Parenting: Setting Limits Compassionately

By: Julie Gamberg

daughter holding hands with parents- modern family

Dear Mr. Newman,

We have many areas of disagreement, yet also some important areas of agreement:

You and I agree on a central point of this discussion: Children need clear limits and parents who will enforce those limits for the physical and emotional health and safety of their children (and sometimes simply for the needs of the parents). I advocate setting and enforcing limits.

We also agree that using corporeal punishment and shaming does not achieve obedience or compliance in the long run. I, however, disagree that using disconnection and enforced isolation should be used to enforce limits.

You seem to be genuinely concerned that children who are parented without limits can develop a host of behavioral problems as children and as adults. I share those concerns. And yet I add other concerns. Children who are parented with disconnection and conditional love learn to disconnect emotionally and learn to treat others with a carrot and stick instead of with empathy and compassion. They struggle harder as adults to be emotionally present and they struggle with self-discipline issues and a lack of intrinsic motivation. Further, parents who use punishments learn that they must continually up the ante, increasing the severity of punishments as children get older, because their punishments do not curb the aberrant behavior; punishments eclipse the opportunity to understand the root cause and underlying unmet needs of a child, opening a possibility to stop the behavior in the first place, and to give children the coaching they need.

Whether it involves yelling, giving time outs, spanking, or taking away privileges, enforcing limits without resorting to punishment is challenging. It requires commitment, creativity and courage. Evolving one’s parenting techniques from time outs (or any form of punishment) to connection parenting – using empathy, dialogue and problem-solving -involves a learning curve. I recommend that instead of continuing to refine their time out technique, parents should learn how to set and maintain limits without using punishments (reading recommendations to follow and links provided below).

Some points of disagreement:

You write that I do a “good job of capturing the sentiments of the child-centered parenting movement, and in so doing laid open its many fatal flaws.” It’s not clear how you define a “child-centered parenting movement”. In your interpretation, empathetic becomes permissive and connection becomes child-centered. You argue that parenting without rewards and punishments is permissive parenting, but you do not provide evidence of this. Assuming that rewards and punishments are essential to good parenting does a disservice to parents who want to establish and enforce limits in a compassionate, empathetic way.

You attribute to me the belief that “parents must, at all costs, protect children from struggles and difficulty.” As anyone who has a child or who has worked with children knows, growing up is full of struggles and difficulty. From the crying of a newborn, to teething, to falls, to struggles with siblings and friends, to frustration over learning new skills to, most importantly, the extreme powerlessness that all children and youth feel, to the ultimate separation from parents that is part of a child’s development, children’s lives are rife with struggles and difficulty. It is impossible for parents to protect their children from every trial that life throws at them, but parents can and should help their children manage these difficulties so that they can learn appropriate and healthy coping skills to take with them into adulthood.

You also write that, “Parents must learn to allow their children to experience the consequences of their actions, to coach them through difficulties, rather than work to remove them.” I couldn’t agree with you more that we need to coach children through their difficulties (something that is impossible to do when you’ve sent them away from you), but I disagree that they unilaterally need to experience the natural consequences of their actions. We are constantly protecting children against the natural consequence of their actions, as children have no idea what the consequences are of, say, putting something poisonous or choke-able in their mouth, jumping off of a too-high structure, hitting someone, and so on. That is when we need to coach, as you wrote, not isolate and not allow them to experience unacceptable consequences, or apply consequences which make no sense and do not help them better understand what they do not yet understand.

Mr. Newman, if you knew that it were possible to set, maintain and enforce limits without resorting to disconnection and isolation, is that something you would advocate? Is it the time out itself that you believe is so important, or the need to maintain limits?

A New Approach: Connected Parenting

Many parents are told (by an endless stream of popular parenting articles and reality shows) to punish their children, and have not been exposed to alternate approaches of enforcing limits. Punishing a child feels instinctively like a misguided approach, so these parents flip back and forth between being too permissive and too harsh. They repeat empty threats, and they and their children dwell in a cycle of mutual frustration. This is not a productive situation for the parent or the child. These parents often feel like they’re drowning and are relieved to have the work of parenting taken out of the equation by applying a short-sighted, one-size-fits-all principle such as a Time Out.

If they are willing to do the work, parents can parent with empathy while also maintaining limits. In fact, establishing limits creates the space for empathy. Connected parenting establishes deep trust between parent and child, and it results in resilient, compassionate, grounded children.

Connected Parenting does not rely on one-size-fits-all techniques, but instead acknowledges the uniqueness of every situation. Parents have concrete alternatives to punishments. Aletha Solter, Ph.D., lists twenty alternatives here . Alfie Kohn outlines ten principles for parenting without rewards and punishments here . Further, I encourage The Next Family to initiate a Q&A page where readers can present scenarios or struggles and request help from a parenting coach who can offer concrete suggestions that don’t involve rewards or punishments.

Connected Parenting in Action

There are, literally, thousands of examples in the communities where this type of parenting is the norm, of parents who have dealt with an array of problems, from pre-verbal toddler “tantrums” to teen issues of rebellion and defiance. Since there is not a one-size-fits-all solution, parents do have a bit of learning to do before beginning to understand what types of solutions make the best sense for their own situation. Still, I believe it is important to be as concrete as possible. So, what have I done with my child? I try to use an empathic parenting-style as much as possible. Neither of us is perfect, and my daughter is still young, but I believe in modeling the kind of compassion and problem solving that I hope she will use to treat others. I’m certain that the specifics of our interactions are unique to her age, our life circumstances, and her temperament, but the compassion and optimism that I use to approach challenges can be applied to other parenting situations.

For example, recently my daughter started biting me. I examined when and where it was happening and looked for underlying causes. Was she hungry? Frustrated? Bored?

First, I discovered that she was biting me when she was teething, so I began carrying a teething ring in my pocket. When she tries to bite me, I say, “No bite mama,” and hand her the teething toy or ring and say, “Bite this,” and then make a lion-devouring-meat sound, “arrr, grrr, arrr.” She laughs and says “arrr, grrr, arrr” as she bites the toy. It is a playful point of connection for us, and I don’t get bitten! (In a pinch if I don’t have a teething item, I fold up a sleeve of her shirt, or mine.)

Then, I discovered that she sometimes tries to bite me when I’m taking something she shouldn’t have out of her mouth or hands, when she bites me in anger. To identify the root of the problem, I had to understand that she wanted something she couldn’t have and was mad about it.

I also discovered that the times when she would bite were exclusively the times when I would take something away with very little warning, and often when I was frustrated: “Oy, you have my phone again?!?”

I tried a three-pronged solution. First, I used the teething toy, since that was already working. Second, I kept controversial items out of reach as much as possible. Lastly, I worked at creating more connection and giving her more warning before taking an object away. For example, this morning we were taking a walk and my daughter picked up a dirty spoon from the ground and tried to put it in her mouth. I reached for it, saying: “That’s yuck-yuck, not for baby. Give to mama.” Lately this is often enough and instead of trying to bite, she will hand over the object. This time it wasn’t. “Yuck, yuck, not for baby,” I said as I gently took it from her. I went one step further and handed her the wood ring in my pocket. She didn’t want it, but I could see that we had maintained a positive connection, that she felt heard and understood. Later in the walk, we passed a soiled plastic cup lid, an item she particularly likes. She bent over to pick it up and I said, “No, not for baby.” She repeated, “No,” and stood back up without the lid.

By repeating these steps, my daughter has not only stopped trying to bite, but she is learning to give things to me when I ask for them. This is much more effective than yanking them away. And, or course, imagine if I were to have tried to treat all of this biting with a time-out? If I had treated her biting as something that needed to be “controlled” by applying an external punishment or “consequence,” she would likely still be biting me, and I would still be doling out punishments. And even if the punishments “worked,” I still would be missing an opportunity to teach and model problem-solving skills, one of the most important life skills. So I made an effort to understand the roots of her behavior in order to nip it in the bud, and teach her more appropriate behavior.

Time outs, on the other hand, teach children to deal with conflict by using force and coercion, as opposed to using dialogue and understanding. If we use time outs with our children, they will attend school and, when faced with a schoolyard dispute, have one tool in their kit for solving a conflict over turn taking on the swings: Time Outs. Assuming that our kids do not succeed in sending each other to time outs, their lack of tools may lead to frustration, anger, and ultimately further misbehavior. Modeling conflict resolution through forced dismissal is presumably less effective than teaching the tools of dialogue, good listening and creative problem solving.

So I ask, parents, what would be the connected way to handle the issues that you are currently having with your child? If we can maintain limits and connection simultaneously, is that worthwhile? Is it something worth reading up on, or going to classes for, worth learning how to do?

Connected parenting gets much easier with verbal children, where you can practice problem-solving together. As you can see, parenting without rewards and punishments involves creative problem solving and is not as black and white as using the same method of punishment for each “infraction.” Yet the rewards are vast. When parenting this way, the parent-child relationship gets stronger over time instead of more strained. When parenting this way, the solutions get easier and easier instead of more challenging. When parenting this way, teens are able to individuate in a developmentally appropriate way without having to resort to some of the more difficult common teen behaviors. And the benefit is not just for us, as parents. It’s not just about a more effective way of solving problems we’re having with our children (although it is more effective as well). When parenting this way, children learn intrinsic motivation, self-regulation, and problem solving skills. We have the opportunity to model compassion, empathy, integrity, and responsibility and as we know, children are excellent at doing what we do, not what we say.

Mr. Newman, you and I are after the same goals. We want to see our own kids, the kids we work with, and all children raised in such a way that allow them to be happy, healthy, productive, honorable members of society. I have seen so many parents achieve that through empathy and connection, and without the use of rewards and punishments, a parenting journey well worth exploring.

“Instead of child-centered parenting, let’s try relationship-based parenting,” you write. I couldn’t agree more.


This reading list is taken from a response to a comment I wrote in my article, “Time Outs Are the New Spanking.” I’m adding a couple more books to that list here.

Po Bronson, in his fabulous book Nurtureshock (co-written with Ashley Merryman) compares parenting-by-a-book to the old paint-by-numbers kits and talks about how we all have an aversion to feeling like we’re parenting in a mass-produced, one-size-fits-all way. With that said, there are some books that are very worth reading: Books that are thoughtful; books that are based on substantial and impressive research including well thought-out longitudinal studies and other good science, and books that are totally paradigm-shifting. True, these are not “how-to’s” with quick and easy answers, but they are books that will get you to the answers, I believe, in a much more substantial way — one you can sustain through all of the situations that children and youth bring to us. While these are not parenting guides, they are thoughtful and amazing books:

1. If I had only one to recommend it would be, hands down, “Unconditional Parenting,” by Alfie Kohn.

2. And then: “Playful Parenting” by Lawrence J. Cohen

3. “Parenting From the Inside Out” by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell

4. “Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children,” by Thomas Gordon (an amazing book with an unfortunate title)

5. “Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting ” by John Gottman

If you twisted my arm to recommend one more, the aforementioned Nurtureshock, while I don’t always agree with the “what should we do now” conclusions that Merryman and Bronson make in relation to the science they write about, I do love reading their science journalism and learning what good research has shown us.


I am concerned that Mr. Newman is basing many of his ideas on intersubjective psychoanalytic theory, and in particular, Jessica Benjamin, to explain child development and support his position. He and I interpret Jessica Benjamin very differently from each other. Benjamin, a feminist, psychoanalytic theorist who is looking at Freud and, to a lesser extent, Lacan through a feminist lens, argues against female submission and male domination. She also uses Nancy Chodorow’s (another feminist theorist) work on object-relations theory, as well as Daniel Stern’s research on “attunement” (often cited by attachment parenting theorists), and supports the argument for increased connection and, by extension, against the disconnection of time outs.

Benjamin does not take on the topic of time outs directly, nor, as far as I am aware, does she look at any specific parenting philosophy, advice, techniques, studies, or theories. What she does discuss is the need for the child to understand itself as separate and other, to know it has its own will apart from its mother’s, and to know that the mother has her own will, apart from the child’s, so that the child does not ultimately come to see his or herself as dominant or submissive. Benjamin’s work is highly theoretical and abstract and it is difficult to see how her work could be used to support time outs. Because her work is so far removed from practical application, Benjamin is not a useful resource in helping parents digest and apply recent studies in neuroscience, psychological research, or parent education.


This has been an ongoing debate between Julie Gamberg and Joe Newman.  If you have missed any of the previous articles you can find them in order below.

The Modern Time Out by Joe Newman

Time-Outs for Impulsive Behavior by Joe Newman

Time-Outs Are the New Spanking by Julie Gamberg

Parenting: Being Mean to Kids by Julie Gamberg

Child-Centered Parenting is Dangerous by Joe Newman


  1. says

    Julie, thanks for sharing the ways you interact with your daughter. It makes a lot of sense when I see examples. I would like to see the q and A. Then our readers can compare and contrast the styles and I would bet everyone uses a little of both. I think Joe sees kids that are already disturbing their classrooms, already have trouble connecting and have many issues with ADD and ADHD and oppositional behavior as well. I think Joe is trying to prevent that from happening by giving tools much earlier to these types of children. I know the take a break and count to 60 seconds works for my grand kids. They can sit and watch the activity that they were excused from and when they are done with the 60 seconds rejoin the activity. It settles them down. Thanks again to both of you for continuing this discussion.

  2. says

    To be honest, this is a lot to read and I mostly skimmed much of this. And I do not disagree with many of the techniques you’re recommending. I do them. I listen. I try to understand, to figure out why my children is doing what they’re doing. I give him choices. I distract and redirect. I hold him. I tell him ahead of time what to expect so he knows when something is coming. I diffuse things with laughter. I make things into a game. And most of the time these techniques are all it takes to get my child in to his clothes and out the door in less than an hour in the morning. Most of the time laughing and tickling and making it a contest is enough. He wants to please me, but he also wants to be in control. I understand these things and I work around them every single day. And I know I’m a good parent. But every once in a while, despite everything I do he fights and puts down his foot and acts stubborn and won’t get ready. I can understand him and empathize with him and talk to him about how he’s feeling about not wanting to leave the house and how he’s sad to be away from me and how he wants to stay at home with Mommy and how he hates having to share me with Baby Sister, and I can tell him that the daycare is excited and they will love it and he will have a fun time and we can have some special time together when we get home at the end of the night. I can spend the extra half an hour that requires (while I’m also managing a crying infant). But he can still refuse to cooperate and sometimes does. And I have a job. I can’t tell my boss “Sorry I’m late. My toddler refused to get dressed this morning.” My boss doesn’t care about that. Sometimes there is a battle of wills and my will has to be stronger. And for those situations I start counting. I tell him he has a choice… get dressed himself or mommy will do it for him and I count. 1—2— He knows that when I get to 3 if he hasn’t done what I’ve asked, I will pick him up and do it. And there will be a tantrum and a lot noise and struggle. But he will get in the car and I will be on time for work. He is given the choice, but ultimately he is going to do what I say, even if it doesn’t feel good to him.

  3. says

    Barb, I think you are doing the best with both parenting styles. I am one to try various methods and when one works stay with it. You are a great Mom,I can tell just from your writing. Keep up the style. It works for you and do it guilt free.

  4. says

    I just wanted to take a moment and say how much I appreciate your thoughtful and articulate discussion of this topic. I have a lot going on this weekend but will sit down and take some time to respond to your blog in the next few days when I can do it justice.
    In the meantime you can see an example of the how I think a time out can be compassionately done in the comments section of my new blog.
    Thanks for your tenacity.

  5. Bob Howard (Gpa) says

    Great article.
    I am also a fan of Alfie Kohn.
    I wonder why people talk baby talk to young children. “No bite Mama” should be “Please do not bite Mama or anyone else.” I am a teacher and am always looking for teachable moments.
    A parenting problem: Children at restaurants. What to do when they lose it and start screaming in the middle of the meal.
    -Can’t send them to their room for a time out.
    -Don’t go to a restaurant until they are ‘old enough.”
    -Get a baby sitter and leave them home.
    -Order in.
    -Bring toys, games, and drawing materials.
    -Remove them from the restaurant.
    The last is what I do although it often results in cold food.
    I love “problem solving” as a straegy, but don’t see how to attempt it while the child is destroying everyone else’s evening out by screaming. I have been the “victim” of this situation many times when other people’s children adopt crying and screaming as a strategy.

  6. says

    Ms. Gamberg,
    Although many of your questions have been answered in my recent blogs I’ll do my best to also answer them here.

    How I define “child-centered” was in my blog A Seismic Shift in Parenting:
    “What I consider “child-centered” parenting focuses on two things, one of which I support and one which I think is dangerous. The first, empowering children through choices, praise, empathy and language, I support (with some caveats around how praise and choices are used). The second focus is replacing action consequences (that are often frustrating and difficult) with reasoning and conversations (that are usually neither frustrating or difficult).”
    It’s not empathy I have a difficulty with, but rather the myth that all conflict between a parent and child will be resolved through reasoned conversations and problem solving.

    As far as “punishments and rewards” are concerned you should make note that I have never endorsed this in any of my blogs. The difference between cause and effect and punishment and reward is subtle but very important.

    Parents create the effects that occur when their children make choices, this is inevitable. If they pair these effects (consequences) with a judgment about the “good or bad” of the child’s choice, make the consequences too severe and emphasize the power of the adult while diminishing that of the child, the child will view the consequences as externally generated punishments and rewards.

    However, if parents create and administer consequences without judgment or moralizing, make those consequences short and reasonable, and emphasize and respect the child’s choices and power, the child will view the consequences as internally generated cause and effect.

    When you went on your rant about the evils of time-outs, despite my thorough explanation about administering them in a way that acknowledges your child’s power and teaches them cause and effect, it demonstrated that you fail to understand the difference between cause and effect and reward and punishment.

    Parents have a responsibility to assert their own needs and create and administer frustrating consequences when the child has chosen to disregard the needs of those around them. I’m not just talking about the frustrations of “teething, falls, struggles with siblings, and difficulty learning new skills”. But rather, because a parent effectively creates the effects to the causes made by the child, they should proactively set and administer consequences that teach children that some of their action result in frustration, boredom and disappointment.

    This isn’t to say that thoughtful reflection and conversation with your children aren’t big parts of parenting, they are. But when you attack the primary tool parents have to create frustration around unacceptable behaviors (without offering an alternative) and instead preach endless problem solving and discussions as the solution it’s you who are promoting a “one size fits all” approach to children.

    Your question of how to raise children without having moments of disconnection shows a misunderstanding about child development and the needs of the child during the rapprochement. By definition, the stage of rapprochement requires moments of disconnection followed by reconnection.

    The process goes like this:
    1. The child responds with constant willfulness, the clinging or the tyrannical demands and/or tantrums typical of the rapprochement (The child asserts their will while negating the parent)
    2. The parent holds the limits and consequences, (insists on being recognized)
    3. The child pulls away from the parent in defiance of those limits and consequences, (asserts independence and autonomy)
    4. The parent holds the limits and consequences (insists on recognition)
    5. The child calms himself (exercising self-regulation), accepts the boundary, and returns to the parents’ embrace. Child and parent are both recognized and the parent and child have now come together in a new way (rapprochement).

    Each time this pattern repeats itself, the parent-child relationship shifts, the child strengthens his abilities of self-regulation and moves from omnipotence toward interdependence. If the parent works too hard to alleviate the frustration of this process, or resists the child’s need to assert their autonomy by pulling away, the omnipotent identity grows, the child’s transition is slowed and the child looses an opportunity to develop self-regulation.

    The rapprochement is the parent-child relationship redefining itself, moving from omnipotence to interdependence. Omnipotence is unconditional (I recognize you even though you negate me) and interdependence is transactional (I recognize you and you recognize me).

    Unconditional Parenting prepares children for an unconditional world. A world, where friends don’t leave you no matter how abusive or obnoxious you’ve become, where everyone gets an “A” whether they made efforts or not, where employers won’t fire you when you refuse to show up, and where wives stay with husbands who continually beat them. The world is not unconditional. The world is transactional. Love is transactional.
    P.S. – Parents don’t need to be taught to have unconditional love for their children. This happens naturally.

    Lastly, I find it disappointing that rather than engaging or arguing against the developmental model I use, you choose instead to attempt to disqualify its use in a discussion about parenting.

    A developmental model is only valid to the extent to which it explains phenomena. The more clearly a model offers explanations about what we’re observing, predicts outcomes and offers solutions the more valid it is. Having said that, I find it ironic that you dismiss the intersubjective developmental model that offers real insights into, and explanations for, the most pressing parenting issues of our time, and instead, refer parents to books like Unconditional Parenting which not only offers no developmental model but also doesn’t even bother addressing the alarming rise in psychological illness and narcissism, and decrease in academic ability in our nation’s children.

    How can you so righteously defend theories that can’t explain what’s going on with our children? A parenting book that makes no attempt to explain the most pressing issues of our time effectively marginalizes a large and growing percentage of our children. Like a parent of three who swears by their perfect parenting method while refusing to even look at the one child with whom their method has so completely failed.

    Joe Newman, author of Raising Lions

  7. Wendy says

    I just would like to say that I find your perspective very uplifting.
    I was almost divorced after 10 years of marriage myself. Fortunately I applied some of the suggestions right here and they actually did wonders for me and Bernard. This relationship is certainly more robust today than it ever was.

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