging
than the benefit of holding the limit in that moment.
It is always okay to soften and connect.
I know it’s very challenging when I write about asking parents to not use limits and boundaries with their kids. It can activate quite a defensive response in many people. There is a deeply held belief about how important limits are, how they make children feel safe.
While I understand the philosophy, this is not the actual experience of the child. From the kids perspective receiving the consequence or having the limit enforced, it feels like an obstruction to their freedom and autonomy. It feels like an imposition by someone who thinks they know better and has more power.
When I say limits I am talking about coercive limits. Coercive means forced. This is a limit in which the kid has no choice. For example we set a limit on food and kids have no choice in the matter. We set a limit on bedtime and kids have no choice in the matter. Take away the screen, shut off the TV, the kids have no choice.
If the kids can simply say No and do what they want, I would consider that a suggestion and not a limit. This is honoring their autonomy.
What is commonly called a loving limit, or an empathetic limit is when we enforce a coercive limit and then empathize with the resulting distress. ie “I know it’s frustrating that you can’t have 4 cookies before dinner.”
I am not suggesting that we should never help our kids set limits for themselves. When I’m working with kids I’m often engaging with limits because it’s a natural part of being a guide. In fact it’s a natural part of any relationship.
What I am suggesting is that we do not remove their freedom of choice in the process. I want them to feel they are part of the process rather than feel it as an imposition. They trust the limit, they feel in their nervous system that it’s in their best interests.
There are ways of working with limits that preserve choice and don’t require force or power. It’s the difference between collaborative versus coercive limits. In a collaborative limit we are all working together as equals to figure out how to best work with a situation.
Children feel very included in the process. They have a lot of input into how it plays out. If the collaboratively agreed upon limit doesn’t work for everyone we can sit down and adjust it. At no point is there power or force involved.
When going through these processes with kids, I focus on tending to our relationship and their emotional state more than the limit itself. This is what makes it feel deeply connecting rather than disconnecting. This connection and trust inspires a higher degree of willingness to cooperate.
Just yesterday I was talking to a parent who had been trying to set loving, empathetic limits with their kid around candy. They didn’t want them eating too much before dinner. At least not the whole bag! They were reasonably trying to keep their kids healthy. After setting the limit and empathizing with their upset, she later found them hiding in the bedroom eating a bag of sweets.
Trying to set a more firm limit or even giving them a consequence for doing so, the only lesson they’re going to learn is how not to get caught next time. This is what I’m trying to avoid. That feeling that we are an obstacle to navigate around.
I know parents are operating from a loving intent in setting limits. To try and keep kids safe from something that might be harming them. Perhaps we feel they are too young and cannot self regulate.
While the intent may be honorable, the way we go about it doesn’t usually encourage our kids to join us in the process. All sorts of power struggles result, no one is learning, no one is happy about the situation. To them we are the obstacle.
This is where it’s important for us to look beyond our intent and acknowledge the impact that we are actually having.
Moving in the direction of force is never going to work out well. It causes damage emotionally and relationally. It certainly doesn’t teach children to care for their bodies and minds. We mostly teach them to resist us.
If we want to create that lifelong guiding relationship we have to always be stretching ourselves towards Less Force and More Collaboration.
This is why I say “My Parenting Mantra Is Relationship First”. This priority is firmly set. It guides my decisions. There are times I will work with my kid on setting limits, but I always keep in mind that it’s about her process and her learning. I focus on respecting her personhood, her choice, her consent, her self-knowledge.
I will not hold a limit firm if it comes to a point where the kid is resisting and crying about it. The emotional-relational impact is more damaging than the benefit of holding the limit in that moment.
It is always okay to soften and connect.
It’s related to a concept I teach called NSP which stands for “Nervous System Programming”. NSP states that “In every interaction with our kids we are informing them about
Who we are,
Who they are,
Their place in the world and
How the world works.
This informing doesn’t only happen intellectually, but also emotionally, relationally, physically, in the nervous system and the neural pathway patterns that get developed in the brain.
If you are reading this you are probably already committed to the idea of conscious, gentle parenting. In this mindset we know it’s neither effective nor kind to control our kids using punishment and consequences. Things like taking away a ‘privilege’ or putting them in their room.
As we move towards a more non-coercive, collaborative approach we focus on treating them with respect as humans.
The emotional experience of being punished leaves a significant residue on our emotions and our bodies. It’s something we carry with us all our lives.
Every time we use force with our kids there is an impact on their (and our) nervous systems. Another layer of memory is created. The cost is too high. It damages their relationship to themselves and their relationship to us.
They feel like an authority figure with power is stopping them from doing something that they enjoy. Forced against their will. Even when we empathize with them, they know we are empathizing for something that we ourselves did.
This is why it’s important for us to parent with an understanding of the impact we’re having on our children’s system with our choices.
I recently spoke for an hour on NSP and published the video. Please watch it for an in depth exploration on how to use Nervous System Programming in parenting.
In my experience it’s a much more effective strategy to collaborate on ideas to meet everyone’s needs around limits. Create an environment where everyone’s voice is heard and taken into consideration. This helps kids feel deeply seen and valued in the process.
When we can inject a spirit of fun into the process it can make a big difference as well. So often we make looking at limits with kids such a heavy thing. We know we’re restricting them and they feel imposed upon. We can however approach things with a lighter heart. Try and hold a different perspective. Genuinely wanting to keep them safe, and deeply respecting them at the same time. Let’s play with this.
Here’s a video where I tell a story of a time that I set a limit around a campfire with a whole group of kids in a way that inspired them to want to follow my guidance.
I give an example of how I used a very connecting and fun way of communicating to get them excited and engage in a collaborative limit setting experience with me.
The other adults were scrambling around trying to control the kids, chaos ensued! Then I jumped in Vivek style and within a couple of minutes had them all following me and doing things in a safe way that still felt so much fun.
Setting Limits With Joy (p.s. please follow my YouTube while you’re there ❤️)
It’s an amazing thing to witness when kids become involved in, and even enthusiastic about setting their own limits because they start to learn how it is a benefit to them.
I call it “WIIFM – What’s In It For Me”. (Pronounced wi-fum) Helping young people understand in an experiential way, not just intellectual, the benefit to them. This makes the whole process of collaborating on a limit much easier.
It also forces us to think a bit deeper about why we are setting the limit and how to explain it to them. Can we actually show them how thinking about these things makes a difference to their lives? It’s also important for us to recognize what needs of ours are being met or not met. How much of that are we projecting on our kids? There is a lot of introspection required to relate to our children with integrity, given the power we have over them.
You can check out my video on WIIFM-What’s In It For Me
It is a messier and more long-term process to work with our kids, to gain their trust and agreement. It also leads to the deepest relationships, both of guide and friend.
This is why I have put out so many hundreds of articles and videos talking about how to implement these ideas in a way that is workable for parents. Trying to nudge our mindset towards interacting with our kids in a non-coercive, collaborative fashion.
True collaboration requires that same integrity. Without integrity we have collaboration on the surface only and this has a limited shelf life. If the person on the bottom of the power structure knows that their input can be overridden at any moment by the person with more power, they cannot trust the process.
Kids learn early on that their autonomy is conditional. It lasts only as long as the adults deem it appropriate. This sense of self-determination is something very deep for young people and they will go through a lot to preserve it.
In the mainstream parenting paradigm it is not one of the main focuses. We rarely see articles about how to encourage a fierce self-determination with children. We usually see articles about how to get them to cooperate.
The fact is though that an increase in cooperation accompanies an increase in choice.
We miss out on a big opportunity to understand and connect with our kids depending on where we place our attention. Attending to this sense of self is so fundamental to safety in relationships that we lose our kids when we don’t pay attention to it.
Our young people end up in a situation where they have to protect their autonomy. They do this in three primary ways that I call the responses to coercion – Resistance, Compliance and Distance.
The resistance is when kids become very defiant or when they start hiding the candy in the bedroom. The compliance is when they are following along, but they do it from a place of having given up on their own sense of self and autonomy. They are operating from fear or resignation, but not from caring or connection. Distance is something that accompanies both of the above. Kids put up that armor, the shield because they know they aren’t free to be themselves.
When we resist holding firm limits with our kids they don’t need to resist us. They don’t need to put up that shield. Then they can relax into our guidance and trust our wisdom.
This is when we have the most stable, sustainable and resilient positive influence in our kids lives.
I encourage you to keep moving a little further along the non-coercive, collaborative path. It takes an effort to keep stretching ourselves in this direction. Consider taking another step. Wherever you are on your journey you can take one more step.
Edit to add:
Yes I know there are exceptions. I know.
I also know it’s really hard. Trust me I know. I have the scars to prove it.
Exceptions will always be there. Let the article inspire us to minimize the exceptions as much as possible. Don’t think of it as judgment for the times that we have to set limits we’d rather not. Life is like that sometimes, I understand, we all really truly understand.
This article is intended to stretch us. Stretch a little bit every day. It’s the stretching that really matters.
Edit to add 2:
Someone asked, if we’re not going to set a limit how do we work with our kids around the candy? This of course is a very reasonable and important question.
Some people suggested making it fun, some people suggested exploring ideas around the body and nutrition. This is what I added to the conversation.
I agree with what others have shared here. For me I paid close attention to what my kid ate. I was a very involved guide in her learning about her body, food and it’s effects.
This was not a case of leaving them alone hoping that they figure it out. It’s a continuous exploration of looking at what the body is telling us. Of experimenting with different foods and understanding them. Exploring the joys of eating as well as some things to be cautious of.
The key to all of it is the relationship between parent and child. If it is stable and connected the child will be open to learning and exploring. If there is a break in that trust it would have to be rebuilt first to a reasonable degree before the child will be more open to that collaboration.
By this I mean if the kid feels the parent is going to control them, they aren’t going to be interested.
I do think however humans are capable of guiding each other and working together in harmony, with great efficiency and powerful effectiveness, without using any kind of force. I believe that we can work together in such a way that everybody feels like their needs are being met and we all feel cared for.
I believe in this.
I believe that part of Gentle Parenting is putting in the work to discover this with our family systems. They are complex, with diverse people at diverse stages of development. As parents we are in many ways leaders of establishing the non-coercive, collaborative mindset in our homes. It’s a great responsibility and a worthy one. It requires us to be thinking and learning and stretching ourselves all the time.
I might also buy less candy, but if I felt that my kid felt a sense of shame because I wasn’t buying candy, I would go out of my way to make sure I brought home some extra candy. I want to be really clear that the shame is always my first priority. Our relationship is always my first priority.
This is precisely why kids are so open to my guidance. They feel my deep honoring of them. I know it can seem like we’re going to lose all control over them, and for a time it can feel that way because control feels different when it turns into influence.
Influence is very different however. Influence is relational. Influence is flexible and connected to the growth mindset. When I set limits with a kid I want it to be from that perspective.
I have a very diverse experience working with young people. I have volunteered in school, all the way from kindergarten to grade 8. I have taught English math science and music.
In grade 8 there was no music teacher and so I volunteered to take on the music program. I taught the entire band program, two classes a week including testing and grading. We even put on a music night for the community!
I have also taught children’s martial arts for many years. I have worked with at risk youth in a local youth organization. My experience with young people is quite extensive.
I have always used these principles in each of these different circumstances. Helping kids feel like we are on the same side has the most profound effect on our working relationship. This has been consistently true.