How to set limits instead of making suggestions

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I am the father of two daughters. Our first is 7, and our second is 3. They are very different. My wife and I thought we were master parents until we had the second one. The first kid just did everything we told her to do and was very agreeable about it. The 3-year-old acts like she is being abused whenever we tell her to do something. She absolutely refuses. My wife and I are smart people, and it makes us feel very stupid to have to ask what we should do now. - Jack, Boston, Massachusetts.


It sounds like your first kid did a really bad job of training you to raise kids correctly. Really easy kids like your first one don’t try out enough negative behaviors to give you the opportunity to figure out what to do about them. By the time the second (difficult) kid shows up, you feel extra unprepared when they use negative behaviors, and you think to yourself, “Shouldn’t I have learned how to do this by now?”

Don’t worry. You can start learning now.

Here’s a reality that your younger, more difficult kid is trying to teach you:

Limits that are not enforced are not limits. They are suggestions.

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Your older and easier kid happens to take suggestions. This may change as she gets older, but it may not. Your new, more difficult kid does not take suggestions. All kids need limits, so you and your wife don’t have to worry about any kid taking suggestions depending on their mood or which kid it is. While I will be showing you here and now how to set a limit instead of giving a suggestion, you will need more advice than what is in this column (which you can find at

For your kid, who at 3 is still portable, you will use what we call the Calm Echo. It is a way of matching words (which by themselves are just suggestions) with actions (enforcement). Eventually, your kid will equate your words with your actions, which will eventually equate to your words alone having the effect of actions.

Here we go.

Kid is poking her sister with a fork. No warnings, lectures, suggestions, or threats are used. Instead, Kid Whisperer becomes calm, sad, and takes action that makes poking non-functional.

Kid Whisperer: (calmly, sadly) Oh, dear.

Kid Whisperer gently and firmly grasps Kid’s wrist, removes the fork, and puts it somewhere where Kid cannot reach.

Kid then throws herself onto the floor, screaming and yelling. Kid Whisperer again fights the urge to make suggestions and says the following:

Kid Whisperer: Oh, dear.

Kid Whisperer walks away, because being around tantrums is annoying, and talking to kids about throwing tantrums reinforces the throwing of tantrums.

Kid instantly and miraculously recovers the power in and control of her legs and runs after Kid Whisperer while continuing to scream and yell.

Kid Whisperer safely picks up Kid.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, dear.

Kid Whisperer carries Kid to a safe room with no technology, repeating those two words after inhaling deeply, over and over. Kid Whisperer puts Kid down.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, dear. Come back and be with us as soon as you can be nice. You make our family better, so we want you to be around us!

If Kid comes back and is nice, she gets to stay, but we do not lecture or ask if she is ready to be nice. The fact that she is being nice (not yelling at anyone) shows us that she is ready to be nice. If she comes back not nice, we simply say, “Oh, dear” again, pick her up, and take her back to the room.

Taking these first steps is the best way to go from making suggestions to setting limits with kids who are still small enough to be portable. You can set limits with words, but they must be enforced with actions.

Scott Ervin is an independent facilitator of parenting with Love and Logic and The Nine Essential Skills for the Love and Logic Classroom. He is a parent and behavioral consultant based in the Miami Valley. Online:

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

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