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.
BASICS OF LIMIT SETTING
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.
- 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…”)
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.)
- 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
- 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.
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.
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 ½ 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.
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.
should stick to their limit-setting strategies to give them time to
work. Limits must be repeated a lot – especially with very young
- 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.
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.
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 www.PerfectingParentingPress.com. To find out about her counseling practice and her speaker presentations, go to AnnyeRothenberg.com.