How To Use Positive Discipline For Setting Limits with Kids
I keep a notebook about each of my children in which I record major events, questions, and notes from parent-teacher conferences and other meetings.
I happened to be thumbing through my daughter’s notebook while at a doctor visit last month, and a folded piece of paper fell out.
On it, I’d described a challenging parenting situation that I wanted help with.
At the time (10 years ago), I was taking a parenting class with my husband because we were both exasperated by our daughter’s behavior after her baby sister was born.
Here’s the scenario . . . perhaps you’ve experienced something similar?
It’s bath time, and my 4YO daughter is happily splashing around, diving underwater with her swim goggles on.
Mom: Time to get out of the tub. You can have 5 more minutes.
(5 minutes pass)
Mom: OK, time to get out.
Child: Oh, please, just a few more dives!
Mom: OK, 2 more dives.
Child: No, 4 more.
Mom: 3 more. 3 is a few.
Child: No, a few means 4! How about 3 and a half?
Mom: I’m not willing to do 3 and a half. It’s time to get out.
(Child does 3 dives)
Mom: OK now, time to get out.
Child: Oh please, please just one more dive?? (She is panicky, and about to cry)
Mom: OK, if we do one more dive, what are you going to do?
Child: Get out.
Mom: OK. 1 more dive . . . GO!
(Child does 5 – 6 mini-dives)
Mom: Get out NOW! (Diving continues) If you can’t live up to your promise, I’ll have to take privileges away!
(Child begins to get out, but veeeeerrrry slowly, and very upset)
Oh, when I read this scenario I ache and laugh all at once.
At the time, I was absolutely perplexed about how to get this kid out of the tub without resorting to threats. In my view, there was no alternative . . . she drove me to it! I was the victim. Hah!
I wish I’d known then about a little 3-step tool I created several years later. I now teach it all the time in parenting classes. It’s called, “ELC™” and it comes in very handy when children are pushing pre-established limits.
When a limit is being challenged, try a little “ELC™!”
ELC™ stands for Empathy, Limit, Choice or Curiosity Question. This is a play on the acronym, “TLC” which stands for Tender Loving Care.
In the bathtub situation above, ELC™ might have sounded like this:
Empathy: “You’re having so much fun splashing around and diving in the tub! Wouldn’t it be awesome if the tub were as big as a swimming pool?”
Limit: “AND (not but), you’ve had 3 dives, so it’s time to get out . . . “
Choice or Curiosity Question: “How will you get out . . . would you like to blast off like a rocket? Or leap out like a leapfrog? What do you pick?”
Notice that the choice is about HOW not WHETHER to hold the limit, a very important distinction.
You may be thinking, “Nice try, Marcilie, there’s no way that will work for my child.”
I hear you. It’s true that it might not work, because no tool works every time for every child in every situation. However, I invite you to try it out, and see what happens.
Why does ELC™ work?
It works because you’ve started with empathy. Empathy puts you and your child on the same team. With real empathy, your child feels validated and understood and is more able to hear and cooperate with what comes next.
It works because the limit is clear and concise. Parents get into trouble when they give long explanations about why the limit is fair. Less is more. A clearly stated, succinct limit leaves less room for negotiation.
It works because the child experiences some power in deciding how (not whether) they will hold the limit. By providing a choice or asking a curiosity question (usually beginning with, “What” or “How,”) you give your child some autonomy, or control over the situation. Autonomy is a major driver of intrinsic motivation. (Daniel Pink, Drive)
Tips to make Setting Limits with ELC™ work even better:
- Don’t have too many limits, and don’t have too few. Some children have so many limits that they (and even their parents) can’t possibly hold them all. Other children have no limits at all and go wild. Some but not too many limits allow children both freedom and safety. I find that I can reasonably enforce 4-6 limits in a day before I feel worn out and naggy. Your number may be different. (Toddlers will need more, deep breath!)
- Don’t fake your empathy! Really get into your child’s world so you can see things from their perspective. To them, they worked long and hard to get to level 10 of their computer game! It IS exciting and fun to splash around the tub in swim goggles! It IS hard to leave Mommy in the morning to go to school. Let them sense that you really get it.
- Don’t negate your empathy with a BUT. When you say, “I can see you’re really having a great time with your friends BUT we have to go,” you’re negating everything that came before the BUT. Replace your BUT with an AND. Both can be true: you ARE having a great time AND it’s time to go.
- Do agree on limits in advance. Whenever possible, discuss the limit during a calm time when everyone is levelheaded. When children know what to expect, they’re more likely to remain calm and receptive when the limit is held.
- As children get older, even as early as 5-8 years old, do involve them in the process of setting the limits. Getting their input will increase their buy-in and follow-through because it allows them some input and control. You might be surprised at how reasonable children can be when their input is sought.
- Do give advance notice that the limit is imminent. E.g., “five more minutes,” or “10 more dives.” Advance notice gives the child some time to finish what they were doing, let go of their own agenda, and shift over to yours.
- Do allow your child to be upset when the limit is held. Often we cave in because we don’t want to deal with a tantrum or argument. But if you have established limits in advance, involved your children in the process of setting them, given them advance notice that the limit is imminent, and truly empathized with their feelings, then you’ll find that it’s a lot easier to kindly and firmly hold the limit and tolerate the upset that may ensue. It’s OK! You’ve been respectful all along and your child will be OK and move on eventually.
Note: ELC™ is an acronym created and trademarked by Marcilie Smith Boyle’s Working Parenting. It is a play on the term, “TLC” which stands for Tender Loving Care.
Bring Peaceful Positive Parenting Into Your Home
You’ll probably agree that our busy lives make it hard to put these tools into practice. But when we can slow down long enough to remember positive parenting tools, it just feels soooo much better. Ahhhh!
If you’d like a little more practice and support, I invite you to slow down for an hour and tune in to 6 Obstacles to Peaceful, Positive Parenting (and how to get around them), a free TeleClass I’m facilitating on September 13th 11am PST (replay available if you can’t make the date.)
Busyness is one of the six biggest obstacles I noticed while observing patterns in the parents I work with and also in myself.
Join this free Teleclass based on my coaching experience with hundreds of parents and Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen to learn the other five, and some simple tips to get around them. You’ll learn:
- The 6 most common obstacles that get in the way of peaceful, positive parenting
- The #1 perspective shift that can make all the difference
- Two simple, effective parenting tools that are easy to implement and improve respectful communication and cooperation right away
- My favorite phrase to invite rather than demand cooperation
- The most important thing you can do right now, to help you raise respectful, resourceful, and self-disciplined kids.
You will also have the opportunity to ask questions in a live Q&A.
“Thanks so much for offering this free tele class on positive parenting! It was well structured, delivered effectively and just the right amount of info and action items. I got several take-aways that I can implement right away with my son. Thank you!”
— Helen Bouras, Mother of 2 children
When you sign up you’ll also get a one-page CHEAT SHEET on Setting Limits that includes more examples of ELC in action.
Latest posts by Marcilie Smith Boyle ( see all)
- This Simple Change To How You Set Limits On Misbehavior Will Help Your Kids Listen To You - September 8, 2018
- Trusting Your Parenting Intuition Might Be A Really Good Thing (Especially If You Help It Along) - September 3, 2018
- Kids Routine Charts and Using Positive Discipline To Make them Work - February 20, 2018