"Disciplining a child includes making rules. I prefer to think of this parenting task as “setting limits.” It can be very frightening for a child not to have limits. Not only can the world outside be frightening, but the world inside, the world of feelings, can also be scary when you're not sure you can manage those feelings by yourself."

Everyday Rules and Limits

No child is born with self-discipline. Right from the start children need parents to feed them and to keep them healthy and safe until they can manage on their own. In the same way, they need their parents to provide them with the discipline they need until they learn to discipline themselves.

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The Importance of Setting Limits

Everyday LimitsWhen children are young, they need a lot of limits. Many are for their health and safety -- what can be touched and what cannot, what’s good to eat and what isn’t, where it’s safe to play and where it’s not. We set other limits to help children live comfortably among other people -- what they can say to whom, what they can do and where.

Even though children may act like they want to be in control, they really need and want adults to be in charge. It can be very frightening for children not to have limits. They can become anxious and test the limits even more when their parents "give in" or aren't sure how firm to be.

Not only do children need limits to be safe from dangers in the outside world, they also need limits to help with the inside world of feelings. It can be scary when they aren’t sure they can manage their feelings by themselves. They worry they could hurt the people they love. Children need to trust that their adults will give them limits -- like "no hitting." They need to be able to rely on us to help them stay in control, to know that their feelings are okay, and to help them find constructive ways of expressing their full range of feelings.

Testing the Rules

Even though children may test the limits, they really do feel safer when the people they love have told them what to do and what not to do. Testing limits is the "work" children do in order to learn how serious we adults are about the rules.

Some children more than others seem to need to "test" adults and the rules. Their testing is often a signal that they're struggling with the need to assert their separateness from us. For those children, it may be helpful to give some choices (where it's reasonable), along with clear and consistent rules. When children see that they have power over some things, they may not have to fight so hard over other things. If they can choose which pajamas to wear, which stuffed animal to take to bed, and which books are read to them, it may be easier for them to accept their parents' decision about when the bedtime routines start.

The most powerful motivation for children is the desire to be loved. They learn to behave in ways that give their parents pleasure rather than displeasure. It’s their continuing love for us that helps them accept healthy discipline from us and eventually helps them develop their own inner discipline.

Routines and Rules Help Parents

Most parents realize that the most effective way to deal with rules and limits is to provide consistency in family life. But that's much easier said than done!

It can be an enormous challenge to establish some regularity when each day seems to bring new demands. Out of necessity, many families have had to become somewhat casual about routines. When children and parents can't count on some structure in everyday life, it's harder to know when to give in and when to stay firm.

It's even difficult for many parents today to figure out which rules really matter. There used to be much clearer boundaries of what was acceptable and what wasn't. Maybe, too, some of our ambivalence about sticking to the rules comes from our own long-ago fear of losing our parents’ love. Maybe we’re afraid we’ll lose the love of our children when we don’t let them have their way. But giving them limits while they need them is a loving gift and can be one of the greatest satisfactions of parenting.

With the heavy demands of everyday life, parents today are also concerned that they don't have much time with their children, and they don't want to spend the time they do have fighting over rules. It may seem easier to give in so that things will quiet down and be more pleasant, but that's a short-term solution. If you can manage to stay firm and keep the long term in mind, you're giving your child another opportunity to know that you're serious about the rules…and to realize that the struggle won't get you to back down.

It’s Hard to Keep Your Cool

Power struggles can be enormously frustrating for parents. How can it be that an adult who can control so many other things can't get a three year old to stop throwing food on the floor or a four year old to talk respectfully?! It's easy for our powerlessness to turn to anger, and when we act out of anger instead of our children's needs, we may find ourselves doing and saying things we later regret later. At times like that, "counting to ten" and a sense of humor can be really helpful.

Of course, it’s a rare parent who hasn’t lost his or her temper with a child. Young children can learn a lot from us when, after the heat of the moment has passed, we can apologize for something we did that was inappropriate. It’s good discipline (for us as well as for our children) to beable to say, “I’m sorry I got so angry; I shouldn’t have screamed at you," all along being clear about what was wrong with your child’s behavior.

A Teaching-Learning Relationship

As its root word “disciple” suggests, discipline is a teaching-learning kind of relationship, which depends more on intimacy and trust than on authority. Disciplining includes comfort, care, and nurture. It includes praise for achievement, and it most certainly includes examples, from which young children learn so much. When they see us hang up our clothes, clean up before relaxing, or express our own anger through words, and in non-destructive ways -- our children learn through our living example.

Most importantly, we parents need to try to find the security within ourselves to accept the fact that we and our children won’t always like one another’s actions. There will be times when we won’t be able to be “friends,” and that there will be times of anger within the family. We need to remember that it’s our continuing love for our children that makes us want them to become the healthiest adults they can possibly be.

Making Rules:

  • Choose a few rules that matter most. Children are more likely to know what’s expected of them when we tell them the rules simply and clearly, like "hold hands with a grownup when you’re crossing the street". . . "no hitting". . ."no name-calling". . ."ask before you take something."
  • Try to provide some structure to everyday life. "Bedtime at 8:00” is a lot clearer than bedtime whenever your child seems tired,.or "a little after your dad gets home,” whenever that may be.
  • Children are more likely to go along with a rule when you give a reason for it, even if they don’t like your reason or understand it completely. You could say something like “No running here. I want you to be safe,” or “You cannot hit. No hurting in our family,” or "You have to be in your car seat. That’s the law.”
  • When you talk about a rule, be clear with your child about the consequences for breaking the rule. Some families set up consequences like, “if you hit, you go to your room”. . . "if you throw a toy, it gets taken away.”
  • Let your child know that children don’t have to like the rules, but they still have to follow them. When children know you care about their feelings, they are usually better able to manage within the rules.
  • When possible, offer choices. Children test the limits out of their own need for independence. When they’re allowed to make some of the decisions, they're more likely to go along with the decisions that their parents make.
  • If you're taking your child into a new situation or one that you feel may be difficult, let your child know what to expect and what you expect of him or her.
  • Be sure to give praise when your child follows the rules. That's a caring way for your child to hear how important the rule is to you. By praising your child, you're strengthening the foundation for self-discipline.

When Children Break Rules:

  • When your child seems ready to break a rule, get down to your child's eye level, and talk right to him or her. Ask your child to repeat the rule after you. Then you know your child has heard you. Your child is more likely to hear what you say if you use a firm but kind voice rather than if you yell.
  • If there's a misbehavior, try to make the consequences follow right afterwards. Young children can't hold things in their memory for long, and if you say, "Wait till we get home!" they're less likely to understand the connection between what they did and the consequence.
  • If you're in public and your child doesn't follow a rule you've made, like staying in the cart, firmly but kindly take your child out of the store, even if you have to leave behind what you intended to buy. That lets your child know that you're serious about the rule.
  • When your child starts to hit someone or throw something but then hesitates and holds back, it’s important to say, “I’m really proud of you. I know you were mad, but you found a way to stop.” When children are angry, it takes a lot of self-control to stop from hitting or throwing. Any time we can applaud them during a moment of control, we’re strengthening their ability to stop when they’re about to do something they know is wrong.
  • Make a clear distinction between the behavior and the child. It’s so easy to say, “You’re a bad boy,” but that’s not what we want the child to understand. It's the behavior that's bad, not the child!! Children need to learn to feel good about who they are, and self-discipline (checking the bad things they may feel like doing) helps greatly in the development of that good feeling.
  • If you don’t discipline your child for breaking a rule, your child may think that you don’t care about the rule, and may just keep breaking the rule to see what you will do. If there are times when you need to give in, let your child know you’re changing the rule, but just for that time.

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