Parenting Matters: Setting limits is tricky

Whether you have a toddler who deliberately dumps her milk onto the floor or an older child who can’t stop whining for one more computer game before bedtime, it seems our children repeatedly challenge the boundaries we set.

No wonder so many parents get discouraged about establishing and enforcing limits.

Structure and rules are not only important, they also make child rearing easier; they are also essential. Trying to raise a responsible, cooperative child without age-appropriate boundaries just doesn’t work. Rules are necessary for kids to flourish.

Rules prepare your child for the real world. Limits provide a framework so your child can understand what is expected of him and what will happen if he does not comply.

Having family expectations, such as “no hitting” or “toys are to be picked up before bedtime,” and then enforcing consequences if the rules are broken, will help him adapt better to new situations.

Rules teach your child how to socialize. Some rules are just basic manners such as 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 will also learn appropriate ways to get what she wants.

Rules provide a sense of order. Some rules help a child understand what will come next. Rules like “Wash your hands before eating” or “Brush your teeth before bed.” Even very young children tend to cooperate better when they know what is expected of them.

Rules make kids feel competent. Clear limits reduce power struggles because children don’t need to constantly test you to discover what boundaries are in place. This doesn’t mean your kids won’t ever test you; it just means that after a lot of testing he will realize it won’t get him anywhere.

Your little one will understand what you are asking if you state the rule in a positive way. “You can only eat food in the kitchen or family room” is a positive way to say it.

Rules help keep kids safe. Many household rules, like many laws, are designed to protect our kids: “No lighting matches” or “Always wear a helmet when you ride your bike.” Insisting that our child abide by safety rules at home, daycare, and school, is also helping prepare him to follow the law.

Rules boost confidence. After you establish rules, you can gradually expand the limits you have placed on your child as she becomes more independent and handles responsibility. Young children take great pride in achieving goals set for them.

Rules for rules

It sounds simple. Set rules and you can expect certain behavior from your children. Yet, that does not seem to be the case.

Actually, there are some rules to setting rules:

1. Do not set more rules than you can enforce. If you have rules about everything, your little one can become confused. Keep them to a minimum.

2. Make sure that whatever rules you set up are very clear. If you say, “Don’t watch too much television,” your child will likely be confused. Instead, tell her that she may watch one show or one hour of television each day.

3. Be consistent about your rules. Follow through to make sure that they are obeyed. If you say that she can watch one TV show, don’t let her stay up to watch a second one. If you tell her that bedtime is 8:00 at night, stop what you are doing and make sure that she is in bed at that time.

4. 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.

You have to really invest in rules in order to make them work. They take time and commitment from you, the parent. But if you do a good job with rules, they will help you raise responsible children.

Establishing and enforcing rules is a labor of love. Rules help 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.

Cynthia Martin is the founder of the First Teacher program and former executive director of Parenting Matters Foundation, which publishes newsletters for parents, caregivers and grandparents. To reach First Teacher Executive Director Patty Waite, email or call 360-681-2250.