According to Zero to Three, “In order to follow rules and understand limits, children need to develop self-control. Self-control is the ability to cope with strong feelings and stop one’s self from doing something that is not allowed” (Discipline & Limit Setting). For young children self-control might look like: a.) Stopping oneself from hitting or biting, b.) Being able to label feelings of frustration with words like, “I”m mad!” or “I don’t like that!” or even, c.) Slowing down one’s body to avoid running into a street to stay safe.
The core to setting limits with young children rests in being able to help them foster empathy. Empathy is when children can recognize how their actions affect the feelings of others, i.e., “How would you feel if that happened to you?” By developing empathy early in life, children are more likely to exhibit self-control and accept the underlying reasons why a limit or boundary has been set. As empathy and self-control are developing in young children, it is important to be proactive, consistent, and realistic when setting limits.
Being prepared to set limits and boundaries. If you know you are going to a new environment where toys may be scarce and your child is still developing turn-taking skills, take along some extras. If you’re not sure about the ladder of a play structure, scout it out beforehand to make sure you explain why or not not it is safe to climb. Have your children be a part by including them in the conversation.
It’s always helpful to role play scenarios with kids to be able to problem solve ahead of time. For example, “We are going to a playground that is close to a busy street. I would like you to stay on the bark chips and not go near the sidewalk where cars drive by. Why do you think Mama wants you to stay on the bark chips?” Or, “If another child takes your trike at child care today, what is your plan if you’re not ready to share?” Asking them open ended questions will give you insight on how to support them in communicating their feelings when a situation arises. Model for them an appropriate reaction and age appropriate words to use.
Once you have decided on a boundary or limit for your child, it should be consistently enforced. If you find yourself going back and forth on a decision, your child will recognize the cracks in the system and start to continuously push the boundaries, so to speak. This doesn’t give the impression of security for a child which could lead to feelings of uncertainty and thus acting out or a tantrum. The more consistent you are with a limit or boundary the more it gets ingrained as a rule and the quicker your child will agree to abide by it. Keep in mind that as children grow up, some limits and boundaries will evolve accordingly.
The intellectual and social skills of a child grows in leaps and bounds from infancy to kindergarten. It is important to be realistic and developmentally appropriate when setting limits and boundaries between the ages of 12 months and 5 years old. Having a solid knowledge base on what are realistic expectations of children in their various ages and stages of development is very important. As parents we want to make sure that we are monitoring expectant behavior while also keeping an eye out for mistaken behavior that we can guide and correct.
The Parenting Hub would love to hear about creative tips for setting limits and boundaries that work with your child. Please send your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Positive Guidance Through the Ages
Discipline and Limit Setting
How to Set Effective Limits with your Child
Setting Limits: Helping Children Learn Self-Regulation
A Guidance Approach to Discipline