How to set limits

The other day while hanging out at a friend’s house in the beautiful VA, his lovely son Tom came strolling up and asked if he could play on Dan's work computer. Dan quickly said no. Tom asked why? Dan said because last time you were on some other site and I had a lot of stuff downloaded on there that I don’t want on there. Tom protested that he would only be on one site. Dan again said no. Tom continued to protest. Dan said only if you promise not to be on any other sites, just that one. Tom said sure, was happy and on his way. I looked at Dan and smiled.

Limits are critical to a child’s development and maturity. They help them to acquire their own moral thermometers for choice and decision making. Parents, on the other hand, often fail to set effective limits. And, in failing to set effective limits, end up getting frustrated with their children for not learning to operate within them. Why do parents fail to set effective limits? Easy: Parents either feel guilty for setting limits or they question themselves when they do set a limit, wondering whether it was okay. When Dan said no the first time, that should have been it. The limit had been set and energy from that point should have gone into acknowledging and accepting Toms' frustration, e.g. “I know, son, that you really want to play on it and probably would only go to one site, but not today,” or, “Yes, son, I understand that, I’d probably be just as upset, too,” or, “Absolutely, son, why don’t you come hang out with Bryan and I and help us solve all of the world’s problems,” and, finally, “Yes, son, sometimes I, too, think I’m a crappy parent. I’ve got to keep doing my best though.” From the moment the limit is set, the parent should not waver. When you do, you are setting the beginning of a conditioned precedent in place, one learned very early on that says, “If I just ask three, four, or fifteen times, the law of multiples will take effect and I will get my way.” This carries over to every other limit you might set.

The answer: Get over yourself as a parent. You are not going to be perfect, you are going to make mistakes, and your child is gonna think you suck many times over. Accept it. Set the limit and stick to it, but at the same time give your child the time, space, and understanding to adjust to the limit. Just because you set the limit, you can’t expect them to like it, too. That’s like telling them to take the trash out and whistle Dixie while they’re at it! Remember: Set limits that you are not going to feel guilty for enforcing. If you are not sure, tell them that you will think about it. Then think about it. That way you have room to change your initial response without opening the door to regret.

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  Bryan Post



  1. thank you so much for this example. it helps me greatly to see a concrete example and to have specific responses to use when my son complains about a boundary we’ve set in place. I am encouraged that it’s not too late for me to change my parenting techniques. I’m so happy to have found you, your books, your blog, etc! God bless youj!

  2. This is a great topic. And I completely agree with you. I have a lot of friends–with children–that are very similar to how your friend handled this situation. It goes something like this:

    “No.” Assertively.


    “No.” Still assertive but starting to feel bad.


    “No.” Starting to waver.


    “Ok… you can if….”

    And that is always what happens. I think it’s the issue of not being able to stand your ground, for fear of not making the best parenting decision, or just fear of your child being angry with you. But children want limits, they want guidance, and more importantly they NEED limits to function in our society. While it’s difficult to stand your ground, it’s important to teach a child that no matter how much they try to test you, you are not going to change your mind. Overtime the child will understand that “no means no”.

    Good post. I look forward to reading more from you.

  3. Bryan that is really a helpful example. Many parents I work with, including myself, have often times found it difficult to equate this strict limit setting with a loving response. I believe that is often occurs when our first response is reactive so we work on not being reactive but the limit goes too. Because setting limits and holding to them has a way of making you feel mean…again the parents responsibility to process, not the child.
    Taking time to think, and implementing the 3 R’s before answering seems to be a key factor.
    Again thanks for sharing this example. Keep them coming, especially around this topic.

  4. Thanks Bryan needed that one today! It’s so easy to slip into letting go of the limits when the storm comes. Also one questions what is my response then when I’ve set the limit and I get a “well I’m going to do it anyway, humph”? Sometimes I feel I avoid limits because they are just going to be broken:)

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