User's Manual for Parents, Part II: Basics for Effective Limit Setting
By Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D. 

Take a look at the User’s Manual for Parents, Part I. You’ve been looking for it since your kids were born. It’s got some really good information. Part I provides the foundation for parenting your children well. It outlines all the steps for building a good parent-child relationship as well as a solid childrearing philosophy.

Now, in Part II of this User’s Manual for Parents, you’ll learn the principles of effective limit-setting. All parents have to set limits, insist on the limits rather than just announcing them, and learn many kinds of consequences and when and how to use them.


  1. If a child feels valued by his parents, he is more likely to want to please them and more willing to accept their necessary restrictions and redirection. So it’s important for parents to spend individual time with their child when they’re not demanding anything of him – at least weekly. It’s great for a child to feel his parents enjoy his company.
  2. Limit-setting should be seen as a teaching process – guiding the child to know what is and is not acceptable behavior so that she can eventually regulate/supervise herself. Young children naturally want to do what they want when they want, so guiding children can be challenging. Limit-setting means telling a child no. Very importantly, it also means telling the child why she is being told no, and helping her find acceptable substitute activities that meet her needs for growth and development.  (“You can’t …. but you can …,” or “…tomorrow you’ll be able to…”)
  3. All children need limits. When not excessive, limits make children feel better. Though they may not look happy with limits, they will feel more secure knowing how to behave well. (Make sure you give your children advance notice when you tell them what they have to do. With preschoolers, make your requests fun and/or interesting. With school-age children, emphasize the reasons for your requests.)
  4. To become fair and effective limit setters, parents need to know what their own standards are, what their child is capable of, how to encourage cooperation, and how to discipline. For many parents, shifting from nurturer to enforcer as their baby grows into a mobile toddler, a preschooler, and then a school-age child is very uncomfortable.
  5. Children test limits as they change stages, as they’re able to do more, and as they see the world with a different understanding. This is expected.
  6. Children are more likely to test limits that have not been reinforced consistently. Thus, consistency makes things easier for parents. For example, you tell your child, “You have two more minutes to play and then you have to pick up your toys.” But at the two-minute point, you’re on the phone. When the call ends 15 minutes later, you tell him that it’s clean-up time. He may well refuse – and in the future he’s likely to believe that he doesn’t have to listen to the “two-minute warning.” When a parent doesn’t follow through, a child has less respect for his parents’ rules; if this pattern continues, the child will begin to disregard the parents’ limits.

 No one can be perfectly consistent, but it’s working hard at consistency that’s important, especially when your child is first learning limits from you (from about nine months to 2 years). During this time, children learn whether parents mean what they say and whether parents have good reasons behind their rules. Children’s impressions of parents can definitely be changed after this time, but it’s harder to do. Working hard at consistency with your young children will make your family life much smoother for years to come.

  1. Parents should stick to their limit-setting strategies to give them time to work. Limits must be repeated a lot – especially with very young children.
  2. Many parents find themselves at an extreme on the permissive-to-strict continuum. Permissive child-rearing often leads to children being spoiled or tyrannical, having problems with peers, and feeling let down by others. Very strictly raised children become fearful, angry, distant, and sometimes rebellious. Children learn what to expect from others and how they should behave with other people from your relationship with them.
  3. Self-esteem is tightly tied to limit-setting. Children who are out-of-control, demanding and defiant annoy and displease most people, including the parents.  The child senses people’s feelings toward him but doesn’t know what to do. He concludes that others don’t like him much, and can feel confused, unhappy and even angry. This is another reason why effective limit-setting is so important.
             Just as in Part I, give some thought to each of these principles. In Part III, we’ll cover the list of good rules to set. In Part IV, we’ll look at a broad set of consequences, and in Part V, we’ll go over some advanced concepts in using consequences.

Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and child development for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They?, Why Do I Have To?, I Like To Eat Treats,  I Don't Want to Go to the Toilet, I Want To Make Friends and I'm Getting Ready For Kindergarten. These are all-in-one books with a story for preschoolers and a manual for parents. Her new series is for elementary school childen and their parents. The first book is Why Can't I Be the Boss of Me? (2015). For more information about her books and to read her articles, visit To find out about her counseling practice and her speaker presentations, go to

Perfecting Parenting Press 2015