On Saying No: When and How to Set Loving Limits

Have you ever noticed how many parenting books and blogs are focused on obedience?

It’s unsettling.

I try to work with my son whenever possible, rather than asserting power over him.

I want my son to be cooperative, creative, and kind… not obedient.

I don’t want an obedient child.

If we want our children to be capable and independent, we need to allow them some agency from the beginning.  They deserve a say over their lives.

But our kids are still growing, still learning, and we do need to set limits at times.  Before we look at how to say no with love and empathy, it’s important to take a closer look at the boundaries we’ve set.

Limit Your Limits

Ask yourself: Is this truly necessary?  Or am I creating a needless power struggle?

Sometimes I set a limit without thinking and then reevaluate.  Yesterday, we needed to leave for grandma’s house after nap.  Rye asked for “beeboes”, and when I told him we couldn’t watch videos right then, he began to cry.

I could have gotten frustrated, forced him into his clothes, and carried him out to the car while he cried.  I didn’t.

I could have held a firm limit and empathized with him while he cried on the floor.  I didn’t do that either.

Instead, I chose to compromise.  I chose to work with my son to find a solution that worked for both of us.

“We don’t have time to watch a movie right now.  Do you want to watch one song while you get dressed?”

He calmed instantly, let me get him diapered and dressed, and was happy to leave for grandma’s when his two-minute video was over.

So many parents say, You can’t give in after saying no!  That just teaches kids to throw tantrums to get what they want.

I don’t agree with this mentality at all.  It’s based in fear and control, which is never a healthy place to base our decisions — least of all the choices we make on behalf of our kids.

I try not to set arbitrary, fear-based limits around screen time or anything else.

let them play

Default to YES

Say YES as often as you can.

Your newborn wants to be held?  Cuddle that baby!

Your toddler wants to sit on the coffee table?  Sure!

Your child wants to wear a tutu and rainboots?  Why not?!

Toddlers’ lives are inherently frustrating.  Just trying to be understood, getting their bodies to move in the ways that they want, being carted here and there by their parents…  It’s so much to cope with!

I give my son as much control over his life as possible.  I don’t set arbitrary limits.  So long as he’s not endangering himself or someone / something else, I try to say YES.

Set the Stage for Success

The environment we create for our children is so important.  How can you shape your home and your schedule to limit power struggles between you and your children?

Create a Yes Space

Your child should have at least one “yes space” where they can explore with no danger of harming themselves or something / someone else, where you never have to say NO.

For a baby, this could be a corner with a playpen — one that you can sit in too, not one that serves as a cage.

For older kids, it could be a play room where they can run wild or an art space where they’re free to make a mess.

I’ve done my best to turn our entire home into a yes space, since we live in a small condo.  Outlets are covered, cabinets are locked, and our bookcase is secured to the wall.  He’s free to climb on the coffee table, kick his ball around, and draw on the blackboard we used to block the fireplace.

It’s a safe space.

Remove Temptation

My son’s too young to play with our laptop without hurting it, so if he’s not watching videos from my lap, it’s either on a high table or out of sight.

I let my son color on the walls and the sliding glass door.  He only has chalk and crayons, both of which wash off easily.  If you’re not comfortable with that, don’t give your children unrestricted access to art supplies.  (Or, better yet, give them unrestricted access to washable supplies in an area where they can get messy.)

I keep only healthy food in the house, so that my son can have unlimited access to his choice of food.

You get the idea.  Arrange your life so that you can say YES as often as possible.

So, when DO I set limits for my son?

That’s always in flux.  I may set a limit one day and reconsider it the next.  If something becomes a struggle, I try to figure out a solution that meets everyone’s needs rather than trying to make my son obey.

I set limits to keep him safe and healthy.

Obviously if Rye puts himself in true and immediate danger (and he’s an energetic toddler, so that can be a daily thing), I intervene.

My goal is to help him learn to keep himself safe, so I work with him as much as possible.  By the time he was one and a half, he knew to stop at the edge of our parking lot and look both ways, saying, “Cars? No cars?”

I also limit the foods that he eats, because he’s very sensitive to processed food.  Something as simple as cheese and crackers at a friend’s house can cause two days of pain.

I set limits on behalf of myself and others.

As the old saying goes, our rights end where another’s begin.

I’ve begun a slow and gentle weaning process, because my health was suffering.  So I’m working towards only nursing three times a day.  Sometimes I’ll hold firm and empathize, while other times I’ll reconsider based on his need and emotional upset.

I’m careful to keep other kids safe from my very physical toddler, but there are no one-size-fits-all rules here.  His three-year-old friend enjoys a running hug, while another one-year-old won’t want to be tackled to the ground.

I try to catch him before he touches someone in a way they won’t like.  Regardless of whether I successfully preempt him or get there too late, I try to calmly explain what I’m doing and offer an alternative.

“Mia doesn’t like it when you hug her so hard she falls down.  She might like a gentle hug.”

“He doesn’t want that stick in his face.  You could bang it on the tree.”

“No milkies right now, Love.  Do you want a hug?  Or I could get you a snack or water?”

Communication and Connection

Ultimately, it’s about building trust.

I try to give my son as much control over his own life as possible.  He knows this, and because he trusts me, he’s generally very cooperative when I need him to be.

This trend continues into adulthood.  Children who are given autonomy and loving support all their lives have no reason to rebel as teens.  They look to their parents for advice, because they trust their parents not to try to control them.

It may take a fair amount of repetition before a toddler picks up on something.  It depends on the strength of the drive behind the behavior, on their ability to self-regulate, and on developing healthy coping mechanisms.

Rye picked up on the parking lot rule quickly, but still can’t be trusted not to chase a pigeon into the street.  He’s simply too young, and so I need to be ready to set a physical limit.  There’s no need to scold or punish.  I simply remind him, “I can’t let you run in the street.  That’s where cars drive.”

How to Set a Loving Limit

So, how can we respond when we truly need to set a limit?

Empathize, explain, and offer an alternative.

Acknowledge Their Wants and Empathize

Toddlers are so often misunderstood.  Simply acknowledging what they’re asking for may diffuse their frustration.

“You wanted to chase the pigeon, but it ran off of the sidewalk.”

“You really want to eat what they’re eating.  I’m sorry.  That’s so frustrating.”

Explain the Limit

My son is just shy of his second birthday, so my I keep my explanations simple.

“We don’t run in the street.  That’s where the cars drive.”

“I can’t let you eat that.  It hurts your belly.”

Problem Solve

This may happen with the kids or without them, at the moment or at a later date.

My son is not quite two years old, so I’ll often offer an alternative.

“Look, there’s more birds on the grass!  Let’s go!”

“We can’t eat that.  Would you like some blueberries instead?”

In the second example, he was so upset that we had to remove him from the situation.  In the future, I’ll plan better so that I have more options for him, like cheese he can eat in place of one that might make him sick.

Sometimes I figure it out in the moment, like offering to meet him halfway with his request for a movie when I was trying to get us out the door.  Other times I reflect on it later and figure out how I can avoid a repeat situation.

If your kids are older, they can and should be a part of the process.  You can have a conversation with them instead of trying to problem solve alone.

A Note on Violence

Rye is 22 months old.  He hits.

…and kicks and scratches and pulls hair and occasionally throws rocks at people’s heads.

And hugs and kisses and cuddles.  He’s just a very physical little guy.

He’s been like this since he was an infant.  If someone surprised him by suddenly getting in his space, he hit them.  He lashes out when he feels overwhelmed.

His impulse control is still developing, so it would be unreasonable for me to simply tell him “No!” and expect for him to stop.

It would be doubly unreasonable for me to hurt him in an attempt to teach him not to hurt people.  (I can’t tell you how many people have told me to slap his hand or bite him to “show him how it feels”.)

It’s my responsibility to be proactive and catch his hand before he hits me or another kid.

If he’s overwhelmed, I pick him up and remove him from the situation.

If he’s simply excited, I look for a way to redirect his energy, like drumming on the table or throwing rocks into a puddle.

He’s learning.  Slowly.  Sometimes he’ll stop his hand just short of hitting someone.  Often he’ll tell me, “No hit people!” or “No throw rocks people!”

Eventually, with enough loving attention, these problem behaviors melt away.  But the lessons our children learn from our behavior stay with them forever.

Recommended Reading

Some of my favorite books on working with kids and setting loving limits.
Affiliate links follow.

How do you set loving limits with your children?

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