How Can You Enforce Limits If You Don’t Use Force?

Photography: Tara Samuelson Photography

By Dr. Laura Markham

“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.”

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 recognising 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 fulfilment

“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. 

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