Your child is jumping on the couch for the 50th time, despite you repeatedly asking them not to. When you ask them to stop yet again, they just look you in the eye as they keep jumping, almost daring you to make them.
Your child asks you for candy right before bedtime, and you say “no.” Your child kicks you. Or they want to play with sticks as swords. You agree to play with them for 30 minutes before you sit down for some self-care time with a book. You provide a gentle reminder half way through and then 5 minutes before the half hour is up, but when reading time arrives, your child throws the stick at you anyway.
When our children show us their worst behavior, our instinct is to exert control. After all, if they can’t even comply with basic requests like not kicking or throwing stuff at you, certainly it’s because we’re being too permissive. And the way to be less permissive is to set more limits.
But what if setting more limits is actually making the problem worse?
You probably already set way more limits than you need
When I work with parents who are frustrated, exasperated, and exhausted by their child’s behavior, one of the first things we do is consider the limits they’re setting—and they are almost universally shocked to see just how often they do it. Sometimes every third thing out of their mouths starts with the word “don’t,” or has the word “no” in it.
In fact, psychologists find that by adulthood many people have extraordinarily negative associations with the word “no,” associating it with their parents’ discipline when they were young, or punishing a dog. You can test this: tell someone (a partner, coworker, etc.) that you’re going to say ten words and then ask how they feel. Then say “No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.” Now ask how they feel. Then say “yes” ten times and ask again. Chances are the Nos will leave them feeling deflated, dejected, or sad, whereas the Yeses will leave them feeling uplifted, invited, or welcomed. (You can try this on yourself as well, but the effect may be blunted because you know what we’re looking for.)
All of these “no’s” end up setting the tone for our relationships with our children. And most of us don’t want that tone to be so negative, but what choice do we have if our children won’t even cooperate on the basics?
Set fewer limits that are grounded in your values
Most of the time when we set limits, they aren’t actually grounded in our values. We’re simply seeking our child’s cooperation, and we set a limit in the hopes that this time they will magically comply without a fight. But this approach hasn’t worked the last 50,938 times we’ve tried it, so why would it work this time?
What we can instead do is to set far fewer limits, and when we do, to set limits solidly grounded in our values. When we drastically cut down the number of limits we set, we’re effectively doling out a lot fewer “no’s,” and you probably already know the effect that has: It draws people toward us, and makes them want to work with us. And when they feel us getting out of our eternal “fight” mode, they won’t need to be in their eternal “fight” mode. They’ll want to cooperate.
Setting fewer limits doesn’t mean letting the kids rule the roost. We’re simply choosing the limits that are better grounded in our values. Most of the time when we set limits, it’s around behaviors that aren’t new. It’s on repeated patterns of behavior that irritate the heck out of us, over and over again. Instead of dealing with this stuff on the fly, we can make plans to do so in advance. Is it something that is really (really) important to us? If yes, we’re going to set a limit on that.
But if it’s something that we can say isn’t really grounded in our values—but we just find a bit annoying—chances are we can find a way for our child to do some version of it without it driving us up the wall.
Making a weird sound right next to us? “You’re welcome to make that noise—in another room.” Jumping on the (ancient) sofa? “The sofa might break if you jump on it; you can jump on my bed if you’d like.” Throwing stuff inside? “Let’s head outside and throw a ball!”
When we combine setting fewer limits with being super firm on the limits that actually are important to us, that’s when the magic happens. Our children go from testing every single thing to wanting to work with us. That’s because they see us invested in the relationship, and they want to be invested in it, too.
And then we find that setting fewer limits is one of the most important keys to better behavior—no permissiveness required.
Jen Lumanlan hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast, which distills scientific research on parenting and child development into tools parents can use to make decisions about raising their children. She also hosts the Setting Loving (& Effective!) Limits workshop, a free program with short exercises over five days that helps parents to set way fewer limits than they ever thought possible—and dramatically improve their relationship with their child.