How to set limits with your small child

Do you remember when your toddler learned to say “No” and that was the answer to pretty much every question you asked them? There is a reason why children enjoy saying “No” – this is how they assert themselves as separate beings from you, with their own will and sense of self. As normal as this development is, it doesn’t make it any easier for you to deal with your small child’s self assertions. How do you set limits with your kid without injuring their sense of pride or self-esteem? 

One of the first female psychoanalysts who worked with children in Europe, Francoise Dolto, used a powerful metaphor for the importance of limits for young children. She suggested to think of your child as a growing plant who needs pruning in order to continue to grow strong and healthy. If you do not prune your plants, they stop growing and eventually start to decay. The same is true for young children – they need guidance, limit setting and encouragement in order to develop as healthy and skillful young people. Limits provide a sense of security and safety, decrease anxiety and open room for creativity and self expression. So:

Do say “No.” One of the most important limits for your toddler is to learn to keep him/herself and other people safe, i.e. not to hurt themselves or others. 

You can do this by modeling, encouraging their sense of exploration and teaching fine motor skills through manipulating and building with small objects. It is okay to build a tower of cubes and then push it down but it is not okay to hit or push people. Focus on teaching them to manipulate objects in the world rather than breaking them.

Do explain why when you say “No.” It is important that you set a limit because there is a real cultural or social reason for it, not just because you said so. For example, a good reason for setting a limit often ensures your child’s safety: “Do not stick objects into the outlet because you can get hurt,” or “Do not speak with your mouth full because you could joke on it,” or even “People are not for hitting. I do not hit you so you do not hit people either.” 
The opposite of this might sound something like this: “Get away from there!” or “No! Stop hitting!” which could be fine but depending on your tone might be perceived as a command rather than an attempt to protect your child from getting hurt. As a result of providing an explanation for the limit and leading by example, your child will feel empowered rather than controlled and will be more likely to accept the limit and listen to you.

Don’t spank or yell. Although some people believe in corporal punishment, there are better ways to set limits with your kids. Hitting only teaches that it is okay to hurt people, which goes against what you have already been trying to explain to them, i.e. not to hurt themselves or others. Think about it, if you are saying “No” to your child but do not follow your own word, how confusing would that be? It will only show them that the rules do not apply to the adults, creating a perception of an unjust and unfair world. And if you have been around youngsters and latency age kids, you know that they are all about what is fair! 

Don’t give mixed messages. This goes along with what I just mentioned about not going against your own word. In order to do so, it is important that not only you mean what you say but that you and your partner are on the same page. If one of you says “no” and the other says “yes”, you will have a very difficult time setting limits with your child. If you end up vehemently disagreeing on discipline, it is best to discuss this in private, away from the kids. Otherwise, model healthy problem-solving and collaboration in front of them, teaching them how to compromise and work together. Making sure that you and your partner echo each other’s limits and reinforce the same expectations is probably one of the most essential parts of parenting and limit setting. 

Do follow through. If you say to your child, “if you do not stop, I will do x”, it is important that when your kid pushes your limit, you follow through on your word. Otherwise, your children learn that your word doesn’t mean much and you could lose credibility in their eyes, which will be that much more important when they become teenagers. I hear this all the time from my clients, both adults and teenagers. It can feel quite confusing and unsettling to not be able to trust your parents’ word to be true, and it becomes very easy to start “slacking” on chores and expectations when you know that there will be no follow through, no consequence for your actions. 

To take the plant metaphor even further, a plant needs watering, fresh air, sunlight, fertilizing, etc. However, you can be doing all of these things but without pruning, our imaginary plant will not be able to flourish and may eventually die. It is the same with limit setting – you could be loving, nurturing, attentive, playful, etc. but without limits, your kids will have a very difficult time living and being successful in a society. So, next time you need to set a limit with your kids, do not be afraid to say “No.” One day, they will thank you for you it. Not only that but their children too, your future grandchildren, will thank you for it as well. 

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