What's the Difference Between Limits and Consequences?

Connect with warmth and empathy, and your child will listen without punishment.

Posted Feb 06, 2014

"Dr. Laura, How do you set loving limits, when you do not give consequences? For example, my son's bouncing a soccer ball inside the house. I try to give him a choice: 'You remember balls are for bouncing outside. You may take it in front of the house or into the backyard. The choice is yours.' Sometimes it works...sometimes he ignores me and continues to bounce the ball...I repeat again, and he does not listen. Should I take the ball away? He did not listen and there should be a consequence, no?"

Mom sees behavior that is against the family rules. She sets a limit, in this case by giving her son a choice of two alternate, acceptable, options. He ignores her. She repeats herself. He ignores her. Shouldn't there be a "consequence"?

Let's take this a step at a time.

1. Your son is bouncing the ball in the house, which he knows is against the family rules.

You're worried about the walls getting scuffed. You need to set a limit.

If you're doing daily preventive maintenance — connecting with warmth and empathy, spending one-on-one time — your child will always be more cooperative. So you can usually just set a clear, kind limit: "Michael! Ball bouncing is for outside. Thank you!" and hold open the door, and he'll comply.

What do I mean by connecting with warmth and empathy? Your basic 24/7 response to him is seeing things from his perspective, with compassion. In other words, what comes out of your mouth sounds mostly like this (in a warm, heart-felt voice):

  • "You don't want to stop playing and take a bath. I understand. I bet when you're a grownup, you'll never take a bath, will you?"
  • "Sometimes it's really hard to share your parents."
  • "You sound really mad!"

2. Do you need to give him a choice?

Some younger kids feel overwhelmed by choices. But strong-willed kids, even more than the rest of us, react badly when they feel backed into a corner. I would generally recommend giving your child the choice of continuing his activity in an appropriate place, or finding a different activity.

"Michael! No ball playing in the house. You can bounce the ball outside, or you can find another activity."

3. He ignores you.

Maybe he's not being defiant; he's just really focused on his ball skills and doesn't even hear you. Or maybe you haven't been connecting with him much lately, and this is your red flag that you need to spend some dedicated special time with him daily, starting tonight. Or maybe he knows from past experience that there's a good chance you'll give up and leave him alone. Or maybe he's just a strong-willed kid, who needs to push on a limit 100 times to see if it holds firm. So he ignores you.

Do you repeat yourself? No!

If you've asked once and not gotten a response, don't just repeat yourself. You don't have your child's attention yet. Instead, you get in his face in a friendly way, so he gets that you mean it.

So in this case, you walk over to your son and — hopefully with a smile on your face, but at least with a neutral expression — you intercept the soccer ball. You hold the ball in one arm, putting the other arm around his shoulder. He looks up at you, aggravated.

4. You connect before you correct.

How do you feel when someone implies that you're wrong? A little bristly? An urgent need to prove you're right, or to fight back? That's not exactly a recipe for cooperation.

You can avoid your child feeling that way by reconnecting. He's much more likely to really hear you, and to care what you want, which means he's more likely to cooperate. You do that by seeing his perspective, even as you set your limit.

"Hey, Buddy...I guess you were so focused on those ball skills that you didn't hear me. Your ball skills are looking good. AND where do we play with balls? Right! Outside!"

As you speak, you are walking him toward the door. You open it, and as he goes out, you give him the ball, and a smile.

5. Find a win/win solution.

Usually, that's the end of incident. You've enforced your limit. If you do this regularly, your son will skip the inside bouncing and head straight outdoors, because who wants their mom interrupting when they're practicing ball skills?

But maybe you only have a lawn outside and the ball doesn't bounce there. Maybe your son needs a hard surface to bounce the ball. In that case, he will almost certainly keep using your hallway. Time for a win/win solution.

"Hmm...I hear you that the lawn isn't good for bouncing the ball....and bouncing it in the house doesn't work for me because it damages the wall....What can we do?....You think the blacktop at the school would work? Great idea! I can't go with you now, but if you help me chop these veggies, we can go over for half an hour before dinner. Let's work together."

Notice your child has to delay gratification. That's not easy. But if you're maintaining a positive connection, he'll be a lot more motivated.

6. Should you take the ball away?

If your child is using a toy in an unsafe way, and does not respond to your redirection, then of course you take the toy away. "Balls are not for bouncing in the house. I hear you really don't want to go outside, so let's put the ball away and find something you can do in the house. It looks like you need something active to do....Want to jump on the trampoline in the basement? Or throw your stuffed animals over the railing and then rescue them?" Notice this is not a punishment. You are simply redirecting your child's energy.

7. Teach your child to repair.

Let's say you come upon your son bouncing his ball in the hall, and you notice scuff marks on the wall. You say say "Whoa! Look at that wall! We need to clean that up. Sweetie, let's go get the cleaning supplies, and I'll help you. You know we always clean up our own messes." If you do this cheerfully, without blame, from the time your child is little, he will comply. And he will also start taking the ball outside without your intervention, because who wants to clean the walls when they could be outside doing soccer drills?

8. Shouldn't there be a "consequence"?

Of course! Look at all the consequences of what happened here! Your son has learned:

  • When mom tells me to do something, she means it. There's no point in trying to ignore her.
  • Bouncing the ball in the house scuffs the wall and I'm responsible to help clean up the scuff marks...I'd rather just go outside with the ball.
  • I make mistakes, but Mom always understands.
  • I repair my mistakes and clean up my own messes.
  • My mom really cares about what I want. So I care about what she wants.
  • If I don't like what Mom tells me to do, she listens and tries to find a good solution for both of us.
  • I'm good at finding solutions.
  • If I use a toy unsafely, I have to find another activity.
  • I don't always get what I want, but I get something better — a mom who understands.
  • Everyone in our family takes our family rules seriously. The most important one is treating each other with respect and kindness.

By contrast, if you had punished him — which is what parents usually mean by "consequences" — what would he have learned?

  • She's always yelling and punishing me. Why should I do what she wants?
  • When I bounce the ball in the house, she takes it away and punishes me. But not until she's yelling. So I don't have to listen until she yells and takes the ball away. I know just how far to push it before I get a consequence.
  • She took my ball. I'm going to annoy my sister. In fact, I'm going to make this afternoon miserable for everyone.
  • When she's not here, I'll bounce the ball in the house as much as I want.
  • No, I don't know who made those scuff marks. I'm getting good at lying.
  • She can't make me.

The truth is, we can't make another human being do what we want. We can only help them WANT to. Loving guidance and empathic limits help your child WANT to follow your guidance, so those good habits become part of who he is, whether you're there or not. "Consequences" that are designed to punish? Just the opposite.

The difference between loving limits and consequences is that there's no room for punishment in loving limits.