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Setting Limits Without Using Threats to Enforce Them

How do we "make" our child do what we want, if we don't use force?

"I'm struggling with how to enforce limits without a consequence. For example, brushing teeth -- she'll refuse. It's not reasonable for me to do it by force, so I tell her if she can't brush her teeth, I can't read a bedtime story to her. I do not understand how to set limits if there are no consequences for ignoring the limit."

AdobeStock/Used with Permission
Source: AdobeStock/Used with Permission

Great question! How do we "make" our child do what we want, if we don't use force? And brushing teeth is a perfect example, because I've never met a child who was internally motivated to brush his teeth -- or a parent who hasn't been frustrated trying to get kids to brush. Naturally, we're tempted to threaten our child with punishment. That is, in fact, the only way to "make" a human do something they don't want to do. But look at the cost:

  • It removes from the bedtime routine the one thing that brings our child closer (the bedtime story.) Result: a child who is LESS motivated to cooperate, now and with more important issues.
  • You lose the opportunity to read with your child, which is arguably one of the most important parent-child interactions in your day, both intellectually and emotionally.
  • It creates a power struggle by using threats to gain compliance, instead of creating a relationship where our child WANTS to cooperate. What will we do when our child is not motivated by this particular threat? We'll have to up the ante, by threatening a bigger consequence. Sooner or later, that always leads to a stand-off, unless we're willing to use violence.
  • It teaches our child that disagreements should be resolved with threats and force, rather than recognizing both people's perspectives and finding a win/win situation.

These aren't results we want. But we do, at times, have to insist on certain things. For instance, brushing teeth. What can we do?

1. Stay calm.

If you get upset, it moves your child into fight or flight, which makes you look like the enemy -- and makes her less likely to cooperate. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that this is NOT an emergency. You always have the power to calm the storm, or to inflame it.

2. Acknowledge your child's perspective -- sincerely and with empathy:

"You really don't like brushing your teeth, do you, Sweetie? I hear you, it's boring to stand there and brush when you'd rather be playing."

3. Restate your limit.

"In this house, we all brush our teeth before bed. That keeps our teeth healthy."

4. Give her what she wants in her mind using wish fulfillment.

"I bet when you're grown up you'll decide NEVER to brush your teeth! Or maybe you'll have toothpaste that tastes like something super delicious and you'll LOVE brushing!" Brain scans show that when we imagine having what we want, the brain indicates satisfaction as if we actually have it, so this helps your child feel better. And using imagination to "think" about the issue gives your child more access to the rational brain. Finally, you're showing her that you do care about her happiness, even when you can't say yes to what she wants.

5. Invite cooperation through play.

Once you make it a game, you eliminate the stand-off. Unless kids are upset or tired, they can't resist an invitation to play. So get him giggling.

  • Brush all over his body -- his arm, his ear, his belly. "Is this where I should brush?" ("No, Daddy, here!")
  • Challenge him to a teeth-brushing contest.
  • Brush his teeth and comment on everything you find in there: "Is that spaghetti?...Hey, I think there's treasure under there!"
  • Make funny faces at him while he brushes.

6. Find a win/win solution.

If you think outside the box -- and you have time to be creative -- you can always find a solution. Just your commitment to doing so will enlist your child in helping find one. ""Hmm... you don't want to brush... AND we need to keep those teeth clean so the sugar bugs don't eat holes in them....What can we do to make this work for both of us?"

  • "Want to brush Teddy's teeth and then I'll brush yours?"
  • "Want to brush MY teeth at the same time that I brush yours?"
  • "How about if I sing your favorite song to you while you brush?"
  • "Maybe I should hold you up here so you can look in the mirror while we brush?"
  • "Want me to read to you while you brush?" (This was the strategy that worked best with my daughter. As a teen, she still read to herself while she brushed... She had the cleanest teeth!)

If you stay calm, you can almost always find a win/win solution. Of course, what works this week will stop working next week, so finding new strategies will require creativity on your part. But as it becomes clear to your child that brushing is non-negotiable, there will be less resistance.

Does this sound like a lot of work? It is! We all wish our children would just do as we ask, without our having to dig deep for patience and creativity. Especially at the end of the day when we're tired.

But we're dealing with young human beings who don't have fully developed prefrontal cortexes. They don't yet understand why it's important to brush, and they're still in the very early stages of developing self-discipline. They develop that self-discipline neural wiring every time they CHOOSE to give up what they want (not brushing their teeth, in this case) for what they want more (a warm connection with us.) When we force them, they aren't making a choice, and they aren't developing self-discipline. In fact, they're developing resistance to our influence.

So yes, this is a lot of work. But it's not only much more pleasant than holding your child down or punishing her, it's better for your child's development. This isn't wasted time! It's connection time, it strengthens your relationship, and it helps your child develop self-discipline. And instead of teaching her that might makes right, you're teaching her some wonderful lessons:

  • Mom and Dad care about what I want, and try to work with me instead of just using their power to force and threaten. That makes me want to cooperate with them.
  • I'm not a bad person for not wanting to brush my teeth. My parents understand. But I still have to do it.
  • People can have different perspectives and needs; if we think outside the box we can always find a solution that works for everyone.
  • I still don't understand why brushing my teeth is such a big deal to my parents, but it's not so bad. It's even fun, because I get to feel close to my parents.
  • I LOVE my parents. They're awesome. So I even do things they want, just because they want me to.

What more could you ask?