Limits of tolerance

Parent Connection

June 16, 2011 

Years ago I conducted a training program for teachers in how to better gain a grip on the issue of student misbehavior. A series of videotapes led into discussion, strategic planning, and then implementing a plan of action. It was actually a pretty effective program for teachers and administrators, and for the most part, well received.

On one particular video a gentleman asked the presenter how you handle a student who is always playing brinkmanship. The conversation went something like this: "What do you mean by brinkmanship?" "You know, the student that is always riding the line -- not really doing anything that bad or really breaking a rule, but always on the edge of doing so." Brinkmanship.

To help us out today, I went to and the top entry states that brinkmanship is "the technique or practice of maneuvering a dangerous situation to the limits of tolerance or safety in order to secure the greatest advantage by creating diplomatic crises." Man, sounds rather serious.

If you are a mom or dad you know exactly what I'm discussing today. Many kids learn at an early age how to step right up to that invisible line of boundaries without quite stepping over it. Though this behavior -- or borderline misbehavior -- may not lead to diplomatic crises, parents need to nip it in the bud early.

Why? Looking again at the definition of the day, brinkmanship refers to a "practice of maneuvering." That is exactly what little Bradley and Susie are doing when they constantly challenge the family rules and boundaries.

What happens in this scenario? Generally speaking, the masters at brinkmanship find a way to get their way, usually with a lot of questioning, reasoning, nagging and eventually complaining from mom and dad. The bottom line is that rules may very well get broken after being cleverly and persistently bent until Joe Parent wears down and gives in.

So parents, what to do? Fix your mindset first by going back to review once more our definition from Brinkmanship speaks of "limits of tolerance" and so should you as mom or dad. Your tolerance should be right at zero for putting up with a child who plays you when it comes to the rules and limits you have established as the parent.

The second piece of your action plan is to sit your child down and let him know that you are no dummy -- and you fully understand his little game of brinkmanship. Be direct and honest here and give some recent examples of how little Bradley or Susie has been toeing the line with misbehavior. Make it clear that you are no longer going to wait until that line gets crossed. Spell it out, plain and simple.

Finally, deliver the consequences for childlike brinkmanship in a calm matter- of-fact fashion, then go on about your day-to-day business. Don't get caught up in your child's explanations, defense arguments or whining -- just stick to your plan.

That way, your child will learn that you cannot be manipulated to his advantage.

Bryan Greeson, a nationally certified School Psychologist, serves as the Director of Special Services in York School District One. E-Mail him at

Bryan Greeson, a nationally certified School Psychologist, serves as the Director of Special Services in York School District One. E-Mail him at

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