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Who’s In Charge Around Here Anyway? The Whys and Hows of Setting Limits for Young Children

setting limits
Some of us find that limit-setting is one of the more challenging parts of our job as parents. We love our children and want to spend fun time with them. We don’t want to have struggles and arguments in the limited time we may have with them in our busy lives. Yet, sometimes, our eagerness for harmony actually results in greater conflict.
Children rely on us to provide order and security in their world. By setting limits, we assist children in regulating emotions and behaviors that they are struggling to understand. Limits on behaviors provide the structure they need — the boundaries they can push against with the security that they will not be allowed to get out of control.
How do I know what limits to set?
Keeping in mind our child’s age and developmental level, we must determine which behaviors we want our children to develop. In the long run, we want children who are compassionate, trustworthy, and responsible. We begin to instill these values early in life. Discipline is not punishment. Discipline is teaching. How we handle our child’s behavior influences how she will behave in the future. Some behaviors that are “cute” in preschool are no longer viewed as acceptable when the child is older.
As parents, we must consider what is important to us, our culture, and the larger society in which our children will live. Then we set limits to work toward developing compatible behaviors in our children. Remember, this is a journey. There will be bumps in the road, and these behaviors cannot be taught overnight.
I’ve been told that children need to be given choices. How do I set limits and still give choices?
Children should be given choices to allow them some control over their world. But not unlimited choices and not in all situations! We can set limits and then allow choices within those limits. For example, eating dinner is not a choice. Drinking milk for most families is not a choice either. However, your child may choose which color cup to drink from or what part of dinner he wants to eat first. When offering choices, we have to be sure that we can accept whichever choice the child makes. If a child refuses to make a choice, make one for her (and stick to it). 
When should I begin to set limits?
Children as young as 8 to 12 months are capable of beginning to understand their effect on the world around them. Considering each child’s developmental level, certain limits can begin to be set that are appropriate for the child’s age. For example, young children should not be allowed to pull the dog’s tail. We must tell them firmly but gently that that is not acceptable. Use simple words and move the child away to another activity or toy. 
We also have to understand the difference between a child experimenting with how her world works versus doing something deliberately to “be naughty.” For example, your 8-month-old may drop a spoon off his high chair tray over and over again to see what happens and thereby increase his understanding of cause and effect. Our children are not doing this to get on our nerves, even though it may feel like that’s their motive.
How many limits should I set?
It is important that we pick our battles. Choose what is important to you. Usually, it is helpful to focus on routines that enable us to get through the day smoothly. Many times we have unrealistic expectations for ourselves and lower expectations for our children. Children who can dress and undress themselves at the child care center may rely on us to do it at home. (Sometimes you may decide that is okay. It is a good thing for children to have a little extra care and attention at home. For example, while you can paint your own nails, you may choose to have someone else do it for you.)
But more often than not, we need our children to do the things they can themselves independently so that our morning routines will run smoothly. Establish a routine that allows enough time for children to do some things for themselves. If they don’t, we can employ some logical consequences. A logical consequence is when a child deals with the consequence which happens because of their behavior. An example is if a child forgets to bring his favorite blanket in the car, he won’t have it that day; or taking a child to the center in his pajamas because he did not get dressed in time to leave home. Depending on the child and the child’s age in the latter example, he may dress more quickly and on time from then on.
When I try to enforce limits, my child has a tantrum or ignores me.
For children who have not had limits set before, the rules of the game are changing. They will test us to see if we are serious. We must explain that we need to help them learn to get along better in the family and with friends. We calmly explain in simple terms what the new expectations are and what will happen if the expectations are not met.
The child’s choice is to function within the limits or face the consequences. Expect that a child who has not had limits consistently set will have a tantrum or show the upset in other ways. That is okay. If your child has a tantrum, stay close by to ensure she is safe and calmly and lovingly say, “I know you are upset that you have to stop watching the movie and get dressed. It is time to go to school now and I need you to put your clothes on. Let me know when you are ready.” Offer appreciation when your child has completed the task. 
Children look to us for the security that limits provide. They may be frightened by the power that adults give them when limits are not set and enforced. Even though they resist, they count on us for guidance and direction.
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