Annie Keeling: Successful parents build fences |

Annie Keeling: Successful parents build fences

Annie Keeling
Annie Keeling suggests that parents utilize the concept of fences, literal or metaphorical, to help keep children safe while they learn more about the world around them.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


WHO: Annie Keeling, parent educator

WHAT: RadParents 4-Hour Core Training - Strategies to increase ease and calm in any household

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 2-6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6 (Ages 5 and under), and Saturday, Oct. 13 (ages 6-12)

WHERE: The Nest, 107 W. Main St., Grass Valley

COST: $50/person

INFO: Visit to register and more information

Boundaries. Limits. Edges. No.

These are as important to parenting as laughs, play, teaching, feeding, bathing and reading with a child.

Imagine your child in a field. There is a fence between her and a bull. She watches the bull. She wants to pet the bull. She has a deep need to pet that bull. But you know that the bull is not safe.

The fence is the “necessary no” between the bull and your child.

Your daughter starts crying to be with the bull. Now she is wailing. She is pounding on the gate. No amount of crying or discomfort will convince you to open the gate and let her pet the bull.

The fence is an important boundary. You may try to convince your child not to cry, or you may give her a supportive shoulder on which to cry, empathizing with her great need. But you do not— will not — open the gate.

Every day, parents must put up literal and metaphorical fences or boundaries to help their children be safe, learn an on-track behavior, or find out more about the world.

Often, though, these boundaries cause a great deal of discomfort for the child.

Responsible for feelings

When your child has a need … what do you do?

Do you: try to meet it quickly yourself; help your child try to meet the need themselves; make a big deal out of the need; minimize the need by saying, “Oh, you’re okay. It’ll be alright”; or ignore the need, hoping it goes away?

Some parents bend over backwards to try to meet their child’s need. The more impossible the need to fill, the bigger the bend.

That bending over backwards? That’s the “Happy Dance.” The parent snaps to attention to try to make their child happy.

No matter how much of the Happy Dance parents do, they can’t keep their child from getting upset — especially if it is impossible to meet the need.

This fixing of feelings and trying to meet every need — it’s like continually opening gates to the field, even though a bull stands on the other side.

Necessary no

No, as a limit, is often necessary.

The limit of no instills safety. It lets the child know that someone is in charge of the environment. Within the limit, the child is safe to explore his or her feelings.

It’s easiest when you start setting limits early. Even a baby can learn the limit of a no.

For example, “No nursing tonight. We’ll nurse when it’s light,” or “All done” (with bath or snack or playtime, etc.).

Though it may seem counterintuitive to some, limits show love. And, secretly, children crave limits.

The clear fence

Leah is driving the car. Her 2-year-old son Henry is in the back drinking happily from his sippy cup. Leah hums a tune, enjoying the calm of the moment.

Suddenly, Henry drops the sippy cup. He cries out. Leah tells him that she can’t get the cup. There is no safe place to pull over. He wails. He kicks out in frustration. He doesn’t understand the no. But it’s a necessary one. Just like the fence around the bull.

The fence, the sippy cup. These are black-and-white, necessary no’s.

The challenge lies for most parents in the no’s that are in the grey area. What can parents do with the ones that feel arbitrary and vague?

The not-so-clear fence

A no can be uncomfortable not only for the child, but for the parent as well. The parent may believe that saying no will damage the child in some way. Or they may try to avoid disappointing their child.

It is hard to say no. And some situations are more difficult than others. Sometimes, there are situations where it may not be clear to the parent where they need to put the fence or how high to make it.

It can help to know where responsibility lies for the child and the parent.

The child is responsible for her feelings

“How can my child be responsible for her feelings?” a parent in my office asks. “She can’t even tie her shoe.”

Each human, no matter how old, is responsible for his or her feelings. Just try to make a toddler stop kicking and screaming. You can’t “make” them. But many parents try.

When a need can’t be met, some parents will attempt to convince their child not to be upset. This teaches a child that there is something wrong with her negative emotions — perhaps even shameful or scary — which doesn’t help her learn to regulate them.

In fact, the child gets the message that there are unacceptable emotions that should be “fixed.” Children quickly learn what it takes to get their parent to jump through the happy dance hoop and what happens next are often termed “power struggles” between child and adult.

The adult is responsible for the environment

The parent oversees maintaining a safe learning and loving environment whenever possible.

Sometimes we will need to change our mind or take back a no. As the adult, we have more information, experience, and pre-frontal cortex firing dendrites than the child.

So, it is our job to open or close the fence.

If a parent programs a child that it is someone else’s job to make him happy, he faces life’s difficulties unprepared. When parents lay down a no, even if they rethink it later, it gives the child an amazing learning opportunity to be in disappointment, frustration, or anger within a loving, supportive, safe environment.

Plan when you can

While it’s not always possible to foresee all events, there are times when looking ahead to the decisions you may need to make will help the whole family.

A friend of mine wanted to take his family to the fair. With three kids under the age of 10, it was going to be pricey.

Jordan decided that he would make the carnival games — like the ball, basketball, and ring toss — off-limits. He and his wife weighed the cost and enjoyment factor of these games and decided that they would be a no.

At dinner one night, Jordan brought out a whiteboard. He had pictures on it of activities at the fair. He circled all the things the kids could do — see the animals, ride rides, eat corn dogs, etc.

Then he drew a line through the ball toss. They couldn’t do that at the fair, but together they could make five “carnival game” stations in the driveway.

They had fun that weekend playing ball toss games — over and over and over — complete with small prizes.

The next weekend, the family went to the fair. The kids looked with interest at the carnival games. They didn’t ask to play, but when they left that area, the older boy said, “Know what Dad? I think those games are rigged. No one was winning anything.”

Your consistency, patience and repetition — as well as ability to plan — will aid your children’s growth in handling the fences they will encounter throughout life.

Annie Keeling, MFA, is teaching a parenting workshop in Grass Valley in October. Connect with Keeling at or 530-210-1100.

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