Boundary Setting For Parents

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A few months ago my son asked if he could have a candy bar after dinner for dessert. My wife and I reminded him that he’d already had candy two days before and that we have a “one candy per week rule” in our house, so we said no. So he asked again. So we said no again. Then he asked yet again. And we said no again. Then he started whining. “Please, please,” he said. “You never let me have candy! I really want it!” Though we were both annoyed, neither my wife nor I became upset. We simply continued to say no. We didn’t explain why. We didn’t argue with him. We simply repeated the same message.

Eventually, he stopped whining—and then calmly and reasonably asked for a candy bar again. When we said no this time, he said—finally—”Okay.” He was clearly still disappointed, but he just as clearly accepted our answer—and then happily got into his bath and began splashing and playing as he always does.

When he was younger, he would sometimes completely melt down when we denied him something, especially if he was tired. Certainly, the temptation to end such tantrums by giving in was strong. But the few times we did, we quickly learned just how big a mistake we were making: it would practically guarantee another tantrum the very next time we said no. By giving in when he would throw a tantrum we were communicating that throwing a tantrum was an effective way for him to get what he wanted. So we stopped. And then so did his tantrums.

This isn’t to say when parents hold their ground that their children will always stop throwing tantrums. But giving in to tantrums is a sure way to train children to keep having them. And one need only look around at the adults one knows who still throw tantrums when they don’t get their way to understand that tantrum-throwing isn’t an activity restricted only to children.

Sometimes saying no is easy: when the thing he wants is clearly inappropriate (“Can I eat a cookie instead of lunch?”). But sometimes we decide to say no after a split-second deliberation over something we might just as easily have said yes to: “Yes, you can skip your bath tonight,” or “Yes, you watch an extra fifteen minutes of television.” And he seems to be able to sense when we’re not entirely convinced that we should be saying no with an insight that almost makes me believe in mental telepathy.

But as much as I dislike saying no to him, I recognize that it represents and important opportunity for me to teach him how to manage disappointment. In a world where so many adults seem not to have learned this lesson, I’m easily able to view the consequences of this particular kind of parental failure. As a result, I’ve come to realize the biggest obstacle to successfully raising a resilient child is a non-resilient parent.

Saying no to a child requires grit, self-control, and stamina. You have to know why you’re saying no each and every time. It’s easier if the reason seems like a good one. This is why I try not to say no impulsively. Instead, I try to pause when I’m not immediately sure if what he’s asking for is okay and ask myself: Will it put him at risk for being harmed (not using a seatbelt in a car)? Is the lesson that saying no teaches a good one (you can’t eat candy instead of dinner)? I don’t always get it right, and I sometimes have reversed my decision. He’s old enough now that when I explain why I’ve reversed my decision he understands and doesn’t then subsequently continue to test the boundaries I’ve established for appropriate behavior.

Yes, saying no is harder than saying yes. But children who aren’t taught boundaries often become tyrants. And children who become tyrants often grow up to become adults who are tyrants. An entire generation of parents seems to have failed to teach their children how to handle disappointment. I have no evidence that proves it, but from personal observation I’m inclined to believe that this is far more a failure of “nurture” than it is of “nature.”

As parents, we must gird ourselves to be reasonable yet consistent in the way we refuse our children’s wishes. It’s not about being nice or mean, fair or unfair. It’s about teaching a crucial life skill. We must accept that acting-out behavior is the price we must pay to teach it (the more consistent we are, the more likely such behavior will eventually be extinguished). The price of failure is a child who expects too much from the world, who never learns to manage his own disappointment, and who lacks the resilience to be successful in life. And that failure is ours.

Next Week: Where Does Wisdom Come From?

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  • Anecdotes do not make data. I’m glad that you feel successful as a parent. The experience with one child in no way provides enough experience to make sweeping conclusions about about other parents and their child rearing decisions. Please be happy that your child is developing normally and learning basics of human interaction. It is very rewarding to see a child’s progress and maturity. But many other parents are coping with very different children and circumstances, that are not so positive. It doesn’t help any of them to be lectured about how inadequate their parenting techniques are. I can guarantee that many of them have held their ground just like you and your wife did with very different and negative results. These struggling parents need support and understanding.

    Gail: I have no doubt you’re right, that many parents do their best to hold their ground but get less-than-ideal results. But I’ve observed many parents who don’t seem to see the importance of trying, and it’s to them that I directed this post. Thank you for making the point that parents everywhere need support and understanding. I could not agree more!


  • When our younger son was a toddler, he climbed out of his crib one night and suddenly appeared downstairs, ready to continue his day. We returned him to his crib. Moments later, he reappeared downstairs. We put him back and, after a quick (whispered) consultation, sat together at the head of the stairs. I don’t know how often he got out of bed but each time, we just put him back in without scolding—we just repeated, “It’s bedtime.” Finally, he looked exhausted but came out one more time—again, we put him back—no discussions. He never got out of his crib again. Maybe he thought we were so boring we just sat at the head of the stairs all night after he went to bed, lol. A small amount of calm persistence won the day. (PS to Gail: this was our more willful child. The strategy may be harder to implement with some than others but definitely worth a shot.)

  • Thank you so much for emphasizing the importance of parenting and saying no. This is just the encouragement I needed tonight.

  • I didn’t in the least translate Alex’s post as a “lecture,” and I think he’s right about what I would call an epidemic of parents who are not setting boundaries for their children. I see it all the time. Regardless of types of children and circumstances, they need boundaries and limits in order to grow up to be healthy adults.

  • Thanks, Dr. L. Just wanted to pass the message that it also works with dogs who can throw the perfect k9 equivalent of baby tantrums. You cannot use words as much to enforce the rules, but enforcing the rules with love and kindness is the only way to go (and it applies equally to you and to your human or furry baby). I am not ashamed to say that I’ve also tried the other option (giving in, getting angry) and it is a no-go.

  • Alex, intermittent reinforcement is the strongest kind! Children learn very quickly that three asks might lead to a yes. There are so many important lessons for parents and children in setting a firm boundary. For parents, learning to cope with an unpleasant response by a young child can strengthen the parent’s ability to set a boundary when the child is older and the stakes are higher (e.g., why can’t I go to that party or skip school or come home drunk?). There is another benefit of a firm no—modeling that for your child. They need to have a firm no themselves—and the inner strength to resist caving in when their peers (or other adults) don’t like the answer they’re getting (e.g., no I don’t want to kissed; no I don’t want to drink that). I have learned so much from parenting my boys, now teens. Thanks for sharing your insights.

    Chris: I think your last point is especially on target. Learning to say no as an adult is especially difficult for many (including me, as I wrote about in my most popular post to date, The Good Guy Contract.)


  • Teaching children discipline is essential to their success and happiness in the adult world, regardless of how difficult it is for the parent to teach. Many parents want to wrap our children is a soft cocoon of no risk, no disappointment, no conflict and no responsibility. By mastering the smaller challenges of early life the child develops the skills necessary for success in adult life. Failure to teach your child the skills necessary to successfully navigate adult life is failure as a parent. There are no exceptions and no excuses.

  • While I agree totally with your post, I think the meta message a child receives in HOW the parents send the no message is of greater importance. What is the tone and is it a tone of power and win or remaining firmly a loving “no”?

    I would also add that modeling may be a strong influence as well. What does the child see and hear when one parent says no to the other. How often does a parent “sneak” a break in accepted behavior?

    Of course another whole article could be devoted to grandparenting, which I have found to be a totally different experience and conveys another message of a calm accepting more fun resilience.

  • Of course nothing works 100% of the time with 100% of the children, but the data does support consistency in parenting and firm boundaries (as per this post), even with children with different needs. Someone mentioned that the mode of delivery is also important, and this is also true—general interactions with the child should be “attachment-rich”—lots of attention and warmth directed towards the child, while when rules or consequences need to be enforced (e.g., time out), interactions should be “attachment-neutral”—i.e., no high expressed emotion (such as yelling), parents should try to remain calm and neutral. (I’m sure this is easier said than done, but it does work!). An important point is that children need to understand the rules, however —i.e., time out for a child who does not understand the situation or what they did wrong is not effective in addressing any “problem” behavior.

  • The matter of saying “no” in situations where a “no” is not immediately the obvious/logical/only response, made me think of a company I read about which has this rule for customer service staff: Any customer service representative can say “yes” without further authorization, but in order to say “no” to the customer they need to have consulted with and sought the agreement of a colleague.

  • Dear but harmfully permissive friends of ours provided the “negative” model my wife and I needed to see the worth of teaching discipline from an early age. The inquisitive child is constantly testing boundaries and learns from infancy how to play the game. For our family no meant no. Period. The inevitable “Why not?!” presented learning opportunities and had to be answered (if at all!) thoughtfully and judiciously.

    Of course, candy was an issue. It was limited. We were proud that our daughter always had perfect teeth.

    But…it was only a couple of years ago that my thirty-year-old daughter admitted that she had regularly shop-lifted candy from the check-out aisle as a small child. We kept her close and safe when shopping together, yet no one knew. Clever little girl! She did it for years. Did we do her harm? Should the powerful call of sugar be an exception or particularly carefully watched? The small crimes don’t seem to have damaged my adult daughter, the successful and respected high school teacher. Would we do it differently now? I don’t know.