Finding The Right Tone For Setting Limits

In this episode: a parent is having difficulty convincing her 10-month old that pulling mommy’s hair is not a good game, but her son is not getting the message.

Transcript of “Finding The Right Tone For Setting Limits”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. And in this episode of Unruffled, I’m going to respond to a question from a mom whose efforts to establish limits with her 10-month-old are not really having the desired effect, to say the least. It’s really all about her tone. So in this episode, I’m going to try to help this mom and others figure out how to nail the tone.

So here’s the note Lauren wrote to me:

“Hi, Janet. I’ve been practicing RIE with my 10-month-old on a regular basis. I’ve also been setting limits with the definitive tone you suggest. But recently, he’s been laughing when I say no, especially when he pulls my hair. I say no very sternly and he starts giggling. Any suggestions?”

Okay. So first of all, I feel a bit remiss in that I might not have been clear in my writing. I think the words that I use often are ‘confident’ and ‘firm.’ I’ve noticed that people misinterpret that a bit for ‘stern.’ Stern as in a furrowed brow and very serious expression, something a bit more forced than I’m trying to suggest. So I’m sorry if I’ve given that impression.

Let’s think for a minute why we would be stern in a situation like this…

We’ve got a 10-month-old baby, he’s flapping his arms at us and pulling our hair. All of these are just experiments at this age. They do become more deliberate as children get older, for sure. But at this point, this is a little experiment. And then he got a stern response.

Now, ‘stern’ is usually one of two things. It’s either that we are trying to make a point and trying to make an expression that will teach our child the right lesson… I think my acting teacher would have called that…, I don’t know if he used the word bad acting, but he would call that “acting.” “You’re acting. And your audience knows when you’re acting. Instead, really embody the role.”

And in this case, that would be embodying your role as this much bigger, stronger, more mature leader in your child’s life. If we’re that person, and we were seeing a tiny child waving their arms at us, we’re not going to need to be stern. We’re just going to need to stop our child. “No, I don’t want you to do that.” “I won’t let you hit.” “I’m going to stop you. I see you really feel like hitting.” And our subtext might be, don’t worry, I’m always going to stop you when you do these little crazy impulsive things.

Another reason we might be stern is that we are legitimately angry, and that’s not going to help us either. Being angry… it’s going to happen sometimes, of course. I mean, we’re human, and we’re going to have days where we get to the end of our rope. But being angry on a regular basis with our children is going to create more issues, because it doesn’t help them to feel safe and comfortable in our leadership. It’s scary. It’s scary to have an angry parent.

So that’s what stern feels like to a child. It either feels like bad acting or an angry parent, and neither one of those things are going to help them to feel comfortable and stop the behavior.

Now, another reason we might feel that we need to make a stern face is that maybe we think that our child needs this kind performance to be able to get our message. Maybe we believe that they can’t understand something more subtle. But actually the opposite is true. Young children, especially babies and toddlers, they are so hyper-aware. That’s why they get overstimulated so easily. So they actually need less of our performance. They need us to dial it way down. They’re picking up our thoughts, they’re picking up our feelings, they’re picking up our worries. All of that is coming through. They definitely don’t need overacting, just real.

That’s kind of freeing for us because we can embody this role and just be real. “No, I don’t want you to do that. I don’t like that.”

Another reaction that isn’t helpful that parents sometimes do is, “Ouch, that’s really hurting. Why are you hurting me?!”

Again, that makes the child feel, I’ve got all this power in my little hand here to hurt this giant person that I really need to take care of me and be my leader. That’s scary. Let me try again and hope that they don’t do that again, because that that was really scary. So they do it again. And then they might even get hooked into a kind of negative attention or they might feel guilty.

Oftentimes when we are vulnerable… and again, once in a while, we’re going to be vulnerable, we’re going to be human, we’re going to be angry. But if that’s the norm, then children are going to feel guilty. I make people feel bad. I can crush people emotionally. I must be a really bad guy or I’m responsible for everybody’s feelings. All these things that we don’t want to saddle on a tiny child.

So whether it’s our child hitting us, pulling our hair, kicking us, anything they might do, understand that, first of all, it’s normal behavior, expected behavior, nothing to worry about, nothing to feel threatened by. Stop your child doing the least possible thing you need to do. So not overreacting: Now I’m going to put you down and walk into the other room because I can’t handle you.

Of course, I can handle you. All I have to do is hold your wrist and just keep you from hitting me or just put my hand in front. Or maybe if you are in my arms, then I would need to put you down so that my hands could be free to stop you, so I’m going to put you down.

Magda Gerber used to say, “When you say ‘no,’ have your body language and tone reflect ‘no’ as well.” But again, that’s not overdoing it with a stern face or a stern attitude. That could be saying, “No, I’m not doing that.” Which is different from, “We can’t do that. Okay?” That’s not a confident response.

What I’m going to be doing more of in the future is, instead of saying firm, I’m going to say, maybe the three C’s. Certain. Comfortable. Confident. Because when I’m certain, I don’t have to push it. I don’t have to sell you. I don’t have to show you how certain I am. I’m certain. No, that’s it. My answer is no and I’m not changing that. I’m certain.

And I’m really comfortable. I’m so comfortable that if you say, “Come on, please!” or ask me 50 times or start screaming, I can reply: “Yeah, you’re not happy with my choice. You’re not happy at all.” I can say it like that. I’m not afraid to talk about how much you disagree. That’s how comfortable I am. So that’s the point we want to get to with everything: I’m really comfortable. And to be comfortable, I think for most of us as parents, we want to please our kids, obviously. I mean, that’s one of the reasons we became parents, we want to make our kids really happy. It’s really important to know that we can always change our minds comfortably, with certainty, with confidence. Those three C’s. We can always change our mind. So don’t be afraid that you’re going to make the wrong choice and then be stuck with it. Just be certain. Go with it. You’re not going to make that many wrong choices.

Most of the people listening here would probably err on the side of being too easy with everything and too pleasing with our children. So make a choice. You can always change your mind. “You know what, I was thinking about it and actually, it’s fine with me if you want to have grapes before dinner. I thought about it and I made a mistake saying no. Sorry about that.”

So we always have that freedom. So don’t let that stop you. There are no excuses. No excuses not to be certain and comfortable and confident.

And then really, it doesn’t matter, almost doesn’t matter what you say. I like the “I won’t let you” because there’s a piece in that that says, don’t worry, I’m actually not going to let you do things that anger me or hurt me. Not only do I not want you to do this, but I’m actually not going to even let you do this. I have the power to stop you. So I like the message in that, but it doesn’t fit every situation and there’s no reason to be afraid of no.

There’s a lot written about how we should use no sparingly and all that. I believe in using limits sparingly, in the sense that we give our child a lot of freedom and a safe place space, things like that, where we don’t have to say, “No, don’t do this. Don’t do that. You can’t do that, you can’t touch this.” So I believe our environment should be conducive to less no’s and less limits. But we’re not afraid of saying no. That’s not a bad word to say. Check that worry off our list.

I hope this is helpful. And I hope it makes sense and maybe sheds a little light on this subject. If you like what you heard, please check out my other podcasts and both of my books, again, are available on audio at

Thanks so much for listening. And remember, we can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Can you addendum fora toddler/preschooler? I have a temperamental Taurus who turns 4 on Sunday. I would like to start this theory with confidence two years ago, please. Okay to start now? You mention “deliberate” in this post. I am sure the hitting or kicking or more physical reactions he has now are deliberate… is there a different NO for this?

    1. Emily, I hope you won’t mind my jumping in, as I, too, wish I had found this earlier: not because there were different ways with a younger child, but because I would have happier parenting memories and my daughter would have had a more capable Mom.

      You can absolutely start now with all that is on this site. Really really listen to or read and reread this podcast: it’s your intention, your way of being and it has nothing to do with the behavior of the child: Janet discusses in another post how she responded to an 80-year-old man with the same unruffled empathy and respect, even though she felt uncomfortable with shame, and the interaction between the two was as beautiful as your four-year-old and you working on whatever she is working on.

      Scour this site. Really. I LOVE being a Mom, now, because I understand where my daughter is coming from and I know the guidance here is how I want to be in the world and with myself. There will be small changes in your choice of words and sense of situation, then you will notice everyday it’s like a bicycle and you find yourself able to pedal faster and faster without losing your balance and you can even fly down hills without fear because you are so adept with the brakes and defensive cycling. And yet, and yet, the days are a calmer ride and the hills and valleys smoothe out. I welcome “issues” because I get to help my daughter on a deep level and it’s love on a really deep level.

      I SO wish I had found this site in the months before my daughter was born, but I just say to myself, for consolation, at least she is not full grown and out of the house: I still have many years ahead of us and I never rush a day anymore. I am enjoying “getting this” : )

      1. Marian, you are so lovely and I feel like I should be paying you for all your kind endorsements! Seriously, I’m beyond thrilled that Magda Gerber’s approach has helped you as much as it has me. Thank you for sharing so honestly and generously. You blow me away! With gratitude and affection, Janet

    2. Yes, my almost 5 yr old hits and kicks deliberately and thinks its a game. If i block and say i wont let you hit me, he thinks its a game and keeps trying. I end up walking him to his room bc i dont want to be hit and its not safe, but i feel like thats a “punishement”. Not sure how to navigate. Other example is when he keeps pushig our 2yr old and also finds it funny but baby is screaming and not happy.

      1. I also have a 3 year old who hit and kicks deliberately and thinks its a game. Particularly if I try to stop him, whether it be by hold up a hand in front of me or holding his wrists, etc. He laughs and tries harder. It hurts! This often ends with him in his room. Not sure how to handle this in any other way.

        1. Dabbi Siracha says:

          What if you give them something to kick or hit instead? Like a ball or a pillow

  2. I just listened to this podcast and first of all thank you, it is very nice to have some guidance in this maze calles parenting. The whole time I was reading I kept on thinking, my almost 4 year old has these tantrums, sometimes because of her character (she is fireworks) and sometimes because I asktoo much from her, too many no’s or rules in too little time, I am working on that. So my question is: I say no, she thinks it is a joke, eventually after multiple warnings I am so fed up that I send her to her room, then she starts screaming, crying, hitting the wall or bed sometimes out of frustration.. My whole being wants her to stop that and sometimes I yell at her but at the same time I think she should have the space to express her frustration but that disturbs my peace, her little sisters peace and that of the neighbours, which is not ok, what can I do?

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