Parenting: Discipline and Limit Setting

Parenting: Discipline and Limit Setting
How far is too far? Set clear limits with consistent rules and discipline.

"You cannot have a cookie before dinner." "You need to stop at the corner before crossing the street." "Pulling the cat's whiskers is not acceptable."

A million times a day parents set limits with their children. While prior generations associated discipline with punishment, today we equate discipline with setting limits or educating kids about how to get along in the world.


When parents set limits, they are not only showing their children what to do and say, they are helping them to cope with their impulses and anxieties. Limits are internalized and actually make children feel safe. Therefore, it is important to start this process early.

As children grow they will naturally misbehave. They are adventurous, have strong impulses and need to feel independent. The challenge for parents is to work with these developmental issues in a positive and instructive way.

Here are some effective guidelines for setting limits with children of different ages.


Newborn to 2 Years Old

Infants and toddlers are busy exploring the world. Everything excites them. Your curious 11-month-old will crawl over to the light socket repeatedly to see what it is all about, or jettison food over the side of his tray table to study gravity. At this stage your child is ecstatic about his new physical skills, such as walking and climbing.

At 15 months old, your child is constantly in motion and it will be hard for him to stop. Children in this age group are also egocentric. They experience their wishes and needs as urgent. When you are standing at the checkout counter, your two-year-old's wish for a new toy will feel like life and death to him, so it will be hard for him to let go. Infants and toddlers are impulsive. They lack the ability to express their needs and desires verbally, so they act them out.


Your 18-month-old, for instance, will grab a bag of potato chips from the supermarket shelf or engage in a tug of war over another child's shovel. And when he is angry he might hit, kick or bite. (This behavior is similar to the way a tiny infant thrashes around when he is frustrated.)

Babies are not born with social skills. That is why infants and toddlers have a hard time sharing (giving up a possession is experienced as a loss) or waiting their turn (they cannot tolerate delayed gratification). Your 2-year-old is developing a sense of self, so she will try hard to assert her independence from you. Therefore, at times she will fight you tooth and nail over brushing her teeth or going to the potty.

During these early years, it is crucial to set limits with your child to keep him safe and to teach him important social and emotional skills. At the same time, you must give your child room to explore the world.


Newborn to 2 Years Old: What Works

  • Minimize danger and conflicts by manipulating the environment.
  • Install safety gates, light socket guards and window locks.
  • Lift electronic equipment and books high off the floor, and remove delicate plants and objects. Anything that is too appealing to a crawling infant will constantly be a bone of contention.
  • Say "no" in a strong voice if your child is moving toward a lamp cord, but don't yell. Yelling scares children and causes them to feel mistrustful of their parents' affection. The change in your voice can stop her in her tracks. If you are consistent, she will learn to avoid this behavior.
  • Use distraction. If a child is throwing his toy cars around, take out his building blocks and engage him in this new activity.
  • Remove your child from problematic situations. For instance, if your 11-month-old keeps crawling toward the stove, pick her up and take her into another room. If she is hitting you when she is in your arms, put her down on the floor and give her something to do.
  • Give your child explanations for your limits. If your child reaches for your coffee cup tell him, "You mustn't touch. The coffee is hot." Children cooperate more readily if you give them reasons.
  • Minimize the use of sentences that begin with "Don't" or "Stop." These words often act as a green light for children to fight you. They need to assert their independence. Find other phrases to use instead. Rather than saying, "Don't throw those books," tell your 2 1/2-year-old, "The books need to stay on the shelf."
  • Avoid saying "no" immediately. This word frequently triggers tantrums. If your youngster asks for a cookie, instead of saying, "no," you can tell her, "You can have a cookie after dinner."
  • Channel your child's negative behavior to positive actions. "The walls are not for drawing on. You need to draw on paper."
  • Plan ahead. Bring along toys or healthy snacks for long car trips or a visit to the doctor to keep your kids busy.
  • Be patient. It takes children a long time to learn the rules. You will have to repeat them over and over again. And remember, sometimes kids can say the rules long before they can actually follow them.
  • Timeouts work for some children, but not all. Have your child sit in a quiet place, such as a chair, the couch or a park bench. The rule of thumb is one minute per year of age. At home you can use a kitchen timer. If your child gets up, walk him back saying, "The timer didn't ring yet" (You may have to do this several times.). Many children resent timeouts because they dislike sitting still and when separated from the group they feel abandoned. If your child does not respond well to timeouts, and this approach creates more battles, find other ways to work with your child.


Newborn to 2 Years Old: What Doesn't Work

  • Hitting a child's hand or spanking him. Although some parents believe strongly in this approach, it is important to understand the problems involved. These actions teach children that when you are angry it is OK to hurt someone and children naturally mirror their parents' behavior. When a parent disciplines by hitting, it gives children the message that aggression is part of a loving relationship. This behavior also raises doubts in the child's mind about whether he is loved or valued.
  • Taking things away. It is very painful to children when you take away a possession. It often makes them feel so angry that they behave worse. It is advisable to resort to this tactic only if your child is hurting someone with the object. Otherwise, try to offer her something else to play with instead.
  • Yelling. Kids are frightened by yelling. It makes them feel very powerless. They also learn to yell back in return.


3 to 5 Years Old

Preschoolers have a major love affair with life. They are enthralled with their new skills and growing independence. By the time children are 3, 4 or 5, they can dress themselves and even prepare their own bowl of cereal. Their cognitive abilities are simply blossoming and many older preschoolers can count and write their names.

At this age they ponder deep philosophic issues, such as birth and death, and have more highly developed language skills. They can communicate about their desires in a more sophisticated way, so they are less impulsive than during the toddler years. However, they will still have tantrums when they want something badly or things are not going their way. Preschoolers are much more in touch with their emotions than toddlers. Your 4-year-old can say, "I'm angry," at times, rather than hit or throw things. However, when stressed, your 3-, 4- or 5-year-old will still regress to these earlier forms of behavior.


Children at this age have a better comprehension of cause and effect. They can reason and negotiate better, so they can be more cooperative. Your 3-year-old will be more accepting than he was at 2 when you explain, "You can't go to the park today. It's raining." Though preschoolers continue to be egocentric and experience their needs as urgent, they have developed some tolerance for delayed gratification. If you tell your 4-year-old, "You can have some juice when we get home," he will be more capable of waiting than he was when he was younger.

Social skills are blossoming during this stage of your child's development. Sometimes your 4-year-old will be able to share her toys with a playmate or wait her turn, but there will be times when these skills will simply evaporate. Preschoolers have internalized many important rules by now. For instance, they know they should not run into the street when their ball rolls off the sidewalk. But their self-control is still very immature, so they will still run after the ball. They are also outgoing and feel invincible at this age. Your 4 1/2-year-old will enjoy telling strangers all about her new fish, or she might climb up on the windowsill and try to fly like Superman. Therefore, you need to supervise your child carefully.


3 to 5 Years Old: What Works

Preschoolers need to learn how to behave appropriately and gain greater self-control. Here are some suggestions for setting constructive limits with this age group.

  • State your limits clearly and firmly. For example, "There's no hitting allowed." If you waver, your kids will not take you seriously.
  • Use rewards to encourage a particular behavior. When your child will not stay in his bed at night, set up a star chart and give him a star for each night that he remains in his bed. After receiving three stars, he can choose a small prize.
  • Give children choices.When your child refuses to get dressed tell her, "You can wear your green shirt or your purple one," to help move her along.
  • Use natural consequences to motivate kids. When your child is dawdling in the morning tell him, "If you hurry and get dressed, you'll get to school in time to play with the blocks."
  • Discuss limits in advance. If you have to run in to Toys 'R Us for a birthday gift for your child's friend, alert your child: "When we get to the store, you can choose only one small toy for yourself."
  • Involve your child in problem solving. When she is fighting with her friend over a tricycle, you can say, "We have a problem. You both want the tricycle. What shall we do?"
  • Timeouts can be helpful at this age when instituted constructively. For instance, if your child is kicking his sister while they are lying on the couch watching television, you can say, "You're not managing here. You need to rest in your room until you calm down." Your child can play or read a book and come out when he feels ready to behave.
  • Talk about feelings. If your child throws her teddy bear at you, address her anger. You might say, "When I said no to a cookie, you threw Teddy at me. You need to use your words. Say, 'I'm angry.'" Once children express their emotions, they have less of a need to act out.
  • Acknowledge wishes. If your child is having a tantrum at the checkout counter in the supermarket, you can say, "You wish you could have those stickers, but we already bought a toy today. Let's put the stickers on your wish list for next time." When you acknowledge your child's desire, you give him recognition and he has less of a need to protest.
  • Externalizing a rule. You will decrease a battle of wills if you objectify the reason for a rule. For instance, "There's no jumping on the sofa. We need to make sure you don't fall off and hurt yourself."
  • Relate to your child's behavior, not her personality. For example, tell her "Hitting is not acceptable." This communicates that the child is OK, but the action must change.


3 to 5 Years Old: What Doesn't Work

  • Threats and bribes. If you constantly use threats and bribes to gain cooperation, you train your child to ignore you when you do not threaten or bribe him. It is better if a child cooperates with you because he wants your approval and wishes to do the right thing.
  • Barking orders all day long. Under these circumstances children resent you and fight you to assert their independence.
  • Berating children. Avoid statements or adjectives that berate a child. For example, "You're bad," or "What's wrong with you?" These phrases lower a child's self-esteem. Children feel enraged and act out in retaliation.


6 to 10 Years Old

Children in this age group act much more mature. Their intellectual, emotional and social abilities are expanding by leaps and bounds. The fact that they often look and act like little grown-ups often masks the reality that they are still very young. Though school-aged children have a greater awareness of how to behave appropriately in situations, their behavior will fluctuate. Sometimes your 8-year-old will be capable of sitting quietly in a restaurant and using perfect manners, but when she is tired, bored or stressed, she will revert to more immature behavior.

School-aged children have better impulse control than they did when they were younger. When his younger brother scribbles on his homework, your 9-year-old son will be more capable of telling you he's angry than to retaliate and hurt his brother. At this point, children know how to verbalize their desires and can negotiate solutions in a more sophisticated way. For instance, when your child wants a new Game Boy cartridge and you tell him it is too expensive, he might suggest that he contribute some money from his allowance. His ability to accept disappointment has also improved, but do not be surprised if he still whines, throws tantrums or kicks the dog when he does not get what he wants.


At this stage, children have more highly developed social skills. They have a greater capacity for sharing and showing empathy. However, they still have a lot of trouble accepting defeat when they lose a game. School-aged children face many new social challenges for which they are unprepared. They are often excluded, bullied or overwhelmed by peer pressure and lack the skills to assert themselves. It is not uncommon for children to take out their social frustrations by being aggressive or oppositional at home.

One of the most powerful developmental issues for this age group is the need to assert their independence. Even though your 10-year-old knows that she must come straight home after school, and has internalized many other rules, she will ignore them at times to prove that she can make her own decisions. She will constantly push the envelope and pressure you for more privileges. She will lobby to stay home alone, go to sleep later or see a movie with her friends. Your child is speeding toward adolescence.


6 to 10 Years Old: What Works

Setting limits with this age group is tricky. Here are some effective techniques to keep them safe, while offering them more opportunities to be independent:

  • Define the rules clearly. Parents and children tend to fight over the same issues repeatedly. Establish set rules. For instance, tell your child he can only watch television after he finishes his homework. This will cut down on daily battles and constant negotiations.
  • Use consequences as a form of punishment when rules are broken. For example, "You broke the window when you threw your ball against the wall. You need to pay for it with your allowance." A consequence related to misbehavior reinforces the message that this behavior is unacceptable.
  • Discuss emotions. If your child is speaking angrily, ask him what is upsetting him. Once he expresses his feelings, he will have less of a need to be aggressive.
  • At this stage children continue to benefit from rewards. If she keeps forgetting to make her bed, promise your child a trip to the mall when she accomplishes this task every day for a week.
  • Listen to your child's reasoning. You may not go along with your 8-year-old's wish to go to a rock concert, but it is important to give your child the opportunity to plead his case.
  • When your child misbehaves, help her to understand her behavior. If she can connect her emotions to her actions, she will gain greater control.
  • Grant your child new privileges when it is feasible. If your 10-year-old wants to walk to school by himself, practice the route with him until you feel comfortable letting him go alone.
  • Talk to other parents. This will give you some idea of what privileges you should grant your child and how to handle new situations.
  • Always end a discussion about a misbehavior by giving your child a positive skill to use. For example, instruct your 7-year-old, "When you want to buy new Yu-Gi-Oh cards, you need to ask me. You must never borrow money from your friend."
  • Maintain realistic expectations. Even though your 9-year-old looks like she is 12, she will still whine and cry. Be patient. She needs time to develop.
  • Teach your child to exercise independent judgment. Educate your child about smoking, drugs, AIDS, etc. Give him personal examples of how you dealt with bullies or refused to go along with the crowd. Use role-playing to help him practice self-assertion.


6 to 10 Years Old: What Doesn't Work

  • Shaming a child. When your 10-year-old is crying because you will not buy her expensive sneakers, refrain from telling her, "You're acting like a baby." This may lead to self-confidence issues because it communicates that the child's emotions are bad, therefore she is flawed. It is important to acknowledge a child's wish and be accepting of his or her emotional reaction even when saying no.
  • Cutting off a conversation. If a child asks for a privilege and you are unwilling to discuss it with him, he will feel enraged. Maintaining an open dialogue is important for a healthy relationship between parent and child.
  • Using severe punishments. Punishments should fit the crime. If your child misses one homework assignment, taking away television for a week would be extreme. One evening to help him catch up would suffice.


Be Patient and Consistent

It takes children a very long time to learn how to control their impulses, follow the rules and relate appropriately to others. You will need to be patient and repeat the rules over and over again. If you set limits with your child in a consistent, positive way, eventually your child will internalize your expectations. These guidelines will help him to get along successfully in life.