Setting Clear Limits for Kids

Many parents fear disciplining their child will make them seem mean and uncaring. But discipline and rules are vital to a child's development.

Teaching discipline isn't all bad

Have you noticed? Your precious toddler is becoming a new person — a preschooler. He still explores, reasons, and tries to make sense of his world, and you still share the moments. But now some of these moments happen outside your line of sight.

Your child wanders a little farther from the nest, perhaps attending preschool or day care. He tests his larger environment to see what the limits are. Yet even as he pushes for independence, he clings and fusses — and parenting takes on new meaning.

Time for limits

Welcome to the age of discipline, when your child needs a clear set of rules and limits to feel good about himself and grow into a well-adjusted person. The classic challenge of parenting is to establish a disciplinary style which is firm yet loving, consistent yet flexible, and which meets the needs of both child and parent in a variety of settings.

This is a balancing act for parents, because we may confuse leniency with kindness and discipline with meanness. Adoptive parents are often so overjoyed to have a child that we hesitate to act in any negative way about his behavior for fear of seeming ungrateful.

We sometimes feel that we have no right to discipline our child, or fear losing his affection if we do. That unspoken dread — realistic or not — of hearing “My real Mommy wouldn’t be so mean” has given way to many indulgences.

We do our preschoolers no favor if we allow them to make the rules. In this developmental stage it’s natural that they want to be in charge, but they need boundaries from the adults they love and trust. Without limits, children become frightened, angry, and socially troubled.

They may act inappropriately in preschool or other social settings, garnering negative feedback that leads to decreased self-esteem. The world seems scary and unpredictable. And ultimately, children without limits lose respect for the adults who allow this to happen.

Clear Benefits

There are few more important things for your preschooler than for you to create structure — rules about safety, cooperation, kindness, patience, consideration, and public behavior. The clearer the limits, the better your child navigates inside them. He’ll gain approval from adults and peers for his behavior, and he’ll feel safe, trusting that you and other adults will be there for him.

Back to that delicate balance. We can love our children to pieces, even as we shape safe and acceptable behavior patterns. Give your child choices in little things (kind of sandwich, color of shirt, which book) but maintain the right to make and enforce important rules (bedtime, safety, health care, social behavior).

When you meet resistance, tell your child that it is your job to set rules to keep him healthy and safe. Discipline ushers your child into a world that is predictable and comfortable, where he can take chances, grow, and learn.


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