Dear Sara…

“An important element of respectful discipline is that it requires us to find that sense of certainty in ourselves as loving leaders for our children.”

~Janet Lansbury

This week a parent writes in about the battles (and silliness) that commonly come when we utter the phrase “time for bed.”


Dear Sara,

Lately I feel like I have been in a good space with parenting and respectful parenting and can really see the benefits which has been an amazing feeling. I still have some areas I am working on:

Can you help describe how to set appropriate limits for our little ones in more stressful (for the parent) situations? For example bedtime is nearing, the boys are tired and when they are tired they usually get a little more wound up.  They are running around the living room, not hearing me when I say it is time for bed, we need to go into the room. I try not to repeat myself more than a couple times. So then I go to use my body to block them/stand in front of them to have them look at me and maybe try and hold their hand to say “its bedtime we need to go to bed” but as I approach they run away laughing. It really tests my patience when they run from me. How do I set this limit?
This has also occurred on bike rides or walks, intentionally not listening when I say to stop and wait. This situation is more dangerous as I could be alerting them to danger. I feel a bit helpless in these situations and a little bit of an out of control feeling. Not at all that I feel I need to “control them” more of how to help them understand the limits and why they are important.
Thanks Sara!


Hi Becky,

First off, I’d like to say how fantastic it is that you are seeing and feeling the benefits of respectful parenting. I love hearing the stories about what’s working just as much as I enjoy hearing the stories about what’s not!

Believe me, I understand your frustration. This is exactly what goes on in my household on many nights as well, and I’d bet every other parent reading this is nodding in agreement thinking “yep, mine too.” After I take my kids out of the bathtub (and sometimes before) there is something that just snaps- and I have two naked, slippery, wild kids running through the house laughing and trying to get away from me no matter what (or how calmly) I say “time for bed.” I know that this is not helpful…but solidarity is comforting!

I’d like to tackle your question in two parts. Lets start with bedtime. There are a couple things that stood out in your phrasing of the scenario: like when you say the boys are “not hearing” you when you say it is time for bed. I can guarantee they definitely hear you…but are simply not able to comply because of several possible factors.

You say they are tired…so tired that they’re actually wound up. Perhaps they are overtired at this point and might benefit from pushing the “getting ready for bed” routine up a bit. This will allow more time for them to wind down, and also give you the opportunity to slow things down if limit testing is happening. Being in a rush certainly doesn’t help our abilities to think clearly and respond with any sense of ease.

The other factor I can chalk this up to is development (again, not so comforting…but will help you reframe your expectations of them) You’re kids are both at an age where “listening” (aka complying without an adult having to set physical limits as well) still doesn’t come easy, if at all.

You say “it really tests my patience when they run from me” and I’m sure they pick up on that discomfort and sense that this is a button for you.The truth is they can’t help but to push that button once they know it’s there. It’s an awfully powerful feeling to be able to ruffle your feathers!

Based on your description though, I think you are setting the limit wonderfully…

You are telling them “time for bed” (giving information), and then following through with having to set a physical limit by blocking, getting down on their level and trying to connect. This is the reality of what limit setting looks like, it can feel stressful, inconvenient, messy, and trying sometimes.

They might be much less tempted to test the boundary if you state only once “it’s time for bed” and then follow through right away with nonchalance.

Even when you feel uncertain inside, your children will feel much more at ease if you exude confidence in helping them to bed, even if you have to fake it a first. I’ve found that taking a moment before rushing in and putting on my most self-assured Mama mask, has led me to develop the ability to tap into authentic confidence around setting limits. It has to do with seeing their needs in that moment and being responsive to the need versus the behavior

The part that might be hard is figuring out how to really own and live with that uncomfortable feeling of having your patience tested in this way, and more importantly look at those feelings as opportunities for growth. That’s what makes this approach so hard! It’s completely counterintuitive and challenges you to look at your own role in the relationship and consider how you (or other things such as environment, scheduling or tiredness etc.) contribute to the difficulty.

I can offer a couple practical strategies for you that could possibly help with the whole routine.

Have you tried talking with the boys (when everyone is fed, rested and when it’s NOT bedtime) about the challenges you notice and invite their ideas about how to make it work better for everyone? I use the phrase “I notice this isn’t working for our family” and will ask for ideas about what might work better. Giving children the room to participate in planning things out often gives them a sense of agency and participation in the process of family decision making.

Of course the natural, or logical consequence of their behavior might simply be that they won’t have time to have a story read to them, or get those few extra minutes of playing before it’s time to get into bed. So, stating in a matter-of-fact tone that they’ve run down the clock and won’t have time for a story might possibly help them reevaluate their choice to do so next time.

So, the next part of your question is much more black and white and requires firm boundaries because it pertains to safety.

If the boys are running away from you, and you truly deem it to be an unsafe situation (there are cars driving nearby etc.) then I would take their hand calmly but firmly and say “I need you to stay close to me, there are too many cars driving near us here. I will hold your hand (or you) to keep you safe.” 

Then if the behavior is repeated, I would let them know you cannot stay if you cannot keep them safe. Again, in a matter-of-fact tone…not a threatening one. I often tell my little ones when they are protesting holding my hand, or being held that “it is my job to keep you safe.”

I would not try to alert them to HOW unsafe it is by telling them what might happen if they run into the street. They will understand the serious nature of the limit by your tone of voice and the confidence you exude when physically stopping them. If the consequence of being unsafe while you are out together is that the fun gets cut short, you can simply acknowledge the feelings of upset that they have about it, and validate their disappointment.

And like everything, this too shall pass.


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