Lea esta página en español
How best to establish limits and routines with young children
Children experience the ebb and flow of normally powerful social, emotional
and physical needs. Their behavior also reveals developmentally appropriate
and strong interests and curiosity. When parents regularly meet these childhood
needs and drives in a responsive and timely manner, they build the foundation
for their youngster to live within an ordered and structured interpersonal and
physical environment. By appropriately meeting their child’s needs parents
provide their infants, toddlers and young children a security that builds trust
in the child. Living in an environment that derives its order, in the first
six years of life, from trustworthy parental behavior is vitally important if
a child is to develop a healthy self-discipline and live an ordered life thereafter.
Without a consistent sense of trust and security provided by parents the child
will not have the foundation upon which the youngster can develop self-discipline
Routines and the discipline of limits also provide a sense of order to the
child. They, therefore, can encourage the formation of a child-felt sense of
security. However, how the routines and limits are established and implemented
by parents is as important as the routines and limits themselves. If parents
enact routines and limits in a rigid, unresponsive manner or carry out discipline
in an authoritarian way, they will create angry, uncooperative and resistant
When children are about 1 or 2 years of age they strive for a personal autonomy
and as a result they become willful. This begins a significant period in the
life of the child. When children start to manifest this normal behavior, it
is very important for parents to involve them, as much as is reasonably possible,
in the development and execution of the routines and the creation of the limits.
If limits or decisions are made for a person, s/he usually resists, forgets
and/or does not follow them. However, as a large body of research has demonstrated,
when a person is involved in making the very limits and decisions which will
structure their life, the individual will develop a sense of personal ownership
of those limits and decisions. It is as if they become part of the limits and
the limits become part of them. The decisions are their decisions. As a result,
the individual is far more likely to abide by those limits than if the limits
are made for them by somebody else.
The following scenarios incorporate this principle or provide adaptations
of it. They are examples of what parents can say to their toddler or preschool-aged
child in typical child-rearing situations.
To encourage a normally willful 1 or 2 year-old child, in the morning, to follow
the routines of getting dressed and eating breakfast: “Would you like
to wear your blue dress or your jumper?” Or, “Would you like your
milk in your Sesame Street cup or your yellow cup?” Or, “Would you
like some cereal or French toast?”
Motivating your children to eat their vegetables at home begins when you and
your youngsters are shopping at the vegetable counter at the grocery store.
“David, I need your help. What vegetables should we have for dinner tonight?
Should we have peas, green broccoli trees, or beans? What vegetables should
we eat tonight?”
“Johnny, Mommy is tired and would like to rest with you. What book could
we look at together? Choose a book and then come lie down with Mommy.”
To facilitate the routine of brushing teeth at bedtime, a parent can say: “Shelly,
would you like to brush your teeth with the striped toothpaste or the green
Setting limits with a child often requires the parent to think and plan ahead.
Here is a typical situation. You and your child are on your way to visit a park
or one of your child’s friends. Before leaving, it is important to establish
with your child how long the visit will be. Also the child should know what
you both will do after the visit is over. Then, be sure to ask what kind of
warning your youngster would like you to give him/her to signal that the time
to leave is approaching. Some children will simply want to be told. However,
it is fun for parent and child to invent a nonverbal ‘secret’ signal
Whatever method is selected, it is best to incorporate the following process
in a manner that the child has chosen. You and your child are visiting a park
or a friend. You have to leave with your child in ten minutes to go to the grocery
store. “Cathy, we will be leaving in 10 minutes to go shopping.”
(Then five minutes later) “Cathy, we will have to go to the grocery store
in five minutes. Would you like to plan a time when we can all get together
again? Why don’t you talk with your friend about it?” (Then five
minutes later) “Cathy we have to leave now. Shall we come to play here
This process gives a young child, who is not yet familiar with the passage
of time, warnings about the time limit. It also involves the child in several
ways. The child knows the plan of the day. The child has chosen a preferred
way for her mother or father to communicate with her about the approaching time
limit. And the youngster becomes involved in making plans for a subsequent visit
with his/her friend.
The self-disciplined person evolves from an interpersonal relationship that
has several interdependent processes. This article has presented an interactive
process of communication and decision-making for parent and child. The interactive
process is responsive to the youngster’s normal developmental needs both
to become more independent and to exercise authority and decision-making. This
process employs the child’s needs and drives constructively to build routines
and limits. To involve a child in decision-making gives the child a healthy
sense of self-advocacy. However, this process should take place within a larger
life context over which the parent has ultimate control. Parents set these boundaries.
Within them, however, the child should be allowed to make decisions and have
choices. As the child becomes more responsible, from the combination of parent-set
secure boundaries and child decision-making within them, the parent can make
the boundaries more flexible and extend them.
Parenting children is made enjoyable for both the parent and child when mothers
and fathers are regularly in communication with their youngster, appropriately
responsive to their child’s normal needs, and creatively employ the strong
energy of those needs to construct a healthy and ordered life for all.