Award-winning author, L.R.Knost

Testing the Boundaries~What’s A Parent To Do?

attitude[Portions reprinted from The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline by L.R.Knost. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages and  Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood now available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]

Challenging behavior in our children can be really…well, challenging! How do you ‘handle’ a child who suddenly refuses to wear shoes or sit in her carseat/seatbelt or eat, period? Here are some tips to help you regain that snuggly, loving relationship you used to enjoy before your baby became a…gulp…PERSON!

1.)    Remove the word ‘handle’ from your parenting vocabulary entirely. Your child isn’t a lion to be tamed or a dog to be trained! He’s a person, an individual with thoughts, interests, concerns, wants, and needs that are totally separate from yours. Respecting him as a separate individual not only models the value we need to place on others in our homes and communities, but also sets the stage for a mutually respectful relationship in his teen years and beyond.

2.)    Slow down! Often simplifying our lives is the key to simplifying our parenting issues. Rushing a child from one activity to the next doesn’t expand her horizons; it stunts her creativity and inherent zest for life, which are the building blocks of a life-long love of learning. When she digs her heels in, pay attention! She’s trying to communicate a very deep need for time and space to learn about the world, to play and grow, and to just ‘be.’

3.)    Small children have very little control over their lives, and the more powerless they feel, the more likely they are to make eating, getting dressed, going to the potty, etc. a battle of wills. Giving choices, engaging your child in making plans, and being flexible and responsive on a daily basis are good ‘proactive’ parenting, but little people are notorious for their awkward timing in deciding to suddenly assert their independence! Be prepared for those challenging moments by deciding ahead of time how you will respond. (See below for some ideas!)

4.)    Listen, listen, listen! The first question parents ask me is almost always, “How do I get my child to listen?” And my first response is usually, “How well do you listen?” As Ralph Waldo Emerson so aptly put it, “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.” In other words, our children learn best by imitation. If every time our little ones ask for our attention we say, “Just a minute,” then we cannot expect instant attention from them. If when they speak to us our eyes constantly stray back to our computers and iPhones, we should not be surprised if they have a hard time looking at us when we ask them to. Listening is a two-way street that starts and ends with us, the adults.

5.)    Boundaries are our friends! Many people believe that Gentle Parenting is a form of un-parenting, but nothing could be further from the truth. Gentle Parenting is involved parenting~interactive, engaged, active parenting. It takes focused attention, planning, participation, research, and so much more to be an empathetic, responsive parent who is in tune with their child’s needs and who is prepared to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to meet those needs. That said, in any home, like in any civilized society, boundaries are necessary for everyone’s safety and comfort. It is in the choosing and maintaining of those boundaries that Gentle Parenting distinguishes itself. In a gently parented home, boundaries are focused on guiding rather than controlling children and are maintained through empathetic and creative resolutions rather than harsh punitive consequences. (See below for some ideas!)

6.)    Watch your attitude! Do you have angry eyes? A sharp tone? Do you issue commands and demand compliance? Do you sigh and roll your eyes when frustrated with your little one? All of these things contribute to creating resistance in children. Really, who wants to cooperate with someone who is demanding, impatient, sarcastic, angry, etc? Does feeling like a burden or a failure ever motivate anyone? Is a desire to please rooted in correction or connection? Think about how you like to be treated by authority figures (supervisors, law enforcement, etc.) and then treat your children the way you want to be treated! This not only reduces challenging behavior, but also models The Golden Rule~Do to others as you want them to do to you…an excellent life lesson!

Here are some ideas for your Gentle Parenting toolbox:

    • Little one refusing to put on shoes before leaving the house? First, ask him why he doesn’t want to wear them. A toddler most likely won’t be able to/want to explain, but you’re modeling courtesy and opening up a dialogue, both good connection points. A three-year-old, though, might just surprise you with a very logical, in their own mind at least, response! Second, don’t react; just scoop the shoes up, and take them with you. If the refusal to wear shoes continues at the park/in the library/at the doctor’s office, etc. calmly tell him he can sit in your lap or in the stroller and hang out with you until he’s ready to wear his shoes.


    • If a tantrum results, remember to stay calm (deep breathing, counting silently, and saying a quick prayer for guidance are all helpful!) and remain present. Some children respond well to a parent quietly talking, offering words to express what the child may be experiencing (i.e. “It’s frustrating when we have to do things we don’t like. I can see that you’re angry, and that’s okay. Let’s just sit here together for a while.”), while other children become more upset when a parent attempts to interact with them during a tantrum and are comforted simply by your quiet presence, a gentle back rub, or playing with a Calm-Me-Jar . Getting to know your child is an important part of Gentle Parenting and will help you to ‘read’ these situations so you can be responsive to their unique needs.


    • A place for Time-Outs. Typically, I advise parents to use Time-Ins instead of Time-Outs in order to connect-to-correct, but there is one area that I advise the use of Time-Outs…the ‘Time-Out Toy Box!’ When a toy is misused (i.e. thrown, used to hit, drawn on, fought over, etc) and a gentle redirection has been given, the next step for the toy is to be put in the ‘Time-Out Toy Box.’ Little ones generally find the concept of a toy being put in Time-Out rather humorous and go along with the removal without a fuss (the toy can be returned after an exaggeratedly stern warning to the toy letting it know what is expected of it and that it must listen to ‘the boss’ ~the child, lol. They love that!), but remember to communicate, listen, and be flexible. If the removal of a toy brings about a strong negative response, it may be that the inappropriate behavior was more than just over-exuberance, in which case a Time-In might be needed. Again, being in tune with your child will help you to ‘read’ the situation and respond appropriately.


  • The most challenging, independent children tend to be the ones who need the most intentional parental reconnection. Strong will=Strong need! It is often the strongest-willed children who identify most closely with their parents, oddly enough. While there is no denying how difficult it can be to raise a strong-willed child, seeing the purpose behind the behavior can make the journey much more manageable. Try to view their seemingly constant testing as them doing ‘research’ on you, seeing where your strengths and weaknesses are, and discovering all the ins and outs of being you. Also, taking the time to explain why you make the decisions you do, why you said this, why you didn’t say that, answering the endless questions patiently and openly, can alleviate some of the challenging behavior by offering them insights into who you are without them having to ‘dig’ it out of you!

Related posts:

Practical, Gentle, Effective Discipline

The Taming of the Tantrum: A Toddler’s Perspective

When Children Hit~10 Tips for Parents

Easy Peasy DIY Parenting Tools

To a Toddler Sharing is a 4 Letter Word~MINE!

Tots to Teens~Communication through the Ages and Stages

Parenting in Public: Toddler Time

Award-winnning author, L.R.Knost, is the founder and director of the children's rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, and children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series.

76 Responses

  1. Naomi

    I am SO happy to have come across this… I’ve been a parent for 11 years now and never heard of Gentle Parenting, though it was my aim to be one… Now a Mother of 3, I find myself often anything but gentle, and it’s been breaking my heart – which I think is a good thing!!! – and my childrens’ – which is definitely not good… I’ve found your site now, and I will be ‘devouring’ all you have to offer. Thank you 🙂

    December 29, 2011 at 3:07 am

    • L.R. Knost

      I know mommy guilt is probably an issue for you, but that’s a destructive emotion, not a constructive one. We’re all learning ‘on the job’ so to speak, and we do the best we can. Have you seen ? If that link doesn’t work, it’s ‘Too Late For Teens?’ and the link is at the bottom of this post. Transitioning to a new parenting style can be difficult, but being very honest with your children about why you are making these changes and involving them in the process can be super helpful. You’ll do great, mama!

      December 29, 2011 at 2:42 pm

      • Naomi

        Thanks… Mumma guilt is something I struggle with, so I’m grateful for anything to read regarding dealing with that!!!! I appreciate your encouragement 🙂

        December 29, 2011 at 6:17 pm

  2. What wonderful advice. I wish I’d had this resource 25 years ago when my very strong-willed son was small!

    December 29, 2011 at 10:51 am

    • L.R. Knost

      Thank you so much!

      December 29, 2011 at 2:42 pm

  3. Thanks for sharing, I love the idea of the time out toy box. I’ve only just started blogging on and I hope some of my posts are as helpful to others as this will be for me. Thanks!

    January 3, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      Thank you and good luck with your blog, mama!

      January 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm

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  5. crystal

    I guess I started gentle parenting (I didn’t know it had a name) about 6 months ago. My daughter is 8. I really started to try to “figure her emotions out” why she acted the way she did, and I got “in tune” with her. I only wish I knew about it from the start. It makes parenting so much more enjoyable. And my daughter has responded so positively to it! It’s never too late to be a better mom, right? 🙂 Great post!

    January 4, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      “It’s never too late to be a better mom.” I love that! No, it’s never too late, and we all can make improvements every day (myself included) as long as we try to grow as parents. Thanks for the comment, mama!

      January 4, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      • Mima


        Would it be possible for me to translate this great text and share it with some of the parents I know?

        March 11, 2012 at 4:53 pm

        • L.R. Knost

          Certainly, just send a quick note to and I’ll reply with the text, trackback link, and author bio if you need it. Thank you for asking! 🙂

          March 11, 2012 at 5:05 pm

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  12. Fee

    When do you start gentle parenting? Would it work on my 14 month old? Lately he has been clingy, drinking way too much milk(including waking up for bottles), won’t drink water, only juice, not eating, and is just different. It’s really stressful as he is my first, and I’m 21 weeks with the next one :/ I really feel I’m a bad parent 🙁

    January 17, 2012 at 6:17 am

    • L.R. Knost

      Aww, ((hugs)) mama! Parenting is hard work for many reasons, but the fact that we’re learning on the job makes it super stressful at times! Gentle Parenting starts when you decide it starts. It’s about really getting to know your little one, connecting with the need behind the behavior, and treating them with the same respect you’d treat your best friend. Helping your small people to grown into big people who WANT to be kind and compassionate and cooperative members of our world instead of only ‘being good’ to avoid punishment is key. It sounds like your little one is feeling a bit disconnected, perhaps because of a new baby on the way and all the added stress, both physical and emotional, that adds to the family. That and/or teething can really affect his sleep and also cause an increased need for sucking for comfort and simply needing mama close. Intentionally working on daytime cuddles (rocking together, reading books, playing games, etc) to fill some of the connection needs, getting your little guy active during the day (outside activities like swinging and taking walks, indoor activities such as giving him a big cardboard box and and a few little ones and just watching his imagination come alive), and meeting those middle-of-the-night needs quickly and consistently (and with some quiet cuddles) will all help your baby feel like he can relax and trust that he won’t have to fight for his needs to be met when the new blessing arrives! And, as much as it feels like he’s ‘the older child’ in your family, try to consciously remember that he is a baby himself with all the associated needs and immaturity and limited understanding of language and relationships and expectations. Treating him like the baby he is isn’t ‘babying’ him, it’s relating to him in his present stage of life appropriately and lovingly. That makes you a good mama! 🙂

      January 17, 2012 at 11:46 am

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  15. Paula

    Question about the “time out toybox…” I tried something along those lines with my 3.5 year old a while back, and then he got a big kick out of MAKING his toys get in trouble so he could discipline them (he LOVES the idea of being “the boss”). I’m really not sure if this is possibly okay as just a creative outlet, or if it’s fostering something deeper (or showing me that HE feels like I enjoy him being in trouble). Perhaps his own reaction IS modeled after how he perceives mine… Any thoughts? (I definitely need to start working more on the “gentle” part of parenting.) Thank you for your blog!

    January 23, 2012 at 7:09 am

    • L.R. Knost

      Lol, I have one who likes to do that, too! I’ve found it to be a great excercise for her in learning self-control and working through her emotions. You know your little guy best, mama, so if you feel he’s learning and expressing himself and gaining some of that control little ones crave, let him have at it. You could try asking questions like “How can you help your bear to listen next time?” and “Do you think you should have a talk with your truck so it understands hitting people hurts?” and just see what kind of feedback you get. I love little people’s imagination, and interacting with their imagination instead of stifling it can give us a wonderful connection point and also some great insights into what they’re thinking!

      January 23, 2012 at 11:54 am

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  19. Hi! I love your gentle parenting encouragement. I have a three year old who was a high-needs baby and has turned into a very hard to parent preschooler. He wants everything just so, and just so is his way, which he may or may not have told you beforehand. (Example: He asks for water, and one time I may open the bottle first and him scream for ten minutes because I opened the bottle, and another time I may not have opened it, and he may scream for ten minutes because I didn’t open it.) In the last two months I’ve really been trying to work on listening to him, vocalizing his possible emotions (“I understand you are angry because you wanted to do it yourself, and I’m sorry.”) He swings between super affectionate (walking up to me and saying, “I love you SO much! You are my BEST mommy”) and angry (screaming, “You areMEAN mommy!” as I go to fetch something after reading to him for 20 min). I’m really struggling on how to enforce boundaries. What am I supposed to do when he calls me names and spits at me?

    In your above example of the shoes, that would work, except that I also have a 1 year old. I can take the baby out to the car and come back and get him, but when we get somewhere, he has to walk, because even with baby in a carrier, I can’t carry him. So I spend 10 minutes trying to convince him that he really does need to weear his shoes, which normally means we are late, and granted that doesn’t help me to continue to handle the situation calmly.

    I love him dearly, it just sometimes feels like living with a time bomb 😉

    Any suggestions for me?


    A Tired Momma

    February 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      I hear you, mama! It can be such a challenge just raising one of the preschool-and-under-set, and when you add more than one…oh my! I certainly can empathize, too. In the four attempts I’ve made to reply to your comment, I’ve had to clean up mac-n-cheese noodles the baby got into, run back to close the laptop before she destroyed the post I was working on, stop my six year old from meowing (yes, MEOWING!?!) my twelve year old into commiting sister-icide, clean up the drink the baby got ahold of and poured everywhere, run back and close the laptop I’d JUST reopened…and so on. Sigh. All the parenting advice and techniques in the world, while helpful, won’t change the fact that parenting is challenging and exhausting and frustrating. I don’t have to tell you how beautiful it is, too. I know you know that, mama. What I can do is give you a ((hug)), tell you ‘this, too, shall pass,’ and remind you to give your little guy choices, be silly (“The tickle-toe monster is coming to tickle your toes! Let’s get some superhero armor on those feet, quick!”), and be sure to give plenty of heads-up time warnings so he can finish his important activities before it’s time to leave. Good luck, mama!

      February 3, 2012 at 9:41 pm

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  29. This is so helpful. I just wish there was something about toddlers, boundaries and their younger sibling…he won’t fit in the Time Out Box very well.

    April 30, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      Lol, true! 🙂

      April 30, 2012 at 10:40 pm

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  35. Ashley Cozzens

    This post is so great! I think I’ll share it on facebook.
    I feel you treat us fellow tired, frustrated, and often guilty-feeling mamas with such gentle encouragement. It is truly building my confidence that I am not alone and I can be a better mom to my children.
    I still feel a little reluctant to completely abandon some of my current techniques or beliefs about parenting, but time will tell. My husband might be much more reluctant to adapt to a gentler parenting method, although he is usually much more patient than me. (But he also is not 5 months pregnant and staying home with a 2 and 3 year old! haha)
    But I can only control my own self and if I can manage to learn a gentler parenting style and see good results, maybe he will come around too.
    Thank you so much for your thoughts in this blog! You have given me much to think about.

    August 3, 2012 at 11:37 am

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  47. Dora

    Thank you for existing, and strengthen my will to be a gentle parent! I accidentally found this site, and I m reading it every morning. I always felt like I’m an idiot because there are no gentle parents in my environment , I’m from Serbia and the education of children here is in a very poor level, not to mention family relationships….We have a 17 months old daughter Anita, and she is a very curious, adventurous, intelligent, music-loving, happy little girl. Planning to have three children so there is a long way to go. I already do many things as you do, still breastfeeding her even I am working, I’m trying to listen her always, etc…And I still learn every day something new from you, thank you for that!!! Hoping that soon we can buy your book here or in Europe. I look forward to reading it!!! Congratulations on the achieved, you are a rare inspirational women!!! If you ever visit Serbia or Hungary it would be an honor for me to meet you! Best regards from Dora

    May 30, 2013 at 4:29 am

    • That’s so beautiful, mama. You made my day! If you’re on Facebook, come over to the Little Hearts page for lots of support and encouragement from other gentle mamas and to ask any questions about gentle parenting you may have, if you’d like>>>
      I keep a few copies of my books available for my overseas mamas so they don’t have to pay exorbitant shipping costs, so if you’re having trouble getting Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages you can find them here: Nice to hear from you, mama! 🙂

      May 30, 2013 at 2:56 pm

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  51. Erin brown

    I love this website.

    August 7, 2013 at 9:00 pm

  52. Roberta Ferguson

    Hope to win! Thank you!

    August 7, 2013 at 9:53 pm

  53. Ines

    Just commented about the toy time but on a different post!! Great article once again.

    August 7, 2013 at 10:08 pm

  54. Laura Merrigan (peters)

    love all your advice!! thanks

    August 7, 2013 at 10:46 pm

  55. Amanda

    Thank you!

    August 7, 2013 at 11:25 pm

  56. Pati Mattison

    I am going to the time in toy box idea. Thank you

    August 7, 2013 at 11:40 pm

  57. Heather

    This is great! I love all of these tips.

    August 7, 2013 at 11:53 pm

  58. Amy


    August 7, 2013 at 11:58 pm

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  61. Sharon Birch

    Hi. I am a mum of 2 adult sons and a beautiful daughter who is almost 6. I have been positive/gentle parenting for about 4 months and have to say it feels so natural and has brought my daughter and I even closer. I have had criticism from some people who feel that it is namby pamby parenting and that children need strong discipline but on the whole friends and family have been supportive. Just over the past few weeks however it is almost as though my daughter has had a ‘ping’ moment and realised that I am parenting differently and is starting to push situations a little almost as if to say “How are you going to handle this now then Mummy?” I have found myself floundering a couple of times as I have promised myself not to use bribery (if you do that you can have/do this) or threats (if you don’t do this you can’t do/have that). I have never smacked and time outs were always ineffective with my princess anyway.
    Tantrums I handle much more easily now thanks to the resources available but steely eyed defiance is harder. I hope with enough patience and love we can get through this stage and grow even closer 🙂

    April 11, 2014 at 4:34 am

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  64. So happy to have learned about you from a friend!

    January 5, 2017 at 8:53 am

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