School of Love

now browsing by category


Choices within Limits

I recently read an article that was trending on Facebook entitled “Physician to parents: You’re doing it wrong”. The following statement got my attention and I just can’t let it go, so I decided to write about it.

“Some parenting experts told adults that they should offer their children choices instead of telling them what to do and parents believed them, he (author Leonard Sax) said. The hierarchy of parent over child no longer exists, he said. Instead of parents exercising their authority because they know what’s best, they are focusing on making children happy and boosting their self-esteem.”

You can read the whole article here:

I wholeheartedly agree that parents should have authority in the home and that healthy limits are good for children.

But I don’t see parental authority and children’s happiness/self-esteem as being mutually exclusive.

As humans we have a basic need for control, and children are no different. Some strong-willed children will actually engage in self-destructive behaviors just to prove that they are in control. Do you know of a toddler who will make him/herself sick by not going to the bathroom because potty training has become such a big deal? What about a child who refuses to eat when healthy foods are placed in front of him/her? Any chance there are still things that you do to prove to your parents that you are in control? Think about it. So as a parent, why not learn share control — let go of the control that isn’t really necessary in order to keep the control that is?

A skill shared in Parenting with Love and Logic is called choices within limits. The basic idea is that the parent offers choices to the child — and either choice works perfectly fine for the parent (aka limits). For those of us raised with the parenting model of “Because I said so” or “Do it now, or else”, this can be a challenging new skill to learn. But trust me, it’s well worth the effort. Choices within limits for the example cited in the article look something like this:

  • “Would you like to say ahhh while the doctor looks at your throat or just be quiet?”
  • “Would you like for me to hold your hand while the doctor looks at your throat or would you like to keep your hands folded in your lap?
  • “Would you like to keep your eyes closed or eyes open while the doctor looks at your throat?

The parent establishes the limit “while the doctor looks at your throat” but the child retains autonomy and self-expression. As an added bonus, the child learns to pay attention to and understand their own needs, and the parent can use these opportunities as a way of modeling calming behaviors in the doctor’s office — “would you like to take two deep breaths before the doctor looks at your throat or three?”

When parents learn to offer choices within limits, we give our children the ability to practice making decisions that are good for them.

This is probably a good time to note that choices within limits are offered to children for decisions that only affect the child — not for decisions that affect the whole family. Decisions that affect the whole family are made by the parent(s).

By having lots of experience making choices with limits, over time children learn how to identify what’s best for them and make decisions accordingly.

This seems like a good thing since we won’t always be with them to tell them what is best for them. After all, a goal of parenting is to prepare our children to thrive as independent adults one day. I’m pretty sure that making choices within limits is a skill that I have to use a lot in the adult world:

  • I can sleep an extra 15 minutes and leave with my hair wet or get up on time and leave with my hair dry. Either way I need to be at work on time.
  • I can walk the dog in the rain during the daylight or wait until the rain stops and walk the dog in the dark. Either way the dog gets walked.

Similar to my kids, I’m not always deliriously happy with my choices. But I do like to have choices so that I feel like I have some control over my life. What about you? And what about your kids? Maybe try to offer some choices within limits as an experiment and see what happens.


What dreams do you have for your life?  How long have you had them?  In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman tells us:  “Often our deepest dreams are rooted in childhood.  You may long to re-create some of your warmest memories of family life from your youth – such as having dinner together every night without interruptions from the TV or telephone.  Or, you may feel the psychological need to distance yourself from painful childhood memories by not duplicating the same activities.” (p 218)

Sometimes these dreams are crystal clear, but often they remain hidden deep within the core of our identities, buried under layers of who we want to be or who we think we are.  Interestingly, it is conflict with those who know us and love us that seems to draw those dreams to the surface where they can be observed and attended to.

So what if your job as a spouse is to help your partner wrestle out her dream because she doesn’t know what it is?  Could it be possible that your spouse only discovers his deepest values, the things that most deeply reflect his core identity, through conflict with someone who loves him, because otherwise that dream stays un-formed?

Is it possible that an argument about who is responsible for managing dinner preparation isn’t really about food at all?  Rather what’s at stake is role expectations and what it means to be female or what it means to be male.   And is it possible that an argument about housework has nothing to do with dusting or vacuuming, but is really about the meaning of home? For one a neat and clean home means safety and security, but for the other a neat and clean home feels rigid and constricting.  What do you think is at the core of your arguments?  What would happen if you studied your disagreements for clues to your deepest dreams?  What would happen if you noticed what gets your children really upset, then wondered about the value associated with that certain behavior?  What could happen in our relationships if we didn’t avoid arguments, rather studied them for the treasure of information they provide?  Try it.  Let us know how it goes.

Energy of Love and Compassion

Re-framing problems as opportunities, being diligent about determining who owns the problem, and allowing for flexibility in solving problems are important in any relationship if our hope is to know each other more deeply.  And these skills are absolutely essential for adult children who face the possibility of caring for their aging parents. A great example of this aired in a special about caring for aging parents on ABC in 2011.

This story demonstrates that by being attentive to unique strengths and limitations among the siblings, they allowed for flexibility in solving the problem, which led to an overall better solution if for no other reason than the siblings were growing closer to each other rather than letting their anger and frustration win the day.  Sometime our conflicts really do provide the opportunity for us to grow in intimacy with God and to grow in deep, loving relationships with our family regardless of how that family is structured or what crisis that family might be facing.

So what if the emotion with which you do things in a family actually matters? What if anger produces one kind of outcome and love produces a different kind of outcome?  That would be a torah of family to ponder by day and by night. If the energy we bring to our problems is anger, lust, or fear, it won’t work; but if the energy is loving, then it will work.  The energy in families needs to be genuinely warm, kind, gentle, joyful, playful, and easygoing. And those things can be the hardest to do inside the family.

Consider that the next time a problem comes up in your family, you might think of it as an opportunity, figure out who owns the problem, consider that person’s developmental readiness for solving the problem, and if they’re ready – let them solve it.  Your job will be to enjoy watching someone you love learn and grow and change and become all that God has created them to be.  That sounds like a pretty fun job!

Grit and Self-Control

Educators and researchers are also interested in what it means to cause thriving.  In one particular study, “Peterson identified a set of strengths that were, according to his research, especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement.  After a few small adjustments, they settled on a final seven:  grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.”

As qualities that contribute to life satisfaction and high achievement, how can we encourage and foster these qualities in our homes and family relationships?

Part of that answer can be found in how we approach the problems/opportunities that we face in our families.  Do we approach them as opportunities? As obstacles to be worked around? Or as roadblocks impeding our path?

Sometimes a problem is actually an opportunity to learn about responsibility, to gain confidence in problem-solving skills, decide on a solution, learn from mistakes, try another solution, and see it through to completion. What seems like a problem can really be an opportunity to develop grit, practice gratitude, engage in curiosity about how things work, increase the odds of having optimism about ability to handle life, and be a timely learning experience in the value of self-control.  When put that way, it doesn’t really sound like a problem does it?

To read more about these character traits and how they influence life satisfaction and achievement, check out “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” by Paul Tough.  The New York Times book review of this book is available here:

Connecting through Interest

For really young children who might not be ready for the stress reducing conversation, we can be interested in the things that interest them.  Instead of leading them to participate in structured activities all the time, maybe spend some time just watching what they like to do.  What gets their attention?  While noticing what gets their attention, practice asking really open-ended questions to learn WHO your child is.  These are questions like “what is it about the butterfly that makes you want to watch it?” rather than “you like the butterfly because it’s colorful don’t you?”

As your children get older this means exploring their world with curiosity – being open to where they might be taking you rather than assuming you know where they are headed.  This means doing a lot of listening and wondering and exploring and being OPEN to what you are hearing.

Dr. Tina Payne Bryson is the co-author (with Dan Siegel) of THE WHOLE-BRAIN CHILD (Random House Delacorte, 2011) and NO-DRAMA DISCIPLINE (Random House Bantam, 2014). In this short YouTube video, Tina reminds us that the activity isn’t really the big thing when it comes to our kids, it’s our presence with them in their world that matters .

Connecting through Listening

The Stress Reducing Conversation doesn’t have to be limited to the context of marriage. The practice of active listening and empathetically connecting is incredibly valuable to our children who also need a reliable place to be seen, safe, soothed, and secure.  We can build this time into our daily routines for the children living in our homes, or our visitation routines for shared parenting situations, or even weekly phone conversations with our adult children living outside of our homes.  Regardless of the age of our children, it is important that they have the opportunity to share who they are, what they’re afraid of, what brings them joy, their hopes and their dreams…without being corrected or judged or silenced.  John Gottman calls this connection to our inner world, our “love map.”  Everyone has one, including our kids.

So how can we connect through listening if our kids only speak to us in 1-word phrases?  Would you believe there’s an app for that?  The Gottman Your Child’s Love Maps app includes 100 questions for the significant people in a child’s life to test their knowledge of the child’s inner world.  And if we’re stumped, we can always ask our child.  Most of the 100 questions cannot be answered in 1-word.  How do you think you would you do?  Can you name two of your child’s heroes and heroines?  What about your child’s ideal vacation getaway?  Can you name one thing your child would want to change about you?  For this, and more apps from the Gottman Institute, check out

And if you’d like to read more about why building love maps is such an important part of being married, check this out:

As you begin to explore the inner world of the people you love the most, remember to have some fun. This isn’t about being “right” or being “wrong”.  This is about getting to know each other in deeply meaningful and affirming ways.

Real Relationships

Here are some things that we know are real about relationships:

  • Criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling are toxic to relationships.  The Gottman institute shares a brief overview of these toxins and their antidotes in an animated clip on YouTube (2:12)
  • Empathy opens the brain to relationship.  Read more about parenting with the brain in mind from Dr. Dan Siegel
  • Clear and consistent boundaries communicate safety and are necessary in 
relationships.  “Boundaries:  When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of your Life” by Cloud and Townsend is an excellent resource addressing boundaries, especially in adult relationships.
  • Humans learn primarily though example and experience (which means “do as I say, 
not as I do” is not an effective parenting strategy).  The Love & Logic Institute offers many ideas for helping kids learn through example and experience:

Pay attention to what’s real about the relationships in your life.   How can love and compassion make those relationships stronger and healthier?

Orienting Goals

The Psalmist tells us that the happy/blessed person mulls over Yahweh’s torah
 by day and night.  What river of thought runs through your head by day and night?  We all have one.  Sometimes it might seem anxious, mulling over all the things that might happen in a given situation.  Sometimes the river of thought might seem ravenous, like a tiger plotting the best path to attack and devour its prey.  Maybe it’s exhausted, just looking for an opportunity to rest.  What thoughts do you mull over by day and night that influence how you interact with the significant people in your life?

For parents, is this river of thought connected to a bigger picture, orienting goal? Or is it just stuck on a particular pathway that might not have a clear destination?  In “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success“, Julie Lythcott-Haims suggests that “what it actually takes to succeed in the real world [is] hard work, relationship-based connections, perseverance, resilience, and some amount of good luck” (Location 4240, Kindle edition).  As a parent, will my river of thought lead me there?

Maybe it’s worth paying attention to where our current river of thought might lead and considering whether or not we’re ok with that destination.  Mulling over Yahweh’s torah by day and night would suggest that our river of thought recognize that each life is a holy journey that must be uncovered and discovered by the one leading it.  I can’t live this journey for my child or my spouse or my parent or my sibling, but I can walk with them and encourage them to be attentive to their own unique journey so they can find their purpose and develop the perseverance and resilience necessary to live into that purpose.

Managing Strong Emotions

As we become aware of our emotions and gain understanding about what’s happening in our brains when our “downstairs” brain becomes too much for our “upstairs” brain to manage, we have language and choices that help us model what it means to take care of ourselves and our relationships.  We can say things like:  “this is really upsetting me, let me take some time to calm down, then we can continue the conversation”; or “I love you too much to argue about this, let’s continue the conversation when we are both calm.”; or “I can’t really think clearly about this right now, let me go calm down then we will work through the details.”  Then we take a walk, or read a book, or go for a run, or do some jumping jacks, or pet the dog, or do whatever helps bring your “upstairs” brain back on-line.  For a more detailed (and pretty scientific) explanation of what happens when we “flip our lids”, watch Dr. Dan Siegel present “Flipping Your Lid:” A Scientific Explanation (7:27) on Youtube.

Torah of Family Life defines torah as “the body of wisdom and law contained in Jewish Scripture and other sacred literature and oral tradition.”  At North Georgia Family, we view family as a complex relational matrix, and recognize that much of who we are is shaped in the matrix of the relationships that we have with our mothers, our fathers, our brothers and sisters, our marriages, and our children.  The two concepts of Torah and family come together in the text of Psalm 1 as the Psalmist expresses what to embrace and what to avoid so that our life becomes like a tree which gives its fruit in season. Its foliage does not wither.  Everything this tree makes causes thriving.  Psalm 1 describes a way of being in family that follows a reliable path toward making loving, wise, and peace-making families who continue to grow and change as the unpredictable realities of life unfold.  There are rhythms and practices that can help all of us create homes filled with shalom, the peace that is present when human beings actively demonstrate their care and love for one another.