Setting Boundaries on Behavior: Why Humor Works Where Harshness Doesn’t

Humor is an uplifting strategy to use in setting limits if your child isn’t too upset. Kids love nothing better than a good laugh, and using humor to pry them out of their behavioral ruts can lift your whole family’s spirits.

For example, as you physically herd your preteen daughter out of the bathroom, you could say, “Ahhh, there’s my sweet girl! You do look lovely! Your Bathroom Bouncer has arrived. Moving right along! Hallway mirror, here we come. Chug-a-chug!” To which your daughter will roll her eyes and say, “You’re the weirdest parent I know!” but she’ll move on, perhaps giving you some playful resistance, and benefitting from the laughter that results.

The affection in your voice will reach her heart.

The Vigorous Snuggle is another way to set limits with humor. It plays on the tendencies of parents to issue consequences for misbehavior. Your child does something off-limits, and instead of making a federal case of it, you issue a mock threat.

It works best when you’re gleefully eager to catch your young “offender.”

Handling “It's Not Fair!” with Humor

Here’s a mother who used this strategy with her daughter’s fussiness on a special day. The laughter was just what her children needed to turn their day around.

“My husband and I took our three kids, ages eleven, ten, and seven, for a hike on Mother’s Day. My girls love to hike barefoot. I told my youngest that was fine, but that she should bring her shoes in my backpack. When my older daughter couldn’t find her shoes, I said that was fine, she didn’t need to bring any along. After we’d hiked awhile, my youngest learned that her older sister didn’t have to bring shoes along, and she was really upset. She kept fussing that it wasn’t fair. I said she was right, it wasn’t, and that I was sorry. But since she wasn’t even carrying them and didn’t have to put them on, it didn’t matter. That reasonable approach didn’t work, and she kept fussing. I was annoyed that my Mother’s Day hike was going sour.

“Then I remembered Listening Tools! With an exaggeratedly authoritative voice, I said, “Oh yes. Of course, you had to bring your shoes and your sister wasn’t allowed to. That’s because I am the Mean Queen, and I set different rules for every person on the hike.” My daughter looked up, definitely interested. “Yes, your sister was not allowed to bring any shoes at all. If she had, she would be in big trouble. And you… well you had to bring shoes but you are not allowed to wear them no matter what. And your brother, well he has to wear his shoes for at least half the hike and then he can take them off but he may not put them on again.” She was hooked. She asked me, “What about Daddy?”

“Oh, him? Well, he may not take off his shoes under any circumstances, or he will face the wrath of the Mean Queen.”

Well, that turned the whole hike around. They spent the rest of the time breaking the Mean Queen’s rules, and every time they did, I chased them but never actually caught them. At one point, after I chased my son, who had ‘disobediently' put his shoes back on, I looked back and saw my seven-year-old wearing my husband’s big shoes. Oh, was that queen angry with all of her subjects! A bit later, I took a “nap” while the girls took off my shoes and hid them. Boy, was I mad again! There were lots and lots of giggles and squeals all afternoon. We all felt really close afterward. I think it was so successful because the Mean Queen routine, with those absurd and arbitrary rules, was playing around with issues of fairness, which was what my daughter was upset about in the first place.”

When you set limits playfully, your child will want to test that limit over and over, so he can enjoy being stopped in a playful way. You’ll learn to smoosh, chase, pounce, pummel, give raspberries, issue grandiose threats, and do all kinds of horsing around in response to off-track behavior. The message you give is, “I know you’re good, no matter what darned thing you’re up to! Here I come!”

It’s a message that children thrive on.

Does Playful Limits Encourage Misbehavior?

Conventional wisdom would tell you that setting limits playfully would encourage more misbehavior, not less. What we find is that when children feel themselves drifting away, or when they need reassurance that you care, they’ll playfully do things that warrant a Vigorous Snuggle.

It might look like misbehavior to others, but in the love language you and your child will develop, it’s an invitation to play and connect.

When your child’s hunger for playful limits is greater than you can satisfy, set a non-playful limit. Corral him and stay with him until he can think of something else to do. If he needs to cry, he will, and that will connect you.

Do you set playful limits? Would you like to?

This excerpt is taken from the book Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, available in paperback, audio and e-book. Get a free chapter here

For more on setting limits see:

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