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5 Ways to Set Limits
By Eleanor Reynolds

The goal for setting limits is to give as much responsibility as possible to the child. One contrast between rules and limits is that rules require the adult to take most of the responsibility. The adult must make the rules, enforce the rules, and apply some kind of punishment.

Limits, however, require the child to accept responsibility for her own behavior and limits never require punishment. This is why limits contribute to the normal development of the child's independence. With that in mind, here are the five ways to set limits. They are interchangeable so you can choose the methods that best suits each situation and each child.

The I-Message this is the most desirable way to set limits because you express your feelings as a problem. The child is expected to respond in a positive way. There are three parts to an I-Message: your feelings, what's happening, and the reason why you are concerned. For example:

It scares me when I see you climbing on the table

(your feelings) (what's happening)


because it's not strong and you could get hurt.

(the reason)


Or I can't read the story with so much noise

(the reason) (what's happening)


and I feel frustrated.

(your feelings)


We set limits to:

1.       Assure the safety of each child and adult

2.       Prohibit the destruction of materials and equipment

3.       Assure that kids take responsibility for their actions

4.       Assure equal and respectful treatment of all people


Giving Information

When you give information, use an informative tone of voice without scolding or threatening, then allow the child to react. If the child ignores you, try a firmer voice or give more information.


It's time to get ready for lunch. (wait for response)
The toys get put away. (wait for response)

I can't take you to lunch until the toys are put away. (follow through firmly)

Natural or Logical Consequences

These are an outgrowth of the child's behavior and the consequence must follow the behavior immediately. A consequence should never be a punishment or a message that says I told you so!

Looks like your milk spilled; here's the sponge.

When kids throw their toys, they pick them up.

If you kick me, I have to put you down on the floor.

Using Contingencies

This is when a second action depends on a first action being performed. A contingency usually begins with the word when. This statement tells the child what you expect and what will happen when he complies.

When your puzzle is put away, you may play with another toy.

When you've finished screaming, you may come back into this room.

When your shoes are on, you'll be ready to go outside.

Making Choices

These work especially well with children who are strong willed and in need of a great deal of control. Giving choices eliminates power struggles and 'NO' answers.

You may wear the yellow boots or the blue ones (but you must wear boots when it rains).
You may walk to get your diaper changed or I can carry you (but your diaper gets changed).
You may play quietly indoors or go out and be noisy.

The 'Last Resort' Method
When you try everything and the child continues to harass (purposely tease, hurt, destroy) remove the child from the situation, have him sit apart until he's ready to play without harassing and let him decide when to return. If he repeats the behavior tell him, 'You thought you were ready, but you're not, so you'll need to sit you re.' This is not 'time out' because the child is always in control.

Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at [email protected].