Discipline: How and when to set rules and boundaries

Discipline: How and when to set rules and boundaries
If your toddler has started crawling or walking, it’s time to start thinking about boundaries.

When and why children need rules

Babies are curious by nature, which makes them eager to explore their surroundings. Once they begin crawling and walking, around 9 to 11 months of age, infants are raring to discover new places on their own. What they haven’t yet developed, however, is an awareness of potential dangers. To keep them safe, it’s important to establish a few rules that teach them what they can and cannot do.

After about 12 months, toddlers are ready to learn rules about how to behave around other people and objects. While their safety is still the main reason for rules at this age, setting rules also serves to curb aggressive behaviour. For example, you might say to your little one “Be gentle with your friend” or “You can touch this plant, but be very gentle.”

Rules are reassuring for children of any age and create a sense of security, especially when enforced in a consistent way. Doing so lets children know what to expect and clearly distinguishes between what is and isn’t acceptable. Children need their parents, teachers, and other adults to set boundaries. Without them, they can feel anxious and lost as a result of being given too much freedom.

Helping your child follow the rules

  • Focus on just a few key rules, such as “be gentle with your friends,” “clean up your toys without throwing them,” “hold my hand when we’re on the sidewalk,” or “soil belongs in the flower pot.” This will make it easier for your child to remember and follow the rules.
  • Make short, clear, and concrete rules that are appropriate for your child’s age, and apply them consistently. Try not to give your child more than one rule at a time until he has reached the age of 3. This will make it easier for him to understand and follow them.
When your child obeys the rules, praise him so that he’ll keep it up.
  • When coming up with rules, consider your child’s stage of development and the behaviours associated with it. For example, it’s normal for infants to be curious and want to explore, so it’s up to you to make sure they stay safe in your home. If possible, create a play area that is safe for your child by covering electrical outlets and putting fragile objects out of reach. You can also introduce your child to new objects, such as measuring cups and plastic dishes, and show him new places to explore, like the inside of a closet. This will let your toddler satisfy his need to see the world without constantly hearing you shout “No,” “Don’t touch that,” or “Don’t do that.”
  • Steer your child toward a different activity or correct his behaviour if he breaks the rules. Simply stating the rules isn’t generally very effective for children under the age of 2. For example, if your toddler is throwing puzzle pieces at his big sister’s tower of blocks, take his hand and help him put the pieces in the right place while saying “See, this piece goes here!” You could also take him to play in a different area. These are better alternatives to giving a lengthy explanation along the lines of “You shouldn’t throw puzzle pieces because it upsets your sister when you knock over her blocks. You could also hurt somebody.” With young children, long arguments are too difficult to understand or remember to do any good.
  • When your child does something that’s against the rules, let her know by telling her “Stop!” rather than “No!” The latter tends to be uttered with a cross tone and furrowed brow, while the former is typically stated as a command that doesn’t lay blame on the child. Taking this approach also reduces the number of times your child hears the word “no.”
  • Tell your child what he can do rather than what he can’t do. Children have difficulty understanding what it means when something is not allowed. For example, instead of saying “Don’t put the pencil in your mouth,” say “The pencil goes in your hand.” Studies on brain development have even shown that children aren’t capable of processing negatives; when told they shouldn’t do something, they think they’re being told the opposite. When you say “Don’t throw the truck,” for instance, your child hears “throw” and “truck” and might do exactly what you’ve just told him not to do.
The 5 C’s of good discipline
Use the following criteria to develop effective rules for your child:
  • Clarity: Express each rule and its consequences clearly. Use words that your child understands.
  • Concrete expectations: Establish rules that describe how your child should behave rather than how he shouldn’t behave.
  • Consistency: Whether your child is with you or with another adult (e.g., your partner, a grandparent, the babysitter), the rules should always be same. Once you’ve established a consequence, don’t change your mind; you won’t be taken seriously if consequences aren’t enforced.
  • Coherence: Before establishing a rule, think about whether you can actually enforce it. You are an important role model for your child, so you should also follow the same rules.
  • Consequences: When rules are broken, ideally there should be consequences that are directly related to your child’s behaviour. Consequences let your child know where he’s gone wrong, how to correct his mistake, and what behaviour to work toward.

The importance of repeating rules

It takes a long time for children to get the hang of what’s expected of them, so don’t be surprised if you have to constantly remind your little one of the rules. Keep in mind that, between the ages of 2 and 3, the parts of a child’s brain that are responsible for controlling urges have not yet fully developed. That’s why children sometimes disobey rules that they already know—they simply can’t help it. As they get older and their brains continue to develop, their self-control improves.

At other times, you’ll find you have to keep repeating a certain rule because your child simply doesn’t understand what it means and as a result doesn’t obey it. When this happens, explain the rule again as simply as possible and emphasize the reasons behind it. If your child is old enough, you can have her repeat the rule in her own words. This will let you know whether she has truly understood while also helping her learn the rule.

There will then be times when your toddler disobeys a rule she is fully aware of purely as an act of rebellion. This is perfectly normal. All children, especially at a young age, break rules. The best thing to do is to patiently remind your child of what she did wrong and make sure that she respects the rule. Being consistent when enforcing boundaries is the most effective way to ensure that your child understands why they are important both for you and for her.

Is it worth losing your temper to make a point?
Having to repeat the same rules over and over can leave parents feeling defeated. Even if your patience is wearing thin, losing your temper only risks scaring your child and making him feel that you no longer love him. Do your best to stay calm; state the rules you’ve set in a firm voice so that your little one understands that they are non-negotiable. Of course, you wouldn’t be the first parent to let emotions take the upper hand. If you feel you’ve reacted too harshly in front of your child, take the time to comfort him and apologize. Doing so will demonstrate that it’s possible to make up for words and actions you regret.


Points to remember

  • Young children like to explore, so it’s important for their safety to set up rules.
  • Children often need to be reminded of the rules several times before they understand and respect them.
  • Being consistent when enforcing rules will make your child feel more secure, as he will have a better idea of what you expect from him.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: Naître et grandir
Last update: June 2017


Photo: iStock.com/LisaValder