User's Manual for Parents: Why Setting Limits is Important

by Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D.

don't eat the sandSetting effective limits not only teaches your child which behaviors are acceptable, but gives a comfortable environment for growth. All parents need to set limits and insist on the limits rather than just announcing them. There will be days your child resists -- loudly! Sometimes you may receive a "whose idea was this" look. Remind yourself that limits are good for kids and carry on!

The Basics

If a child feels valued by his parents, he is more likely to want to please them and more willing to accept their necessary restrictions and redirection. At least weekly, parents should spend individual time with each child when they're not demanding anything of him. It's great for a child to feel his parents enjoy his company.

Limit-setting should be seen as a teaching process -- guiding the child to know what is and is not acceptable behavior so that she can eventually regulate/supervise herself. Young children naturally want to do what they want when they want, so guiding children can be challenging.

Saying No

Limit-setting means telling a child no. Very importantly, it also means telling the child why she is being told no, and helping her find acceptable substitute activities that meet her needs for growth and development. ("You can't ... but you can ...," or "...tomorrow you'll be able to...")

Limits Are Important

All children need limits. When not excessive, limits make children feel better. Though they may not look happy with limits, they will feel more secure knowing how to behave well.

Make sure you give your children advance notice when you tell them what they have to do. With preschoolers, make your requests fun and/or interesting. With school-age children, emphasize the reasons for your requests.

To become fair and effective limit setters, parents need to know:

  • Their own standards
  • Their child is capabilities
  • How to encourage cooperation
  • How to discipline

For many parents, shifting from nurturer to enforcer as their baby grows into a mobile toddler, a preschooler, and then a school-age child is very uncomfortable.

Kids Test Limits

Children test limits as they change stages, as they're able to do more, and as they see the world with a different understanding. This is expected.

Children are more likely to test limits that have not been reinforced consistently. Thus, consistency makes things easier for parents. For example, you tell your child, "You have two more minutes to play and then you have to pick up your toys." But at the two-minute point, you're on the phone. When the call ends 15 minutes later, you tell him that it's clean-up time. He may well refuse and in the future he's likely to believe that he doesn't have to listen to the "two-minute warning." When a parent doesn't follow through, a child has less respect for his parents' rules; if this pattern continues, the child will begin to disregard the parents' limits.

No one can be perfectly consistent, but it's working hard at consistency that's important, especially when your child is first learning limits from you (from about nine months to 2½ years). During this time, children learn whether parents mean what they say and whether parents have good reasons behind their rules. Children's impressions of parents can definitely be changed after this time, but it's harder. Working hard at consistency with your young children will make your family life much smoother for years to come.

Parents should stick to their limit-setting strategies to give them time to work. Limits must be repeated a lot, especially with very young children.

Why Limits Are Important

Many parents find themselves at an extreme on the permissive-to-strict continuum. Permissive child-rearing often leads to children being spoiled or tyrannical, having problems with peers, and feeling let down by others. Very strictly raised children become fearful, angry, distant, and sometimes rebellious. Children learn what to expect from others and how they should behave with other people from your relationship with them.

Self-esteem is tightly tied to limit-setting. Children who are out-of-control, demanding and defiant annoy and displease most people, including the parents. The child senses people's feelings toward him but doesn't know what to do. He concludes that others don't like him much, and can feel confused, unhappy and even angry. This is another reason why effective limit-setting is so important.

Here's the start of your user's manual: Part One: Starting with the Foundation Skills.

Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent psychologist and a specialist in child rearing and development of young children for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning book Mommy and Daddy Area Always Supposed to Say Yes -- Aren't They? For more information about her work, visit Perfecting Parenting Press.

Copyright © Annye Rothenberg. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.