The surprising truth about why kids keep testing limits, and what to do about it
Whether they are teenagers who want to borrow the car or toddlers who want two scoops of ice cream instead of one, it can be exhausting when our kids seem to constantly test the rules and push boundaries.
Here’s how Lisa, a mother of two, describes a typical scene in her family:
“It seems like almost every day, my kids are pushing the boundaries that I set. At night, after I read them their last story, they want another one. When we need to leave the playground, even after I give them a five-minute warning, they beg me to stay longer. They just won’t take “no” for an answer.
Most of the time I stick to my guns, but it’s so exhausting sometimes to have them constantly pleading with me, begging for more stories, more time, or whatever, that I give in.”
Why do kids do this? Partly because our children are always experimenting to find out what works to get what they want, and partly because how parents respond in these situations can inadvertently teach kids to keep pushing limits. The key is consistency.
Consistency means doing what you say you will do; it means being predictable. With consistency, testing of boundaries is minimized since children learn that you mean what you say and will follow through.
In contrast, kids whose parents are not consistent tend to keep testing their parents’ limits and rules, in the hopes of eventually getting whatever it is they’re aiming for. When kids perceive that you only sometimes enforce the rules and follow-through, they are likely to keep testing.
Psychologists call this principle “variable ratio reinforcement.” Think of a rat pushing a lever that delivers food pellets. If that lever delivers food pellets at predictable (or fixed) intervals, the rat knows exactly when it will get food: every Nth time it pushes the lever. The rat won’t expect food at other times.
Conversely, if the lever delivers pellets at unpredictable (or variable) intervals, the rat doesn’t know if it will get food after one push, fifty pushes, or one thousand pushes, so it keeps pushing the lever again and again in the hopes that this time, it will finally get the pellet.
Kids aren’t rats, of course, but the principle of variable ratio reinforcement works with people, too.
When our response to a situation is inconsistent, and therefore unpredictable (for example, we sometimes insist that our kids clear their plates from the table, and other times we are too tired or distracted to enforce this household rule) this inconsistency motivates kids to keep trying until they get the response they want.
Parents’ inconsistency typically happens for one of three reasons:
1. Parents aren’t paying attention to the situation (so they don’t notice they are being inconsistent);
2. Parents don’t want to follow through (often because it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable for them);
3. Parents can’t follow through (because it’s not within their control).
For example, consider the situation of a child at the grocery store with Dad. Junior keeps pulling items off of the shelves, slowing down the shopping process and adding unnecessary items to the cart.
Dad might say, without thinking ahead: “Please stop that, or we’ll leave the store.” The child might then look mischievously at Dad and deliberately take one more thing off the shelf.
Now, Dad is faced with abandoning an almost finished shopping trip, and he can hardly be blamed for not wanting to do that (see reason #2 above). In this case, however, it's better to specify a consequence he can and will enforce.
Bottom line: If you want to teach your kids to take "no" for an answer, be certain that you can and will enforce your rules and follow-through consistently on what you say you will do. Consistency is one of the 10 Things Great Parents Do.