5 Ways to Set Limits Without Resorting to Punishment

One of the most common questions parents ask me about mindful parenting is whether their child will learn to do what they’re asked. In short, if we're gentle and kind will they just be spoiled and out of control?! In fact, my husband asked me this very question today!

Mindful parenting (and other similar approaches like Peaceful Parenting) is not about being weak and just letting your children do whatever they want!

We absolutely need to set firm limits for our children as part of teaching them how to live as a good person in this world. Children need clear, consistent limits about what is or isn't safe or acceptable behaviour. They need confident parents who set their kids’ firm boundaries (and expand them as they grow up) or they can actually feel less secure.

But we need to set limits without resorting to threats or punishment.

Why not use punishment (eg time-outs or taking away their special toy etc) if they are really naughty or disobedient? There are two main reasons we need to remain compassionate and kind:

  1. When kids are upset they are totally irrational and can’t learn what you are trying to teach them. You need to calm them down first and connection is the quickest and best way to do this – not anger or punishment.
  2. If we punish them or get angry every time they disobey us, make a mistake or get upset, kids learn that they are not loved when they are emotional or not being “good” – their parents only love them sometimes. This is where the “I’m not good enough” syndrome in many adults stems from – our parents loved us conditionally (only when we did what they wanted).

But, I hear you say, children can be very stubborn, distracted or, frankly, rather naughty - so how do we deal with their disobedience and get them to cooperate?

This will help!

Here are 5 key strategies that you can use to set firm and clear limits while still keeping yourself calm.

(BTW, I have a really stubborn, focused daughter who does not usually just do what she's asked on the first request - so I have road-tested these strategies for you on a tough customer!)

#1 – Always keep your voice (and body language) calm but firm when asking for action

Engage them first by getting eye contact (come over to them if necessary). Then state firmly and clearly what you want them to do. Don’t ask them a question – state what you want them to do. But use a calm, friendly voice so it is not threatening!

Eg. (After a 5 minute warning) "Charlie please put the Lego away now – I need you to clear the table for dinner now".

NOT: "Charlie can you please put the Lego away?"

#2 – Keep your rules consistent.

Stick to your rules about what you want them to do or how they need to behave. By being consistent they will learn that you mean it – if you sometimes drop your standards then they won’t take you seriously.

For example, if you want them to eat meals only at the table or kitchen bench and not elsewhere in the house, then ensure they always do this. If they walk around the house with food, make sure they come back to the dining area every time.

#3 – Agree with your partner what the rules are.

In advance, talk with your partner and make sure you’re on the same page about what your kids can and cannot do. Also, try to take the same approach to setting limits – can you both use a firm, clear communication style without resorting to yelling or punishment?

#4 – Talk about why it’s the rule.

If your child won’t do what you ask, take a moment to explain WHY you want them to do it. It may seem tedious, but if they haven’t bought in to what you’re asking for, that may be because you never told them WHY! Explaining that you want them to only eat in the dining area because you don’t want food messing up the carpet could help them to comply. If you can even discuss it with them so they feel part of the decision, that’s even better!

#5 – Give them some control over things

Young kids have so little control over their lives so, usually, their power struggle with you is simply them asserting themselves to feel less pushed around in life. If you have a stubborn child, make a point of giving them choices so they feel some sense of power. Of course, only give them choices between two options that are both fine with you!

I know it’s hard when our kids just won’t go out the door/get in the car/come to the dinner table/get dressed/the list is endless.... We feel they don’t respect us and we aren’t in charge. But we ARE the adults! I’ve found this is something I've had to work at with patience and consistency and it has improved over time. (There are always those bad late afternoons, though, where my daughter is too tired/hungry/overstimulated to cooperate...)

Keep being clear and firm and, wherever you can, engage them in the decisions and choices, and it will get easier over time (I promise!).

By the way, have you been using my free Cheat Sheet about how to get your kids to cooperate? You can still download it here - it's got heaps of tips and strategies to help you get through your children's stubborn moments each day and still be smiling!

Go well my friend,

Suzie xx