Why “Choosing Your Battles” May Not Be An Effective Parenting Strategy


Doubt can plague parents. Are you too strict?  Too permissive? Do you know which things are important to set limits on? Or do you just choose your battles and let the small stuff slide?  Where is the middle ground on limit setting that will help your child become the confident, respectful, and kind person that he is intended to be?

NGDPhotoworks / Pixabay

NGDPhotoworks / Pixabay

I was recently part of a thought provoking online discussion on the RIE/Mindful Parenting Facebook group about limit setting that highlighted many of these doubts.  Many people were bringing different perceptions on limit setting to the table.  Some didn’t realize that they should be setting limits on certain things because those things didn’t bother them, some set them inconsistently, some were giving too many choices, others too many chances, while others hadn’t adjusted to their children’s new developmental stages. Then there was me, who let the small stuff go because it didn’t seem worth it in the moment. I was “picking my battles” as the saying goes, or waiting for a better, more convenient time. What I wasn’t seeing though, was these aren’t “battles,” nor are our  children tiny little enemies. They are just children who need direction and by letting the small stuff go, I was reinforcing their tendencies to persist with their wants because they couldn’t determine when I would and would not stick to my guns.

It became clear as the discussion evolved that none of these varying perceptions mattered a whole lot – at the crux of the issue, our problems were the same. Most of us weren’t setting the strong limits we thought we were.  Some of us were better at recognizing the limits, but engaging in power struggles.  Some of us weren’t seeing the limit and some of us were inconsistent. Some of us would make excuses for behaviors when children were tired, sick or stressed; essentially teaching them that it is acceptable and excusable to act poorly during times of strife. Toward the end of the discussion, Brettania, a mother to  3 year old and 15 month old boys, wrote a comment that transcended all our perceptions and we began to see that the issue was much simpler than we were making it. Our children needed leaders and once they had them- life would get easier for us and our children.

Brettania, who didn’t realize she should be setting limits on things that didn’t bother her, gave a powerful example. After much thought, hard work and a few consults with parent coaches and RIE professionals (Resources for Infant Educarers; pronounced “rye”) Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury  Brettania discovered that, without realizing it, she had been trying to set only limits that “seemed completely justified or necessary” with her oldest son.  She made a list of all the things she thought she was permissive and/or wishy-washy about—and, much to her surprise, it was a long list. The list included things like giving her son his favorite spoon even though that meant she’d have to wash it, complying with demands from her oldest that she feed his younger brother a certain flavor of yogurt, or that she switch seats at the dinner table.  She explained:

I had thought that I had plenty of clear, consistent limits in place. And I do—about some things. I realized I am great with limits about safety issues, health issues, issues related to not letting my son do things that would damage our house or things. These limits are easy for me and my son respects them. But, after much thought, I realized that I placate my son in many other areas where I feel unsure of whether or not there needs to be a limit because they are things that usually don’t bother me. So I came to the conclusion that, even though all of these little things didn’t matter to me, maybe they should. That maybe the reason they should matter to me is because I was giving my son too much power, and making him feel insecure as a result. So I decided that even though I honestly don’t care which chair I sit in, etc. I was going to start saying no to all of these ‘preference issues’ and then just acknowledge and accept whatever emotions came.

When Brettania did tighten her limits, the result was amazing:

Wow! There was screaming and crying, such as when I told him I was going to finish my breakfast before coming to his bedroom…when I (gasp) gave his 1 year old brother MY choice of yogurt…when I told him that his favorite spoon was dirty and he would have to use a different spoon. But these strong reactions only lasted about 2 days. On Day 3 of my ‘new plan,’ he asked me which yogurt his brother was eating and I replied “banana” (which was usually a flavor he didn’t want his brother to eat), and he just took another bite of his food and didn’t bat an eye.

MakyFoto / Pixabay

MakyFoto / Pixabay

By Day 5 she had even more encouraging news:

He is wanting a lot more hugs and cuddles—he just climbs into my lap a lot, smiling, which he didn’t used to do.  He no longer wants to follow me around the house when I need to do a task and now chooses to stay in his play-room and play alone when I am busy.

He is also cooperating more readily. Earlier today my phone fell out of my pocket and he grabbed it. In the past, he would not have given it back willingly, and I would have had to follow him and physically take it away. But today I said, “That is not OK with me for you to take my phone. Please give it back,” and he walked right back to me and set it down next to me. This has never happened before!

Similarly, we accidentally left the door to our office open and my son ran in. Usually I would have to follow him in and physically remove him. This time I just said, “That is not OK with me, you know that you are not allowed to be in the office even if you find the door unlocked. Please come out.” And he walked right back out and said, “Sorry, mom.” I almost fell over in shock.

The best thing of all is that he is sleeping better! He always sleeps 12-13 hours overnight, but usually he has 1 or 2 night awakenings when he screams at the top of his lungs and wakes up the whole family. The past 3 nights he has slept through and we have not heard a peep from him overnight. It seems to me that even the improved sleep may be related to my stronger limits.

She continues on to explain what was hard about the new limits, and how she got over that:

The hardest part for me was that it almost felt inauthentic for me to say no to a request, say, to have me sit in a certain chair, since I didn’t care about the chair. But if I think to myself, the reason I am saying no to changing chairs now is not because of the chair, but just because I need to make sure my son doesn’t feel too powerful, then I can say no authentically because I see it is what he needs from me. For example, with the chairs, my thought was, sure, I’ll move, I don’t really care where I sit…. Does it end up an issue because he is dictating what I am doing? I was thinking on these sort of things that I didn’t care about, that it didn’t matter either way to me, so why engage in a power struggle. Now I think maybe it has to do with how he perceives it —like maybe the child is thinking “Wow, I can change where mom sits, if her coat is zipped or not, how her hair is, what flavor of yogurt my little brother eats, etc.,” and maybe that is an uncomfortable feeling for a child.

Many parents experience this. It’s so easy to give in to the seemingly small demands of your child; washing a favored spoon multiple times a day, changing chairs at the dinner table or watching a different show after you’ve already changed it three times. Maybe your child insists you play with her and call her by an imaginary name all day long or needs her blanket on just so every time she sits down.  Maybe your self-care is on the back burner—going to the bathroom with the door shut, finishing your meal, or showering.  They are all things you deserve to do—and you can—by setting effective limits and boundaries.

What I began to realize was even the term “choose your battles” was hindering me. These aren’t battles – they are children who are having a hard time. Children who need guidance from the everyday parenting decisions we all face.  It can be easy to sigh and switch cups, shrugging it off as trivial, when your toddler screams for the blue cup after you’ve already filled the red cup he first asked for, but what if you start adding those small things up?  How many times a day are you bending over backwards to please your child, perhaps without even realizing it?  It adds up fast, as you’ll see, if you dare to make a list like Brettania’s.  Seeing these many opportunities to teach and guide as a kind of battle had become emotionally tiring for me, so changing my perspective was especially freeing. I could now treat them much more casually and with much less struggle. I was then able to see what a sad statement “choosing your battles” actually is – that we might be seeing our youngest and most avid learners as our adversaries and that outlook is not healthy for anyone involved.

Janet Lansbury agrees that limits are a “big deal”—“because,” she says, “each interaction defines your relationship. If a 4 year old can wave her hands and make adults move and try to please her, that’s a very uncomfortable relationship for the child to be in…especially when she is dealing with a difficult transition like a new baby or a move and needs solid parents more than ever. The more children are going through, the tighter boundaries need to be for them to feel comfortable. Which is not the same as being angry or strict.”

As Lisa Sunbury explains, “While children may have preferences and make requests, sometimes the answer is going to be no. And it’s paradoxical, but it doesn’t work to honor all demands, especially about ‘little things,’ in hopes the child will then cooperate with the limits you do set…. it just tends to make them feel more insecure and act in more demanding ways. They are just learning this stuff and they are looking to us. If we are tentative, wishy-washy, doormats, unsure, they need to keep pushing to find a clear answer. There is incredible safety in and relief for children when they can count on their parents to be calm leaders, and to provide the limits and safe container in which they can thrash about, knowing the parent will hold firm. ”

In other words, we really can’t overlook the small stuff like spoons and chairs, because these are really opportunities for our children to feel relieved that we, the parents, are taking care of things and we are in charge. They get to see us model self-respect and to internalize the right way to treat others. When we set limits around smaller issues, the protests around larger issues may decrease by half or even more. When we don’t set these limits, we allow them to experiment on our reactions, they then begin to feel insecure and too powerful, leading them to feel older than their age and less free to be joyful and playful. We show them that they can make us do things or they begin to test everything so that we are constantly cleaning up and fixing things they have done because they don’t know what we will or will not allow. They begin to wonder and test:  What else can I get her to do? She did it last time, will she do it this time too? What about Dad, will he do it? The behavior persists and then worsens as the child seeks clarity from his less-than-confident parents.

I’m not suggesting that we be militant micromanaging dictators. You can be balanced, and not a dictator, by saving choices for times when there are reasonable ones, particularly in play and self-care: he can pick his outfit, his cereal and what he plays, but, in general, your children don’t mandate how far you must bend.  For example, I often let my son take risks that many would not be comfortable with in his play. He climbs, jumps and explores because that’s the way he learns to know what his body is capable of and it’s how he learns to manage risk.  If he thinks he is capable – he probably is and he makes far better choices because he has been allowed to fail.  There are lots of decisions children can make on their own without us caving to demanding tones on the “small stuff.”  And by all means if the spoon is available – go ahead and give it to him! Don’t not give it on principle alone, after all we are trying to teach our children manners and self respect. It’s the demanding tone and constant testing that we are trying to prevent, not courteous requests.

One clue that your limits have strayed to the permissive side, says Janet Lansbury, is if your child frequently says things like “You have to…” rather than saying “I wish you would….”  If you hear your child demanding rather than asking, or find yourself feeling resentful or annoyed, then it may be time to reel in out-of-control behavior. Say, “I hear how much you want that blue cup. I’m sorry, but it’s dirty right now. You can have the orange or the yellow one.” Then let the situation unfold as it may.

amandacatherine / Pixabay

amandacatherine / Pixabay

Your child may, and probably will, protest or cry for a few days as the changes sink in, as Brettania’s son did. The crying is healthy—it releases the stress that carrying so much power has caused. Tantrums can be inconvenient and uncomfortable, BUT listening through your child’s tantrum, empathizing with his disappointment while holding firm… that will stop him from becoming the demanding, controlling child that we all hope not to have.  In the end, you will have a child who can graciously accept other people’s boundaries—a child who is patient, flexible, tolerant, and a joy to be with.

So go ahead and let him be upset about not getting the right spoon or chair or cup—that shows him you value yourself, too.  It shows him that he can relax into being the carefree child he was meant to be, because Mom’s got this.


More information on limit setting and accepting emotion:

7 Reasons Kids Need us to Disagree by  Janet Lansbury, Elevating Childcare

Preventing Power Struggles with Choices and Effective Limits – By Tiffany Gough, Respectful Parent

Setting Limits with Respect – What it Sounds Like – a podcast by Janet Lansbury, Elevating Childcare

Confessions of a Pushoever Parent (and How I turned This Around) by Janet Lansbury, Elevating Childcare

Coping with a Limit Tester by Kate Russell, Peaceful Parent, Confident Kids


29 thoughts on “Why “Choosing Your Battles” May Not Be An Effective Parenting Strategy

  1. Great article. Just curious how you view the longer term implications of this method, as I have drawn a general conclusion that the kids I knew whose parents were very “strict”, tended to eventually rebel in later years but follow some other peer group instead and have trouble taking responsibility for their own lives… I’m sure this conclusion is way off, but I wonder where you see kids learning to stand up for what they need/want, and to make decisions for themselves, if parents generally do not even consider the child’s preferences (ie the example where the child is given a purple cup but would like a blue one instead….). just trying to navigate parenting one extremely strong-willed child and another who constantly tries to please. Thanks!!

    • Thank you for the question, Amanda. I would not consider myself overly strict. This post was intended to highlight when your kids are testing limits and signs that they need your leadership. I would never deny them a reasonable request if the request was available and they asked me in a respectful way. The demanding behavior is what I wanted to stop, not their sense of self or free choice. My kids get lots of choices and sometimes if they really want a dirty cup they wash it for themselves! Or if it is clean of course I would offer it. It’s the bending over backwards to avoid upset that I learned was doing them no favors. I did mention in the post they get to make lots of decisions in their every day life….just not when they are being aggressive or rude. They get to explore out in our neighborhood without me hovering, to climb things many parents aren’t comfortable with, they pick what they wear or don’t wear, what goes in their lunch, there are so many decisions that they can make on their own outside of these moments that they are not in his “right mind.” In those moments they show me that I need to take the reigns for a little while and help them regain their composure. I hope this has not come off as being controlling as “preference issues” are a very welcome part of autonomy. I agree that kids that don’t get to practice making decisions now grow up to be indecisive adults.

      To answer your question about kids who have overly strict parents, I would answer that this is not the case here. I am not overly strict, nor do I think that is a great path. I’m not trying to control my kids, I am only taking my place as another whole person in the family. I deserve to be respected as much as they do, so by sticking up for myself and not letting them be rude to me or treat me as a door mat, I am actually SHOWING THEM how to stick up for themselves in a respectful manner. I don’t yell at them and say NO YOU CAN’T do this or that. I just calmly tell them. “I know you want that right now. I won’t do that right now, but you can have it tonight.” So they learn to deal with small disappointments in the home – becoming adaptable and flexible so that when they enter the world, dealing with disappointment isn’t new.

  2. Kelly, your post really helped me! I’ve recently had an “I’m too permissive” epiphany and this just highlights some of the ways my kids use me as a doormat. In trying to always please them, I’ve definitely never considered anything but my unwillingness to deal with yet another meltdown. And in just a day, I feel better as mom and more able to handle my brood (4 kids, 7, 6, 4, 1).

    What I got from your article reminds me of the Love & Logic “let them fail” idea…(and not throw that baby out with the bath water for whatever reason.)
    We want kids to learn how to fail, how to lose, how not to be in control of anything but themselves 100% of the time (of course within reason), so we let them fail when it costs a postage stamp. We don’t wait to teach them how to deal with disappointment when they’re older and they don’t get into whatever school they want. We teach them now when the cost is a few tears and a clean cup.

    It’s not the same as telling your kid what to prefer. It’s telling your kid that sometimes what they prefer isn’t available and not just because mom or dad is being mean and petty and trying to control everyone or everything around them.

    And it’s about not exhausting yourself trying to please your child at every turn. It can wear a person out trying to make one or more little persons happy all the time. And my four can be veeeerrrry demanding! I have my work cut out for me!

  3. The limit examples you gave were easy to understand (caving in to their request to sit on a particular chair, or use a particular chair or spoon).

    The limits I especially don’t know how to deal with are the ones where my 19-month is *exploring the world*. She seems like a scientist, trying out tactile or other sensations. For instance, she’ll open the spice drawer and sniff the spices and taste some. It requires close attention so she doesn’t spill a spice everywhere. Should that be off-limits or not? Or she’ll love to eat raw oats even though they spill onto the floor, requiring me to sweep up afterwards with her help. Should that be off-limits or not?

    Here are more examples. Should these be off-limits or not?

    Playing with playdough.
    Eating playdough.
    Playing with playdough when I suspect it might lead to eating playdough.
    Playing with playdough when the last time she got a few pieces in the carpet.
    Walking round and round in circles in the kitchen.
    Refusing to walk.
    Banging a cardboard tube on the wooden floor.
    Banging a spoon on the wooden floor.
    Banging a spoon on a saucepan.
    Asking for a particular spoon when it’s clean and in the spoon drawer.
    Asking for a particular spoon when it’s dirty and in the sink.

    I wrote all of these examples because some of them are obviously fine, and some of them are obviously not fine, but which is which will likely differ between parents. Some parents just couldn’t stand the sound of spoons banging on pots, for instance. If an adult asked me for a particular spoon that was clean and equally available, I’d give it to him, so out of respect I’d do the same for a child.

    So I’m left with the feeling that we still always have to choose battles. We don’t chose to battle over “playing with playdough” because there’s nothing wrong with that. We do chose to battle over “eating playdough”. Indeed we choose not to battle over activities we think are fine, and we choose to battle over those we think are not. As parents our task is to form our own clear picture of which things are fine and which ones aren’t. And that’s exactly what “choosing battles” means to me…

    • Wow that is a great list of questions!I think to answer your question in the most simple way would be to say if it bothers YOU then I would stop it. That said I may or may not stop it completely but offer a better alternative or a way to turn the “no” into a “yes” the play dough would be a great example – if you don’t really like her playing with play dough on the carpet because it gets ground in then I would make a play dough only area in the house where she CAN do play dough or at our house play dough is an outside activity (luckily we live in a good year round climate) So you can play with play dough but lets go to the other room where there is tile for play dough and have that always be the spot for play dough. If you don’t want her eating play dough then I would tell her “you can play with the play dough but it doesn’t go in your mouth.” If she puts it in her mouth I would say “you’re having a hard time not eating the playdough, we’ll try again later.” Developmentally though she may not be able to stop this so if you don’t like it you may need to wait until she has outgrown this normal stage and reintroduce playdough later.

      They really are little scientists as you said and exploring is healthy and we don’t want to squelch that. However if she is spinning in the kitchen and you are cooking I would say “That looks like fun – you can do that in the family room where it’s safer.”

      I personally would not let my toddler explore my spices because those are my tools for cooking and I want them to be there when I need them. I may however let her help me use them when I am cooking and pour them in and explore them that way.

      Refusing to Walk – You don’t want to walk. I will wait until you are ready.

      Banging things – that would depend on me and my mood and where she was doing it. If she were doing it at the dinner table – I would not allow that, if she were doing it right next to me and it was too much for me I would say “that’s too loud for me, I’m going to go in the other room.” Or “If you want to bang things you can bang in your room but it’s too loud for me.” Then walk her to her room and if she doesn’t want to do that then I would just say ok, banging time is done, we’ll do that another time. Then pick a time later when she can do that. This is developmentally normal behavior also so I would find way to let her do this but ways that respect both people so you don’t end up with a headache!

      Asking for a spoon when its available is reasonable to me and I would do that, especially if she was reasonable in her request and not yelling it at me.

      So yes, these things will vary from person to person as you point out, I think it is important to be mindful of the demeanor of the child and if it is done clearly to get a reaction out of the parent or just normal toddler behavior that might need a little redirection to and appropriate outlet. I also think it is important to be mindful of your own feelings about it as well. For example if you are letting her play with the spices even though you kind of wish she wouldn’t but you are anyway because you don’t want to stop her experimenting I think that would not be a good reason. I think you could redirect her to another similar activity that does not infringe upon the things you value in your kitchen.

  4. I feel like perhaps it is difficult to convey things in one single article and there seems to be some confusion. Some of my examples were mentioned in this article so I wanted to provide more information. I read the comments on this page and other pages where this article was posted which pointed out how children have the right to have their own preferences, control over their lives, how children are people too, etc. That is all absolutely true, of course. But sometimes it can be difficult for a parent to tell when something is truly the child’s preference versus something else. After all, sometimes children act out in a testing way to see what the parent’s limit will be, even when the child really doesn’t care so much about what they seem to be asking to do or have. For example, sometimes my son will test how close he is allowed to be to the curb of the street in front of our house (he knows he is not allowed actually into the street and doesn’t cross the curb yet he will get closer than where I think is reasonable). I don’t think my son really has a real preference or desire to play in the street but it is more about getting my attention and checking in with me to see what my limit/reaction will be. I hope this example helps illustrate limit-testing versus an actual preference… So with my son, I decided to limit his “preferences” for a few reasons. 1- He already was getting to make all decisions during his play-time. He is home with me and awake for about 12 hours a day and he typically spends at least 9 of these 12 hours playing! While playing he gets to climb, run, jump, be loud, etc. So he already has a huge portion of his day spent in a safe place where he gets to make almost all decisions within the framework of what I have set up at home. 2- I do allow my son plenty of choice even during the 3 hours or so each day when he is involved in other things such as meals, bath, brushing teeth, dressing, etc. He gets to choose his clothes. He gets to choose which of 2 toothbrushes to use or whether he brushes or I brush for him. He gets to choose what (or if) to eat from the food I offer. I allow him 2 small fairly-healthy desserts each day (e.g. 2 small fruit cookies) and no more…but he gets to choose if he wants them and, if so, when he eats them. He even gets to eat his 2 cookies before a meal if he chooses, it is up to him. At bath time, he gets to decide how long to stay in and sometimes even whether or not to wash his hair that day, etc. I also take my son’s preferences into account for things such as his favorite color (blue). If I happen to be buying a new bowl, cup, etc and blue is an option then I will get blue. If the blue bowl or cup happens to be clean, I will give it to him. So I sense there has been a misunderstanding here (by some people who commented on this article on other pages) of what is recommended in the article. There is plenty of opportunity for children to have autonomy and make choices. In fact, even in my case, my son still gets an incredible amount of freedom and spends the vast majority of his day making his own choices and not being controlled by me. So now to explain the part about where I did decide to say no to some of his preferences: well, what I came to realize was that some of what he seemed to prefer was not actually the case. He didn’t really have such a strong preference after all, if any. It was more about testing limits and checking to see how in control of things I was. When I responded in a way that showed that I wasn’t in charge and fully capable (always saying yes), that led him to feel insecure and less free to focus on being a (mostly) worry-free child focused on play, family, etc. So I began to say no to giving him a specific spoon, bowl, etc IF that spoon, bowl, etc was not clean. If it was clean, I offered it. I began to say no to switching seats IF there seemed to be no reason for switching seats other than a control issue. However, if we are on the couch reading a book and my son asks me to switch sides I will ask him why he wants to switch. If he says something such as “because if I sit on the other side I will have a better view of the window to see the garbage truck when it comes past” THEN I am happy to switch seats with him. I hope the difference is clear here. In one scenario, the child is demanding that the parent switch seats for no real reason other than testing. In this scenario the child is likely melting down if you won’t switch seats. In this scenario there is also often a second test if you say yes to the first one. For example, another mom told me the story of her daughter asking the mom to switch seats and then a few minutes later asking the mom to switch seats again, over and over! There is a difference between a true preference versus a test. Once I began to say no to more of what seemed like my son’s “preferences” and discuss his views with him more, I began to tease apart what truly mattered to him versus what did not. For example, once I began to say no to his request for his one special spoon (unless it was clean), he quickly stopped caring (or maybe he never really cared?). Within a couple of days, even when the special spoon was clean, he didn’t even want it anymore! It was the same for the bowl, choosing his brother’s flavor of yogurt, etc. But some things stood out for me as truly being his preferences. For example, he always wanted the music he played on the CD player to be a certain volume. And if there was any noise (e.g. me washing dishes) he would meltdown and want to rewind the song. Well, that issue remained even after I began to say no to more of his “preferences”. I talked more with him and we found a solution. We now pause the CD player if I am going to be washing dishes or doing something noisy. And we have found a compromise with the volume- loud enough for him but not too loud for me. Music was a true preference of his…. but many other things were not. And even though music was truly a preference of his, we still need to find a way to accommodate my preferences as well (e.g. to not have him constantly jumping up from the table to rewind the CD during a meal). Many of the other things I was saying yes to were actually leading him to feel insecure and unsure of how much he was in charge of in our house. A child does need to feel free and unburdened and if they feel too much in charge of the household, they cannot truly feel free. I hope this helps to clarify things. I really appreciated the article that Kelly Meier wrote. I thought it was very well-written and hope it can be helpful to many people. Everyone’s preferences in the family do matter. But figuring out the sometimes fine line between what your child asks for literally and what your child is *actually* asking for (or needing) can be challenging for parents for sure. That is something I am continuing to work on….

  5. Thank you so much, this article has been great and perfect timing for me. I also love how you have shared your experiences Brettania, both in the article and above, you have explained it so well and helped me clarify things in my head too. Thank you, thank you, thank you :)))

  6. Recently I was talking to a friend about raising boys who respect women and are good husbands to their wives and above all would never rape or even push themselves upon a woman sexually. As a mother of a boy, I am the first relationship my son will have with a woman. Of course, it is entirely different, but every relationship limits or boundaries. In talking to my friend, I realized that i was making a grave mistake. My 5 year old son often seeks out hugs or snuggles. He is very affectionate! Usually, I love him up! But sometimes I don’t feel like giving him hugs and affection. In the past, I was stopping what I was doing and giving him hugs anyway. I even found myself saying, “Honey, not right now.” But after he said “please oh please,” I gave in. This seemed innocent enough. The 5 yr old boy just wants a hug. But sometimes I did NOT want to give him that hug because i was totally in the middle of something, or talking to a friend, or feeling like I REALLY needed space. Now I am a caring mom, and no matter what, if my kid fall down and cuts his knee I will stop whatever I am doing to give him a hug. The 2 yr old also gets unlimited hugs. But that is not what I am talking about, I am talking about a hug for a 5 yr old that is a little invasive and attention seeking. In this context, am I teaching him to push his desire for affection onto women? Am I teaching him that “no” does not mean “no”? I see mothers nursing their 3 yr old boys and I watch these boys rip their mother’s shirt down to demand her body. Is that healthy and right? Shouldn’t we teach them to respect our bodies even though we birthed them, maybe especially because we birthed them? I think we often think it is good and selfless to give ourselves over to our children, but sometimes our children are seeking attention because they want control not because they are insecure or hurt. Surely I am not the only mother who has dealt with this issue of limits and boundaries regarding her body, right? Anyway, thank you, this article really got me thinking!

    • Yes, you have a very valid point. I think you are right on. We can’t tell them “your body – your rules” if we aren’t showing them that we respect ours as well. There is a difference between an authentic hug and one given when you don’t want to both are valid reasons to say no, in my opinion.

  7. Though I agree with what you are saying here, this article was brought up in a the context of special needs children and it suddenly did not apply as easily. One parent asked if it was wrong to give in to getting her son the “blue ninja” instead of the “purple ninja” to go to bed with even though it meant she had to dig in the toy boy for the “blue ninja.” We have to be sensitive to our children’s strange needs. In this case it may seem like an empty desire for control, but it could also be that the purple ninja is the bad guy and to feel secure and go to sleep he NEEDS the blue ninja. My son has sensory disorders and had very particular clothes requests. It might seem like he is being ridiculous by not want to wear the blue shirt and insist I find the green one. At first I thought he was just controlling me. Now I know that due to sensory issues the seams, zippers, buttons, patterns, and tags on his clothing physically bothers him. To get my sensitive boy through a difficult day we both NEED the comfortable blue shirt.
    I am just saying that there are certainly requests that may seem unreasonable on the surface that did not stem simply from a desire to control but from a need that the child can not articulate!

  8. I agree. I do not address special needs here in any way. This is solely for testing behavior. That is why it is so important to observe and know your own particular child so you know the difference. My son had some sensory issues at one point as well and I absolutely respected those. They come back in times of anxiety or transition so I plan ahead for those if I can. The ninja issue would be a fine line for me, so I’d definitely try to find out more about WHY he needed it.

  9. Hello, great article. I’m a first time mother to a 14 month old baby boy. He’s a happy laid back baby and only really throws a tantrum if he’s hungry or can’t figure out how a toy works. We go to a lot of baby classes. During circle time he can’t sit still and often gets up and wanders around the room exploring. The other babies always stay with their mothers. Is this something I should set a boundary for? He is an extremely active child but I’m always surprised that he’s the only one who won’t sit in the circle. I’m not really bothered by him wandering so am starting to wonder if that might be the reason he runs off. What could I do to prevent this or is it normal for a 14 month old. I love his curiosity so I don’t want to stop him exploring but am now wondering if he’s doing it because he feels insecure. Thanks for your time 🙂

  10. Wow, this article makes so much sense to me and really resonates with me. Sometimes it feels easier to just give in, but in the long run it makes it harder for you. My daughter is almost 18 months and she is starting with the tantrums and the demands. I know she understands quite a bit, but since she is not completely verbal it’s hard to know what she understands and what she doesn’t. Her vocabulary is mostly one word things like mommy, daddy, doggie, no etc. My question is how will I explain that some behaviour is appropriate sometimes and others not. For example, she loves to look at photos on my phone and sometimes I allow her to, other times she grabs my phone and puts it in my hand and whines demanding I show her photos. I understand that those times I should say no and explain why but she won’t really understand why sometimes it’s ok (when mommy initiates or when I feel it’s an appropriate time) and sometimes it’s not. Also sometimes I let her play with my phone and sometimes I don’t, should I just stop her from playing with my phone completely? She also tends to whine a lot, I know it’s because she can’t verbalize all her requests but the whining is getting really annoying. When she wants more food, she will whine, even though she knows to say “more” and do the sign for it. She is just not consistent with it. Should I refuse her when she whines? I try and tell her “more?” and I keep repeating it until she says it but most of the time she just keeps whining. Anyways, my long rambling question is how do you deal with toddlers who are not quite fully verbal or not quite fully able to understand everything you explain to them. Thanks in advance.

    • Thank you for your question. I would first consider that she probably does understand most of what you are saying. Speach and comprehension are not completely tied together. They learn to speak by first understanding what it is they need to say which takes quite a bit or practice. Regardless, when my children do this I keep my answer simple. I say “It’s not time for that right now. We can do that after lunch (for example.) Personally, my phone would be off limits for a child this young for many reasons – I don’t want it dropped and I don’t want to be asked for it time and time again since it is usually with me. If you choose to do it on occasion like Dr. office visits when it is hard to wait I would make it a special treat, but my kids always have to ask permission to use my phone. For now though I would keep my answers simple and direct and re-framed in a “yes” like I did above – Its not time for that now you can do it when….. or if its always a “no” say that to and give her an alternative activity she CAN do.

  11. Great article with lots of food for thought. I’m just wondering how you would deal with the rudeness and disrespect you mention? We have a strong willed, spirited 6 year old who is often extremely rude and disrespectful when things don’t go her way or when limits are set however empathetically. When I respond with ‘I know it’s hard/disappointing…’ She screams ‘don’t talk to me like a baby’ and as much as we say ‘I don’t like the way you’re speaking to me, I don’t speak to you that way, how would you feel if someone spoke to you that way?’ The answer is usually ‘I don’t care’. All this is magnified when it occurs in front of other people who judge our parenting strategies as they think she should just be sent to her room without dinner!

    • That is a great question and one I know is a struggle for a lot of people. I struggled with it also. I would love to answer this in a blog post (anonymously if you prefer) because I think it could give clarity to a confusing situation many face…how to set limits with other people around.
      Let me know if you are ok with that, but for now, I’ll also answer your question here so you have something to work with quickly.
      My first thought is that your are referring to, I assume, my son’s behavior that was rude or disrespectful. I didn’t see it that way, I saw it as him sticking up for his sister after I had yelled at her. He was mad here and was unloading that on me. I can’t really expect him to be more mature than I was in that situation. As the parents, we are their safe haven and so of course they are going to offload big emotions on us. That is a sign that they trust us which is the goal we are after parenting this way, right? So accepting those big feelings when they come is our job. Technically speaking “rude” and “disrespectful” are judgments. So stick to describing behavior – a behavior is something you can describe by recording or taking a photo of, it is concrete where rude is a judgement of your perception of behavior. So…to get on to how to handle this screaming…if she says that you are talking to her like a baby, my guess is….that you are. You may be trying to contain your frustration and that is coming out in you voice and she is picking up on that. My son does the same and says I am using my ” blah blah” voice and he’s right every time, I”m being robotic trying to not show my real feelings. So I say, “you know what I”m frustrated right now, I didn’t like to be yelled at.” Trying to make a point when her “lid is flipped” is pointless, she can’t hear you when she’s that upset much less control herself. Save the explaining until a time when she is calm and let the emotions roll off your back (it’s a practice – not a perfection, it takes time to really accept feelings) All of that said, if she does this in front of other people – she has flipped her lid and I would remove her from the situation. She is out of control and it is uncomfortable for them, you and especially her. I liken it to your spouse having one too many at a big family dinner….he starts in on dear grandma about whatever it is that bugs him, I think you might say…”oops…I need to talk to you outside for a minute and then maybe you’d leave early if he couldn’t get it together. Or maybe you’d take a friends keys who wasn’t fit to drive. You get my point. Your daughter feels bad already when she does this, so spare her and take her to her room. Stay with her and listen to her until she is calm and ready to rejoin the group. Maybe she’s like my son and likes to be alone when mad, that’s fine also…but she can’t safely be in the group until she’s back in charge and her lower emotional brain is back in check. My guess is that if you listen to her upset alone and away from prying eyes you will find the root of her problem. Perhaps she has been left out all night long and finally snapped, but I bet there is a reason these instances occur. It’s a storing up of emotion and it does have to come out, but it’s not fair to anyone to let it come out that way. So I would say “oh boy, sounds like you’re really upset. I can’t let you yell (not be rude which is a judgement she’ll pick up on) at our guests. Let’s go on upstairs for a bit.” Then take her – even if she’s objecting – remember she’s lost control so its up to you to be her guardrail so she doesn’t drive over the cliff. Of COURSE she will test to see if that rail is solid, so be solid and wait until she’s ready to rejoin.

  12. this is a great article, but the only thing I’m having trouble with is the line “I don’t want him to become too powerful”. I want my kids to feel powerful…I don’t want them to be walked over. I desire for my kids to know their power and use it to be the best person they can be. Taking away their power is the last thing I want. Perhaps you mean you don’t want them be selfish and entitled. That is very different. Just wanted to clarify that.

    • Fair enough! Though I think in context she means for his age. When I think of power being a bad thing I think of it in the context of using it for control. Power when used in confrontation is not helpful but power overall is not bad. I hope to raise empowered children and well but not controlling children. It’s a tricky line, thanks for pointing it out!

  13. Kelly, thank you so much for writing this and confirming my opinions. Sometimes I feel too much of a stickler and I should give in more. My husband has the tendency to want to please every whim if it’s not hurting anyone. My question though is that our almost 3 yr old spends more time with his mom then us and she is permissive to borderline uninvolved. We are working on trying to get him more but in your opinion, should expectations change in this circumstance? There is no willingness on the mom’s part to co-parent.
    I just am not sure if there is a middle ground here? He has recently been much more combative and aggressive which maybe a reaction to not getting his way which is a new thing for him. I guess what I’m asking is if it is fair to him to react to situations like you mentioned when the majority of the time that is not what he is used to? I know children are smarter than what we give them credit for and adapt. Should we “ease” him into it? Or would that just make it more confusing for him for us to constantly change our expectations?

    With love,

    • I believe that it is a fair expectation for children of any age to understand that there are different rules with different people and even in different places. Not everyone has to view behaviors as acceptable or uacceptable each person can develop their own relationship with your child.
      I think explaining to him that rules are different at your home than at his mothers is a fair conversation. I would, however, also expect him to test that out and push against you a bit – experimenting is a child’s nature and he will likely do that. Three is also a more willful age, so I would be mindful of attributing all of that to the other household. Remaining calm “I understand you are really upset you can’t jump on the couch. I don’t want you to do that because I don’t like to clean the couch when it has dirty feet on it. (or whatever is true) you may need to guide him to another activity that he CAN do that is ok with you.

      • Thank you. Yes I’m sure he would be testing us no matter the circumstances. We are more comfortable setting boundaries when it comes to manners but have a harder time when it comes to nap and bedtime, he is still used to a bottle and co-sleeping (has been co-sleeping in same bed as mom since infant) with a tv to put him to sleep. At our home he does not have a tv in his room but his father sleeps on the trundle when he spends the night, which is only once a week right now. We would like to transition from that to sleeping alone but do you think having him only one night is enough to do this? Our biggest problem is the lack of communication with his mother…. but we can’t fix that so we are just trying to be the best parents we can! I want him to have self confidence and be able to be by himself. Maybe this a step that needs to wait till we have him more and can provide consistency?

  14. Hi. Our daughter is 3 in a few months. She is constantly asking Mummy to do everything for her even though other people have offered to help. e.g. help into chair for dinner, wipe nose, taking to toilet, getting something she might need etc. Often she will scream at anyone else attempting to do these things.

    Should we be giving into this, or insisting that others be allowed to help her?

    • When a child is demanding (and screaming tells me that’s probably the case) that’s typically when I tell them ” Gosh you are having a hard time getting in your chair. Dad has offered to help. I just sat down and don’t want to get up again.” Where as if she said “Mama, I’m having trouble with my chair, can you help?” I then might help, but here’s the catch, if there was other available help and I really didn’t want to get up for the 15th time I would say, “gosh I just sat down, Dad can help.” and let dad help or let her unravel. Chances are if it’s a polite request, she won’t unravel because she is not testing boundaries of what she can get you to do. She’s already feeling safe and in control of herself. The context is really important. I would say if she is screaming at people to do things for her that falls under demanding and is an awful lot of work for you! So let’s take the wiping her nose example – I might say “Oh that runny nose is really bothering you. I’m cooking dinner right now and don’t want to wash my hands again. The tissue is over on the counter. (Or Uncle Joe is willing to help). Then I would listen to her resistance or even extreme upset. ” I know you really want ME to do that for you! It doesn’t seem fair to you. AND I’m still cooking dinner.”….. ” I know, you really wish I could help.” ON and on… listening and empathizing and restating your message. The important thing to remember is that your needs matter too, if you don’t authentically want to help and she’s very capable or another capable person is available it’s perfectly legitimate to let her find an alternate solution.

      Here’s another article that might help http://respectfulparent.com/i-accept-the-mess-what-setting-limits-looks-like/

  15. I think the right balance is that, a child should be allowed to make decisions for himself/herself as long as it does not endanger/harm himself/herself or others. However that decision should not impede on the parents’ freedom/well being unless it is absolutely necessary for very good reasons.

    Children should be taught that while they have needs/wants, their parents do too, and so does everybody else in the world. When it comes to wants but not needs, children’s preferences do not overshadow/overthrow the parents’.

    In our house, we say “I understand you want this and I thank you for asking very nicely. But sometimes, even if you ask nicely, the answer is going to be NO. And that is going to be Ok. You need to accept NO as an answer sometimes, let’s move on.”

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