Parenting: Discipline and Limit Setting

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.