Can you "enforce" your limits without force?

“I try to use positive parenting, but there always comes a point where I’m stuck and threaten a timeout. Without punishment, how do I enforce my limits? I can remind her until I’m blue in the face about the things she’s supposed to do, but I can’t actually MAKE her. What do I do to make my child behave, if I can’t use force?” – Lisabeth

If you’ve been relying on threats to get your child to cooperate, then you’ve run into this problem. Without threats, how is your child motivated to do what you say?

The short answer is, there are better strategies than threats, because the threat of punishment only works temporarily.

Sure, it might get your child to comply for this minute. Timeouts scare young children into complying because they’re a form of ritual, temporary abandonment. But they don’t teach kids to regulate the emotions that drove them to behave badly, so the misbehavior continues.

Eventually, kids rebel and you have to escalate your force. You can drag your flailing child, but sooner or later you won’t be able to do that, and in the meantime she’s not learning self-discipline.

What’s more, the more often you resort to punishment, the less your child will WANT to cooperate. I hear frequently from parents of six year olds who have become defiant, now that they can’t be dragged to timeout. The six year olds who were never punished with timeouts (or other punishment) but were instead taught family expectations and emotional regulation are much better behaved and cooperative.

And I don’t think you just want obedience (although we all do, sometimes!) You want to raise a person who WANTS to cooperate, and to do the right thing.

So force doesn’t actually get kids to behave any better. In fact, research shows that punishment makes kids misbehave more. (There’s a list of studies about this on the Aha! Parenting website: Why Positive Parenting.) Here’s why. WE know that brushing teeth, not hitting his sister and not sneaking a cookie are for your child’s highest good. But he doesn’t. In fact, he is strongly driven to avoid teeth brushing, demolish his rival, and eat as many cookies as he can. The only reason for him to go against what he thinks will serve him is that he trusts us to always have his best interests at heart.

But when we punish, he decides we’re no longer on his side. He feels wronged. Even if we can get him to parrot back to us why he was punished, he still feels wronged inside. (Don’t you remember feeling this way when you were young?) 

What’s more, threats and punishment don’t help a child control the bad feelings that drive him to behave badly. He ends up alone with all those scary feelings. He concludes that he’s a bad person. He feels less and less like trying to please us. That’s why punishment destroys a child’s desire to behave.

As Alfie Kohn concluded after reviewing the research on this issue: “Punishments erode relationships and moral growth.” 

But we CAN motivate our child to meet our expectations and comply with our limits. Here’s how.

1. Teach appropriate behavior with loving guidance.

If your child doesn’t know the appropriate behavior, help her learn it. If she does know but won’t do it, then help her want to. With brushing teeth, that means making it fun and giving her control.  To resist hitting her sister, that means helping her develop a competing impulse, like the desire to please you, the desire to see herself as a good person, and empathy and affection for her sister. But she’ll also need some tools to work things out with her sibling, and to regulate her emotions.

2. Teach emotional regulation by modeling emotional regulation.

Kids learn how to handle big emotions by watching how we do it.

Does that mean you can’t get mad?  No. It means you calm down as soon as you can — hopefully before you open your mouth. And you support yourself in every way so that you have the internal resources to regulate yourself. Anyone will blow up once they’re pushed over the edge. So your responsibility as the grown-up is to stay away from the edge.

That means that in the moment when you need cooperation, you’ll be more effective in getting it if you stay calm.

3. Set limits with empathy.

Want your child to accept your limits? State them clearly, kindly, and with understanding of what your child is feeling. Your child knows she won’t get everything she wants, but she at least needs to feel like you understand why she’s upset, and that she isn’t a bad person for wanting what she wants.

If you need to, get in his face in a friendly way to let him know you aren’t going anywhere until he does what you’re asking.

“Ethan, you know the rule is that everyone clears their own plate after dinner. I know you can’t wait to watch your show, AND no screens until your plate is cleared. Let’s go. (Marching child back to dining table) 

“It’s hard to stop playing and get ready for bed. I bet when you’re a grown-up, you’ll never go to bed, will you?”

That means that in the moment when you need cooperation, you’re most likely to get it if you set a clear limit AND at the same time offer understanding about your child’s perspective.

4. Help your child manage his emotions by helping him express them.

Even if we’re always calm, children still have big feelings. They learn to regulate those emotions when we accept their feelings, even as we limit their actions.

“You’re mad at your sister. You can tell your sister what you need without attacking her.”

Some parents are fine with sadness, but when their child gets angry, they get triggered. But your child’s anger is masking his hurt, fear, sadness, or powerlessness. He won’t show those deeper feelings to you unless he feels safe enough; he’ll just keep “acting them out” with “bad” or angry behavior.

That’s why creating safety is the best parental response any time big emotions flare up. The more safety, the more he can show you what’s really going on under that anger. (How do you create safety? In the moment of anger, with compassion. And 24/7, with empathy and playfulness.)

5. Empower your child to make repairs.

Kids feel terrible when they hurt others. They need a way to dig out of the hole they’ve created for themselves, so they can feel (and act) like a good person again.  Support your child to find ways to repair relationships and make amends. Can your toddler get the ice pack or his friend’s blankie?  Can your four year old rebuild the tower with his brother? Can your six year old make her sister a card or do her sister’s chore? 

If you impose these as consequences, you’re right back to punishment. But if you model this kind of making amends in your family, and expect it your child to make repairs, your child will learn to do so. Note that all humans need to calm down before apologies and amends are sincere and meaningful. First, help your child express her feelings. Then, wonder aloud how she can make things better with the other person.

6. Above all else, protect the relationship. 

Children “behave” because they love and trust us and want to follow our lead. But we have to earn that level of devotion. We earn it by managing our own emotions so we can stay compassionate with our child and help her when she most needs us. Which, if you were wondering, is when she seems to least deserve it. Children need physical snuggling and roughhousing to feel close on a daily basis, and they need our non-reactive compassion to help them through the tough spots. Your child isn’t cooperating? Reconnect.

And you’ll never find yourself reaching for force again.