Whether it’s a toddler who’s deliberately dumped his plate of spaghetti onto the floor or an older child who can’t stop whining for one more story before bedtime, it seems our children repeatedly challenge the boundaries we set. No wonder so many parents get discouraged about establishing — and enforcing — limits, and even question if it’s really worth the effort.
But structure and rules not only make child rearing easier, they’re also essential. Trying to raise a responsible, cooperative child without age-appropriate boundaries is like trying to raise a goldfish outside its fishbowl. Far from squelching the spirit, rules are needed for kids to flourish:
They prepare children for the real world. Limits provide a framework so your child can understand what’s expected of him and what will happen if he doesn’t comply. Having family expectations, such as “no hitting” or “toys need to be picked up before bedtime,” and then enforcing consequences if he breaks the rules, will help him adapt better to new situations.
They teach kids how to socialize. Some rules are just basic manners — saying “please” after making a request, saying “excuse me” before interrupting. If you make it a policy to use polite words at home, your child will not only be more pleasant to be around, but she’ll also learn appropriate ways to get what she wants.
They provide a sense of order. Certain rules help a child predict what will come next, such as “Wash your hands before eating” or “Hold my hand when we cross the street.” Even little children tend to cooperate better when they know what’s required of them, and that helps them gain a sense of belonging.
They make kids feel competent. Clear limits tend to reduce power struggles because children don’t need to constantly test you to discover where the boundaries lie. This doesn’t mean your kids won’t ever test you; it just means that after the hundredth time they’ll realize it won’t get them anywhere. Your little one will understand what you want if you state your rules in the positive (“You can only eat food in the kitchen or in the family room”). Similarly, reinforcing his desirable behavior encourages him to cooperate even more (“Thanks for paying attention while I’m speaking”).
Rules reassure kids. No matter how often children act as if they want to be in control, having too much power is frightening. They intuitively know that they need an adult to be in charge, and they count on their parents to guide their behavior.
When your preschooler comes out of her room repeatedly at bedtime, she needs you to take decisive action instead of giving halfhearted warnings that carry no weight. It’s better to walk her back each time as you calmly state the limit (“You’re to stay in your room after I tuck you in”) and the penalty (“If you come out again, you’ll have to go to bed a little earlier tomorrow night”).
They help keep kids safe. Children — and some grown-ups — often grumble as if rules were made by a bunch of spoilsports. The truth is that many household rules, like many laws, are designed to protect our kids: “No lighting matches” or “Wear a helmet when you ride your bike.” When we insist that our child abide by safety rules at home, daycare, and school, we help prepare him to follow the law.
They boost confidence. If you gradually expand the limits placed on your child, she’ll become more confident about her emerging independence and her ability to handle responsibility. Young children take great pride in achieving simple milestones like going next door to play in a neighbor’s yard or sleeping over at a friend’s house.
Establishing RulesMake sure the limits you set are in line with your child’s development and support his natural drive to explore, learn, and practice new skills. Some guidelines:
Don’t be too strict. In an effort to be firm and avoid spoiling, parents can sometimes set too many boundaries; without meaning to, they end up severely restricting their child’s behavior. If you expect your toddler to eat all his food with a fork or spoon or never to run in the house, chances are you’ll be met with more resistance than compliance. Worse yet, your high expectations could make your child feel that he’s incapable of pleasing you.
Try to: Keep your child’s age and abilities in mind when making rules, and when possible, give an explanation for your reasons. You can’t expect your 3-year-old to put his toys away without being asked, but you can expect him to help you clean up. And you can tell him: “The faster we clean up, the more quickly we can go outside.”
Don’t be too easy. Parents who are unwilling or unable to enforce appropriate limits do their kids a disservice too. When you cater to your child’s every demand, fail to impose consequences when she misbehaves, or find yourself making empty threats, you prevent your child from learning to act responsibly.
Try to: Impose reasonable limits on your child’s behavior. A toddler who’s just learning to speak can be forgiven for screaming when she’s angry, but you can, and should, expect more from your preschooler. And watch how you state those expectations: Avoid framing them as a suggestion (“Let’s use your words, okay?”); it implies your rules are negotiable. Instead, state your limits in a calm yet firm way (“We use words. We don’t scream”).
Be consistent. When you allow a certain kind of behavior one day and then overreact to it the next, you’re bound to confuse your child. Besides, your mixed messages will only encourage more testing of limits to find out where the boundaries really lie.
Try to: Create fewer rules that you can enforce consistently, rather than many enforced erratically. With younger toddlers especially, it’s easier to restrict limits to those involving health and safety. And remember that being consistent doesn’t mean being inflexible — you can bend the rules once in a while under special circumstances. For example, if you’re late getting dinner on the table, go ahead and break your “no snacking before meals” law — just explain your reason.
Be expansive. When your little one starts to notice what her friends and classmates are doing, she’ll probably start to ask for more privileges. Granting her requests will give her the opportunity to show you she’s capable of handling more responsibility.
Try to: Expand a limit on a trial basis to see whether your child is ready for it. If your 6-year-old is clamoring to go to bed later, for instance, you might say, “I’ll extend your bedtime by a half hour. But if I have a hard time waking you up every morning, that means you need more sleep and you’ll have to go back to your old bedtime.”
Give your child a voice. If you let your child have some say in what house rules to set — as well as what the consequences for breaking them should be — this can motivate him to be more cooperative. You may be surprised to find out just how reasonable he can be.
Try to: Choose a calm, relaxed time to discuss the issue. For example, if your child often dawdles before getting into pajamas at night, he can choose which bedtime ritual he wants to forgo as a consequence. Or if your kids constantly argue over which TV show to watch, have a discussion on how they can handle this type of disagreement. (They might decide to flip a coin.)
Establishing and enforcing rules is a labor of love that helps guard your child’s safety while increasing her sense of cooperation and acceptance. Far from limiting her, the boundaries you set now will give her the security she needs to become more responsible and independent as she grows.
Marianne Neifert, M.D., a contributing editor, is the author of four books, including Dr. Mom’s Guide to Breastfeeding and Dr. Mom’s Prescription for Preschoolers, to be published this June.