Parenting Corner: When No (Sometimes) Means No

When (and why) do the limits (and negative consequences) we set need to be flexible?


Welcome to the Parenting Corner Blog, where Brooklyn parents can share questions and reflections on raising children. All questions will be read by licensed clinical social worker and licensed creative arts therapist, Karen Bagnini. Responses to selected questions will be posted, with names omitted. Questions may be edited for space.

Responses will be framed in the context of child-centered and developmentally appropriate approaches to parenting dilemmas. This is not an advice blog. Rather, this forum is meant to serve as a place for dialogue. We welcome your comments below.

Please send questions to: karenbagnini.patch@gmail.com.


Now, to our first question:

I have raised my 5 year old daughter to question limits by responding to her questions and accepting her suggestions for alternatives.  I think it shows respect for her. I like that she does a lot of problem solving and communicating trying to get what she wants. Those are great life skills. It is often inconvenient that everything is a negotiation, but I believe it is worth it.

I do worry some times that I may not be giving her consistent and clear enough limits.

I am almost always consistent with consequences, but sometimes I have let her earn her way out of a consequence. For example "If you don't give me back the candy you took without permission by the time I count to three you won't get any cake later." Then later, when she is crying about not getting cake I tell her if she eats three vegetables more than usual she can get some cake.

She is more than adequately obedient at school. I am hoping you will ease my worries.


Thank you for sharing such a candid, heartfelt, and common parenting dilemma: how and when to set limits and how and when to be flexible about them. 

Based on what you shared here, it sounds like you are on the right track. Your daughter seems to be developing many of the skills you value and model. You also find yourself reflecting on when to stick to what you said earlier and when to continue negotiations. 

Remember that all children respond differently to the same strategies, and that you are the expert on your child. In general, if you have an established rule or consequence, it’s better to stick to it. Explanation of why we set certain limits can help a child understand and get used to the idea that: These are the rules and this is why. (For example: this is for your safety, or you lost dessert because you decided to have something sweet earlier today without permission—and when you are 5, we expect you to ask permission before you eat sweets.)

Knowing and experiencing fair, consistent limits is a very comforting thing for children. Ongoing negotiations can increase a child’s frustration because he or she might really need you to stick to your guns (but not be able to say that, of course).

Also, if you’ve been inconsistent, be prepared for the possibility that the next time you are unwilling to negotiate with her, she tries harder (screams louder) to see if you will give in. 

An important life skill is to be able to tolerate frustration and self-regulate (which it sounds like she does exceptionally well at school). The only way to develop a tolerance to frustration is to feel frustrated.  Sometimes, in life, there is no way to earn oneself out of a consequence. That said, you have the ability to debrief with her afterward to help her name what she was feeling and validate it.

It seems that you are committed to using language as a tool for communication and bonding—bravo!  So, aim for consistency and continue to be reflective and forgiving of yourself when you give in.


Karen Bagnini, MA, LCAT, LCSW has 25 years of experience working in the field of human services and has been working with children and families as a therapist since 1998. She is a certified school social worker with experience in both the Boston and New York City public school systems. She is currently Adjunct Faculty at the Hunter College School of Social Work and maintains a private practice in Brooklyn, New York. She is also a parent.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.


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