Here's how to enforce limits without punishment, bribes, or threats.

Last week, I outlined how limited freedom can influence and create self-discipline, given the right context.  This article walks you through how to create that context with clear limits, a prepared environment, and firm, kind enforcement.  Read all three parts in this series here. 

Disclaimer: This is not a recipe!  Every situation and child is different, and different methods will work better than others.  Tell me about your situation, and I'll help you brainstorm!

How to enforce limits

Create your Limits

Having clear limits is critical for children. Limits provide safe boundaries in which to test out new behaviors and skills, and establish expectations of how to act in that space.  Establish your limits by asking these three questions, and then framing your answers in the positive (what I CAN do) .

  • What actions are not acceptable in this space?
  • What activities are necessary or helpful? 
  • What is your child capable of doing at this age? (Ask if you aren't sure)

Here are a few of my answers for a 2 year old in the kitchen:

Expectations and helpful actions: Toys go back on the shelf and stay off the floor, we wash hands before we eat and after we do projects, He sets his place for lunch, he uses manners like “please, may I have, thank-you, and no, thank-you)

Not OK: touching the stove dials, opening the cabinets under the sink, putting a knife anywhere but the cutting board, standing on the chairs, eating anywhere except the table, touching the dog's food and water.

So my limits for these expectations include:

  • The knife is for cutting on the board.
  • The stove is for the adults.
  • Toys go back when we are finished.
  • Chairs are for sitting.
  • We eat at the table.
  • We wash our hands before lunch, and set the table.

Let's do a 7 year old in the kitchen too:

Expectations and helpful actions: Toys go back on the shelf and stay off the floor, we wash hands before we eat and after we do projects, He sets his place for meals, prepares his lunch and snacks, helps with family meals on occasion, asks for help with heating food, he uses manners like “please, may I have, thank-you, and no, thank-you", and he cleans up after he is finished eating.

Not OK: using the stove without an adult nearby, climbing onto the counter, putting a knife anywhere but the cutting board, standing on the chairs, eating anywhere except the table, touching the dog's food and water.

So my limits for these expectations include:

  • The knife is for cutting on the board.
  • Ask an adult before using the stove.
  • Toys go back when you are finished.
  • Chairs are for sitting. Use a stool to reach high things.
  • We eat at the table.
  • We wash our hands before eating and after messy work.
  • You are in charge of preparing your lunch and snacks.
  • Help with family meals and chores when asked
  • Take responsibility for your own items (utensils, plates, toys, mess, etc)

Prepare your environment to enforce limits for you.  

Now that you have your limits set, make everything easier by creating a space that enforces your limits for you

  1. Eliminate choices and actions that aren't acceptable.  Create automatic limits by keeping all dangerous items up high or locked away, moving the dog's food and water to another room, and keeping less toys out to clean up.

  2. Create a predictable routine (as much as possible) and a consistent environment. That means have a place for the important things in your child's life, transitions she can expect, people she knows and trusts, and established family habits. 

  3. Alert your child to expectations, consequences, and changes BEFORE the limit is tested. Before it's time to leave you can say "We'll be leaving the park in 3 minutes."  For older children, talk about what will happen to toys that are left on the floor before it happens. 

  4. Provide other acceptable options to meet common needs. Where else can your child throw, dump, scream, jump, climb, or run? Have a few of these ideas ready so you can say “We sit on the couches, but you can jump here on the rug”

Be firm and kind

Sometimes, creating environmental control is enough. But, limits aren't really limits until they are tested and proven by children, so be prepared to enforce them again and again. It can be tricky to find the balance of remaining firm on a choice while still being kind, empathetic, and supportive.  Most of us default to using rewards, punishments, fear, guilt, or bribes (me too), and it will take time for you to learn a new habit in the heat of the moment.  Check out our phone and video support if you are getting stuck.  The initial process of enforcing limits can take some work and time, but your child will quickly spend less energy pushing back and acting out.  

Here's a general sequence I follow for a child around age 2:

State the limit once in a positive “here's what I expect you to do” manner. Then, wait for the child to follow the limit.

  • The knife is for cutting on the board.
  • We eat at the table.
  • We wash our hands before lunch, and set the table.*

If that doesn't work, you can offer a choice. Wait again for your child to choose.

  • You can wash your hands yourself, or I can help you
  • You can save your snack for later if you want to play now. Let's put it on the table.*

And if it still doesn't work, you can restrict freedoms, or allow consequences to happen. This very much depends on the situation, so make the best call you can in the moment.

  • I'm going to move your body away from the stove to keep you safe now.
  • When you are ready to keep the knife on the board, you can cut with it again.
  • Ok, it seems like it's too hard for you to use the knife safely right now. You can try again later.
  • Hmm, you need your place set to have lunch. Can you find your spoon first?
  • Hmm, looks like you fell while standing on that chair, and now you are hurt. Let's get some ice.*

Let's look at how this sequence changes for a 7 year old.

First, have a discussion about what you expect from your child, before the limit is tested. Go over any consequences that might happen with various choices For example, "If I have to clean your toys off the floor because you did not take responsibility, I will be donating them"

If you see your child testing the limit, make eye contact and state your expectations if necessary. "It's time for dinner. Please set the table"

If that's not working, offer support if needed: "Do you remember the first step?" or "Where can you find the bread?" or "What's your plan to pack your lunch for school?"

Then, get out of the way and let consequences happen. Seven year olds need to figure things out on their own, and won't take your helpful advice anyway. Be available to help process and reflect back their decisions.

Be prepared for your child to push back, throw a tantrum, or keep testing the limit at first. Children need to test their independence while trusting that you will keep them safe should they step out too far. The next article in this series offers tools for managing tantrums without also losing control.   

Leanne Gray, M.Ed is the owner of The Prepared Environment, which supports families in creating an ideal environment for their children at home. She has over fifteen years experience working with children in both public, private, and Montessori schools, and is AMI primary trained. She particularly loves to hear from you!  You can always contact her for personalized support and answers to your questions. 

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