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How to set clear limits for your child

Updated on September 6, 2014


  • Invest the necessary time to decide on clear rules for your family; then communicate them to your child. Keep rules simple and concrete. Model the correct behavior. Your consistency will buy huge credibility points in the years to come.
  • Make clear rules upfront: “Bedtime is at 7:30. I’ll switch the light off at 8 o’clock.” Announce a consequence: “We can’t read a book if you are not ready by 7:30.” Then follow through. Don’t word your request as a question, like “Put the toys away, OK?” Don’t ignore misbehavior in the hope it will go away. Negotiating or bargaining invite children to test and redefine your rules. Don’t debate over your rules because allowing yourself to debate will lead to power struggles. Use your normal voice to express control.
  • For aggressive limit-testing, use a two-stage time-out. Stage one could mean “sit on the bench”; stage two for escalating misbehavior could mean “go to your room.” Give limited choices: “If you can get ready quickly, there is enough time to read two books; otherwise, we have to choose a little book . What would you like to do?” The question places the responsibility on the child. It is her choice.

Setting loving limits

The following is a book that must have been initiated and created with a lot of help from Morgan Taylor Dalrymple.

Setting Limits by Robert J. MacKenzie, Ed.D.

One of the lessons a child has to learn is to cooperate. If you can teach your child that what you say is what you mean, you have come a long way. Giving clear messages, motivating with encouragement and supporting your rules with instructive consequences will help.

Structure: Structure is the organizational foundation of your family life. When rules, procedures and routines are clear, there is less need for testing the limits.

Different Approaches

The Permissive Approach is respectful but not firm. There is a lot of repeating, reminding, warning, pleading, lecturing and persuading. If parents are not willing to support their words with action and show their children that their behavior has consequences, children learn to ignore their parents’ words and learn that rules are elastic (but just how elastic?).

The Punitive Approach is firm but not respectful. The adult exercises all the power and control and leaves the children out of the process, thereby taking away responsibility and learning opportunities from the children.

The Mixed Approach is neither firm nor respectful. The parent who uses this approach flip-flops back and forth between permissiveness and punishment. For curious and exploring children, this approach provides a rich field for testing the limits.

The Democratic Approach is firm and respectful. Children are provided with the information they need to make acceptable choices about their behavior and are allowed to experience the consequences of those choices. This approach stops misbehavior. It teaches responsibility. And it teaches rules for acceptable behavior without injuring feelings, damaging relationships or provoking angry power struggles.

Setting Rules: Young children learn concretely; what they see, hear, touch and feel shapes their reality. When our words don’t match our actions, they learn to ignore our words. Rules become just theoretical and optional. Misbehavior is often limit testing and is sometimes the search for concrete, definite information about what we really expect.

Better Choices: When children misbehave, they are sometimes unaware that there are other better choices. When correcting misbehavior, we shouldn’t punish but encourage better choices, acceptable actions, cooperation, independence and improvement. Give your child a chance to show that he can behave acceptably and send the message “I believe in you.” Some skills require practice. Be patient and focus on effort, not outcome; process, not product.

Consequences should be ideally applied immediately (without further warnings), consistently (between our words and actions; between Mom and Dad; from one time to the next), logically (related to the event), and respectfully (the respect we show is the respect we teach). Also consequences should be of brief duration in order to allow more teaching and learning opportunities. Natural consequences (a toy breaks and becomes unusable because the child doesn’t use it properly) place responsibility on the child—where it belongs. Time-outs should have a clear beginning and end, usually 1 minute per year of age but long enough for a child to restore self-control.

They'd rather not want to hear it again

My children rarely wake up saying , “Mom, I realize you are right. I should not go to bed past 8 o’clock. Thank you for telling me.”
My children rarely wake up saying , “Mom, I realize you are right. I should not go to bed past 8 o’clock. Thank you for telling me.”

As a parent, do you feel like

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Practical Advice

Stop Whining: Whining might have become a habit already. However, to ask for something in a polite way is an important social skill. When a child does whine, pause, look at her, and call attention to the whining. “You are whining right now. You are talking and crying at the same time.” Make it clear that you won’t respond to whining. Either ignore it by saying, “I am ignoring a whiny voice,” or tell her to repeat her request using her normal voice.

Here are some helpful responses to common whines: “Whyyyy???” Turn the tables and ask, “What do you think? Why am I saying no?” Your goal is to help your child understand your reasoning.

That’s not fair.” Show empathy, and your child is more likely to calm down if he feels understood.

Dad would let me.” A child needs to learn that there are different rules in different environments. Calmly say, “I am in charge right now. I am happy to discuss my reasons later with your dad.”

You can’t make me.” Try to cheer up her mood by making funny faces

Active Listening: Active Listening is a great self-esteem builder. It’s an approach where you try to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, and point of view and then communicate back what has been said to check for understanding. Start with an “opener,” which is a brief comment or question designed to elicit further information from your child. An opener can be anything that communicates that you are ready and willing to listen, including nonverbal behaviors, such as sitting down and looking at your child. Let nonjudgmental questions follow to keep the conversation flowing, like “What do you think made you do that?” Reflect feelings, like “That must have been pretty upsetting,” to let your child know that whatever he is feeling is okay. Do perception checks to find out whether you areunderstanding your child correctly, which will also show that you are really listening and trying to understand him.

Discipline without Punishment or Rewards

When it comes to raising the future generation, teaching them to take responsibility for their own behavior is crucial.

Responsibility can be delegated, but unless it is owned, a person will not develop integrity. Coercion is also the least effective way to influence another person. Focusing solely on obedience may provoke resistance and defiance. Children need to be taught good decision making not just blind obedience. This kind of learning is maximized in a trusting, caring climate. Learning a behavior is similar to learning subject matter. Children are not punished if they haven’t learned certain information. Thus disruptive behavior should be seen as an opportunity for learning rather than as a time for punishment.

Positive Thinking: Positive messages elevate, encourage and foster growth. People are drawn to the positive and repelled by the negative like magnets. When a (punishing) consequence is imposed, it is associated with a threat, and a person’s choice to do the right thing becomes an artificial choice. Sometimes consequences even provide an invitation for mischief, such as when a child thinks, “I haven’t had my third warning yet.” Also the responsibility to follow through on a punishment remains with the adult who has to enforce the established conditions. Instead, when one states, “You may… as soon as …,” this kind of proactive contingency places responsibility on the young person where it belongs. It sends the positive message that, “I am confident you can handle this, and I trust you.” Building on the positive helps develop a positive mindset. The picture a young person has of herself drives her behavior. And considering the fact that mood follows action, doing something productive generates positive feelings.

Tip: Become aware of negative statements by carefully listening to your words and by practicing rephrasing them in a positive way. For example, when you catch yourself thinking, “I’m afraid I will forget,” stop and rephrase that thought positively by saying, “I’m going to remember.”

Choices: Teach your child that she chooses her responses to any situation; she doesn’t need not be a victim. She has a choice in controlling her behavior, and it is in her own best interest to choose appropriate responses. Choice-response thinking encourages self-control and responsibility. Giving rewards for appropriate behavior is counterproductive to fostering internal motivation to take responsibility. Punishment kills positive motivation.

Reflection: Ask, don’t tell your child to reflect on his actions and to take responsibility. The following set of 4 questions will encourage changes in behavior: 1. “What do you want?” This question stimulates thinking and reflection. 2. “Is what you are choosing to do helping you get what you want?” This question leads to evaluation of one’s behavior. 3. “If what you are choosing to do is not getting you there, then what is your plan?” Even though your child will need your assistance, it should be the child’s plan, not yours. 4. “What steps will you take to make your plan work?” The child should elicit some ideas before you make suggestions.

“What else?” is a good follow-up question to encourage concrete and specific steps.

Levels of Behavior: With the help of drawings, explain the 4 levels of behavior. Level 1 is Anarchy: a chaotic family without any rules or order. Level 2 is Bullying: a child makes his own rules and bothers others by violating their rights. Level 3 is Conformity: members of one group comply and cooperate with expected standards, but the motivation to do so is external. Level 4 is Democracy: doing good because it is the right, appropriate and responsible thing to do. Level 1 and 2 are unacceptable levels of behavior. Always identify the level of behavior not the behavior itself. The hierarchy focuses on labeling behavior, not people, an approach which is far less condemning. Explain that behavior at level 1 or 2 will result in the use of authority in order to protect the family.

Tip: Stories are an excellent way to introduce these concepts.

Level 1: Miss Nelson Is Missing. Order has to be established through authority in a chaotic classroom.

Level 2: The Three Little Pigs. The wolf bullies the pigs.

Level 3: Snow-White And The 7 Dwarfs. The dwarfs fulfill their responsibilities by going to work each day.

Level 4: In Chicken Little or A Bug’s Life, the heroes save their societies by moving beyond the level of conformity and by becoming self-reliant and doing the responsible, right thing.

Rules Vs Expectations: If rules are perceived as unfair or unclear, then rules are more detrimental than helpful. Rules can also provoke a search for loopholes. Expectations produce a positive climate that inspires a community mentality rather than a conformist mentality. Post your expectations, discuss manners and teach procedures instead of rules.

Demands. Don’t give yourself up for your child. You might teach him that he comes first and he shouldn’t value your needs. Over time this will make you resentful and him even more demanding of your time. Every now and than tell her that you need some time for yourself now and that she needs to play by herself for the next 15 minutes. The child will learn, that she can indeed make herself happy and take over more and more responsibility.

Read more about it in "Discipline Without Stress, Punishments or Rewards" by Marvin Marshall, Ed.D.


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    • hack writer profile imageAUTHOR

      Nicole Sing 

      4 years ago from La Habra Heights

      Pave the way for your daughter? Dig for the patterns in yourself? Maybe you will be the one who can break the vicious circle and raise a healthy family. Good luck. I appreciate your honesty.

    • Nina Carroll profile image

      Nina Carroll 

      4 years ago from Georgia

      I liked what I read and I am a grandparent who is recently helping my son n law with my two grand daughters. The girls have issues surfacing and my son n law is doing the best he can helping them to manage them. However, mom who is in the picture sporadically and needs to up hold to her responsibilities without shame and guilt to her girls. This is an past issue for me because I see phases in her which were patterns I held, and would like to see diminish so they will not affect my grand girls behaviors.



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