By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. How can a parent help cultivate a child’s motivation in balance with complete acceptance of a child? What are the differences between “boundaries” and “unconditional acceptance”?

A. Parents can’t choose between boundaries and unconditional acceptance. The goal is to work toward balancing the two.

Children’s motivation partly depends on their feeling that they matter to others. From infancy, that feeling helps them believe in themselves. Why would any child be motivated to take on a new challenge if she sees herself as a failure?

Motivation begins at birth. Parents start the process by loving their baby, holding her, cooing, singing and rocking, setting up rhythms of smiling, vocalizing and touching that make her feel cared-about.

Within this cocoon of attachment, your baby begins to reach out for you. When you respond to her laughter with yours, she is learning – even in the first months of life – that things happen when she takes action. These exchanges are the beginning of motivation. She reaches out for others, and then for the world.

If she gets no response to her first coos and babbles, a baby doesn’t see much point to trying to make an effort.

As your baby grows into a toddler, your job gets more complicated. You have to set boundaries to be sure that her environment is safe to explore as she learns the motor skills – cruising, scooting, crawling and walking – that give her a new independence. When she’s just begun to toddle, you set the limit – no climbing up the stairs unless you’re right there to help her practice.

You can foster motivation even when you need to balance it with limits: “You can try climbing the stairs when I’m here to hold your hand.” But you also have to install safety gates, since a toddler can’t be expected to remember the limits when her own motivation tips the balance.

She tests you. She scrambles toward the stairs, then looks back to see if you really mean that she not climb them. Once you let her know you’re in earnest, you need to pick her up and stop her if she can’t stop herself.

Many parents worry that when they set limits they no longer unconditionally accept their child. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Setting limits is an act of love – it’s not always easy, and you wouldn’t bother if you didn’t really care. A child needs grown-ups who love her to clarify the rules and to protect her from hurting herself as she follows her motivation to learn about the world.

As a child becomes more independent, she finds new ways to resist your authority – temper tantrums in the second and third years, and often, at ages 3, 4 and 5, lying, cheating and stealing.

Boundaries help improve the child’s ability to achieve what she wants, as long as they are respectful and she understands the reason for them. Setting limits makes it clear that you unconditionally accept her but not all her actions.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at

Reprinted with permission from the authors.