Setting Consistent Limits

Setting and enforcing rules and limits is an important aspect of consistency. Limits help children learn acceptable and unacceptable behavior and, over time, about making good decisions and regulating their own behavior. When children can organize and control their own behavior, they are better prepared to succeed in school and in life. Children can begin to learn self-regulation as early as age three, because the parts of the brain responsible for attention and behavior control begin to develop during this time.

Limits should be fair, easy for children to understand, and appropriate to children’s ages. Overly strict limits may slow brain development by restricting children from exploring the world. Children need experiences to strengthen connections in the brain, and they need limits to keep them safe and to teach them how to make good decisions. Limits are most effective when they are enforced immediately and consistently, without anger or violence. The best approach for very young children is to redirect their attention to a more appropriate item or activity. Older children can learn by experiencing the consequences of their misbehavior. Children learn quickly that leaving the caps off the markers causes them to dry up, and that they will not be able to play with a toy if they throw it. Adults should enforce limits without anger and violence. When adults calmly enforce limits, children learn that they are still loved even when they have misbehaved.

Limits provide security because they help children learn what to expect. Each repetition of a rule or limit helps strengthen connections in the brain, and helps children begin to remember right from wrong. Limit-setting should begin in early childhood. As children get older, adults need to revise and expand limits to give children room to grow and learn.