Setting Limits Through Thinking Words

Setting Limits Through Thinking Words

Prepared by Dr. Bert Alexander

Translation and Prezi by Henry Roncancio

Prezi Presentation: Prezi

Questionnaire: Questions.pdf

Love and Logic parenting is a law-and-order philosophy. Just because we recommend that parents shy away from issuing orders and imposing their solutions on their kid’s problems does not mean we give license to all sorts of misbehavior. The process is to allow our kids to mess up, and not drive home the lesson of their misdeeds with words. Be slow to lecture, and never tell the child what he has just learned. Instead, give guidance, but allow them to think for themselves. Making enforceable statements and giving choices forces that thinking back on them.

Building Walls That Don’t Crumble

How do we set limits on their behavior without telling them what to do? Limits are crucial to what we are trying to do and our kids need the security of boundaries in order to make those decisions. 

From the time our kids are infants, we set limits for them, limits that put boundaries around their behavior. Some parents build walls in the form of firm limits for their children; others leave their kids to feel insecure and afraid by providing few limits, or limits that crumble easily. 

Kids seem most secure around parents who are strong, who don’t allow the limits they place on their kids to crumble. Conversely, children lose respect for adults who cannot set limits and make them stick. Quite simply put, kids who misbehave without having to face the consequences become brats. Children who have limits placedced on them in loving ways become secure enough to not only deal effectively with their own emotions but form satisfying relationships with others as well. These relationships allow children to develop self-confidence. These children are easier to teach, spend less time misbehaving, and they grow up to be responsible adults. Lack of firm limits lead to low self-esteem and the behavior follows accordingly. 

How to Talk to a Child

For many parents, setting limits means issuing commands and backing up those limits with more commands spiced with sternness and anger. They think that every time they say something to their kids, they are setting limits, and the louder their voice gets and the more often they repeat it, the firmer the limits become. This may have immediate results, but the long-term prognosis is not very good. 

Love and Logic parents insist on respect and obedience, just as command-oriented parents do. But when Love and Logic parents talk to their children, they take a different approach. Instead of the fighting words of command-oriented parents, they use thinking words. Thinking words, used in question form and expressed in enforceable statements, are one of the keys to parenting with Love and Logic parents. They place the responsibility for thinking and decision making on the children. 

What is the difference between “fighting words” and “thinking words”? The former is an order and the second is a contemplative statement. “Fighting words” are the ones in which we challenge our kids and offer a negative consequence for them not following through with a positive response. E.g., “Don’t you talk to me in that tone of voice!” “Thinking words” are ways to think of enforceable statements that make kids think for themselves. For example, “You sound upset. I’ll be glad to listen when your voice is as soft as mine is.” 

Children learn better from what they tell themselves than from what we tell them. Kids are more prone to believe something that comes from inside their own heads: they choose an option, they do the thinking, they make the choice, and the lesson sticks. 

Would you rather carry your coat or wear it?

Would you rather put on your boots now or in the car?

Would you rather play nicely in front of the television or be noisy outside?

Kids fight against commands and the difference between the thinking words and fighting words are subtle. More control by the parent is perceived as less control by the child. They exert themselves to regain the control they see slipping away. 

The Threat Cycle

The temptation to use threats is great because we desperately want to assail our kids with commands and threats to limit their behavior. Simply put, using threats doesn’t make us feel like the wimp we feel like if we whimper, cry, beg, or plead with our kids, and threats sometimes work. 

Some kids respond to threats, and others do not. They may do as they are told, but they are angry with the person who gave the order. Or they may perform the task in a way that is unsatisfactory simply to regain some of the control they had taken from them. Either way, they are breaking the limit we are trying to set. Our goal is to use thinking words and enforceable statements. 

Passive-Aggressive Behavior

When children are commanded to do something they don’t like, they often respond with passive-aggressive behavior. Kids know they must comply with the order or else reap punishment. They channel their anger in a way that will hurt their parents, so subtly that the parents don’t know they are being hurt. They will make it sting sharply enough so that those parents will think twice before giving that order again. 

The book uses the example of the girl who was responsible for doing the dishes, but she would procrastinate until it was too late at night and was in a rush the next morning. When mom gave the ultimatum, the daughter did the dishes, but broke a glass “accidentally” in order to get back at mom. The daughter’s subtle message was “You better think twice before you force me to do the dishes again.”

Passive-Resistive Behavior

When kids react to parental demands with passive-resistive behavior, they resist without telling the parent they are resisting. The resistance is in their actions, not their words. For example, when a parent tells a child to do something, the child responds by claiming he forgot the request or with less than instantaneous obedience. The attitude is “I’ll comply, but I’ll do it on my own terms.” A sure sign of passive-resistant behavior in children is parental frustration. Parents may be frustrated without having passive-resistant children, but all passive-resistant children have frustrated parents. 

We Would Rather Think Than Fight

Fighting words invite disobedience; they actually challenge the child to be disobedient. When they are used, we are drawing a line in the sand and daring the kids to cross it, and they will fight the limits we impose by using the fighting words. Fighting words include three types of commands:

Telling the kids what to do, “You get to work on the lawn right now.”

Telling our kids what we will not allow, “You are not going to talk to me that way!”

Telling our kids what we won’t do for them, “I’m not letting you out of this house until you clean your room.” 

When we issue commands we are calling our kids to battle and in many cases these are battles we cannot win. Why not simply steer away from words that cannot be challenged or fought? Limits can be set much more effectively when we are not fighting with our kids. It has been clinically proven that kids who are thinking cannot fight us at the same time. 

Love and logic parents make statements with enforceable thinking words, telling their kids:

What we will allow: “Feel free to join us for your next meal as soon as the lawn is mowed.”

What we will do: “I’ll be glad to read you a story as soon as you have finished your bath.”

What we will provide: “You may eat what is served, or you may wait and see if the next meal appeals to you more.” 

The word “no” is the biggest fighting word in the parental arsenal of commands. For two-year olds, parents us the word “No” over three-fourths of the time. Children tire of hearing it. The rule of “no” is to use it as little as possible, but when we do use, we mean business. At other times use a “yes” to something else. For example, “Yes, you may watch television as soon as your chores are done.” 

By using thinking words, we are able to set limits on our children’s behavior without telling them what to do. For example, if we want the lawn mowed before the next meal, we set that limit by offering them the choice: of mowing the lawn and eating, or not doing the lawn and not eating.  In the real world, we get our job done, get paid and then we eat. When we give our children the right to make decisions, there is no anger for them to rebel against. Nobody is doing their thinking for them and the limit is established. 

“Yes” is always more fun to say than “no” if we are healthy and do not get a kick out of controlling others. Loving parents who encourage responsibility early are less likely to get into these hassles:

“Can I have _______?” 

“Honey, if anyone deserves that________, it is you. Buy it!”

“I don’t have the money.”

Sorry about that. It is like that a lot for me too. I guess then you will not buy it.”

Mean What You Say, and Say What You Mean

Just as quickly as kids learn the limits, they will test them. They actually need to test them to make sure that the limits are firm enough to provide the needed security. They need to find out if we mean what we say and if we are going to stand firm on our word or not. 

Some will test the limits with anger or guilt, some are sneaky, and others will fake forgetfulness as a means of testing parental resolve. They will pout, complain, stomp around, run to their rooms, whine, or talk back. Using guilt is one of their most effective tools. 

The kids will not like the Love and Logic methods; they would prefer the old ways and will revert to them at every opportunity. The limit is the choice of the child: of course, they are hungry if they chose to put off the next meal because they did not mow the lawn. The hunger is a natural consequence to their action. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. 

If we relent, we demolish the meaning of those consequences. We set up a crumbling limit for our children. If we get angry at them for the choice they made or if we rail into them with an “I told you so”, we also present a crumbling limit. They then have ample reason to direct their anger toward their parents instead of themselves. 

Using enforceable thinking words, giving choices, displaying no anger, these are the ingredients for establishing firm limits with our kids.


  • How have you uses principles of love and logic in your parenting this past week? Are you giving them choices that are positive or are you simply forcing them to do your will?
  • How do you set limits on their behavior without simply “telling” them what to do? 
  • Limits are good for children. Psychologists have found that a child will play more confident and freely in a playground that has a fence than one that is open. How do you tell your child to not run out into the street? How do you tell your children not to waste food? How do you tell your children to clean up their room?
  • When we don’t provide firm limits, our kids suffer from low self-esteem. 
  • The excusing of irresponsible and destructive behavior because children have somehow been wronged can be carried to ridiculous extremes. Love and Logic parents use opportunities to build self-esteem in children who have had to cope with difficulties. Phrases like, “If anyone can cope with this tough situation, I bet you can do so,” tells the child that you have confidence in their resilience. 

Fighting words and thinking words: 

  • Child says something loud and unkind to the parents.
    • F/W—“Don’t you talk to me in that tone of voice!”
    • T/W—“You sound upset. I’ll be glad to listen when your voice is as soft as mine is.”
  • Two kids are fighting.
    • F/W-- “Be nice to each other. Quit fighting.”
    • T/W---“You guys are welcome to come back as soon as you work that out.”
  • Child will not pick and clean up his room.
    • F/W—“Get in there and clean up your room or else!
    • T/W---“______________________________________”
  • Child is wasting time at fast-food restaurant.
    • F/W—“Hurry up and finish your Happy Meal!”
    • T/W—“____________________________”
  • Child always forgets his coat.
    • F/W—“Put your coat on else!”
    • T/W ==“Would you rather carry your coat or wear it”
  • Child needs to mow the yard and is putting it off.
    • F/W—“You get to work on that yard, right now!”
    • T/W---“Feel free to join us for your next meal as soon as the lawn is mowed.”
  • Child wants to go out to play.
    • F/W—“No, you can’t go out to play until you practice your lessons.”
    • T/W---“Yes, you may go out to play as soon as you practice your lessons. 
  • Child wants to watch television instead of doing chores.
    • F/W---“No, you can’t watch television until your chores are done.” 
    • T/W---“Yes, you can watch television as soon as your chores are done.”


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