Discipline: How and when to set rules and boundaries

Discipline: How and when to set rules and boundaries
Has your child started crawling or walking? Find out how to introduce rules to support your little one’s development.

When and why children need rules

Babies are curious by nature and want to explore. When they start to crawl or walk, often between 9 and 11 months, they’re eager to discover their surroundings on their own. They’re also blissfully unaware of any potential dangers. To keep them safe, it’s important to establish a few rules that teach them what they can and can’t do.

At around 12 months, toddlers are ready to learn rules on how to behave with people and objects. At this age, rules are designed to keep your child safe, teach them social skills, and limit or redirect inappropriate behaviour. For example, you could say “Be gentle with your friend” or “You can touch this plant, but very gently.”

Rules allow toddlers to learn what behaviours are not allowed in their family. They help parents instill values and maintain harmony in the household.

Rules also allow toddlers to gradually learn social skills. Later, they’ll be able to apply what they’ve learned outside the home, like at daycare.

Why rules are essential

Regardless of a child’s age, rules help them feel safe and secure, especially when enforced consistently. That’s because they know what to expect and understand what they can and can’t do.

When parents, educators, and other adults set these boundaries, children understand that they’re being cared for and protected, and therefore that they can trust their caregivers. Setting clear limits can also reassure and empower your little one, which will help them develop good self-esteem.

Without the structure that rules provide, children can feel anxious and lost as a result of being given too much freedom. As they get older, they may also feel less confident and have difficulty regulating their emotions.

Helping your child follow the rules

Before introducing new rules

  • Consider the behaviours common to your child’s stage of development before setting a rule. For example, it’s normal for a toddler to be curious and eager to explore. It’s up to you to ensure their safety in your home. If possible, create a safe, age-appropriate play area. Offer your little one objects and places to discover (e.g., plastic containers, shoes in a closet). They’ll get to have fun and explore on their own without constantly hearing you say “No!” or “Don’t touch that!”
  • Spend quality time with your child. If you build a strong relationship with your little one, they’ll naturally want to cooperate and follow your rules. Spend fun, quality time with them every day so they feel loved, valued, and safe.
  • Choose a few non-negotiable family rules (four to six rules at most). For example, you could teach your toddler to speak without shouting, be gentle with others, pick up their toys after play time, and say “please” and “thank you.” It’s easier for your little one to remember and follow a small number of key rules. As a parent, you’ll also find it easier to apply them consistently.

How to explain a rule

When your child follows the rules, congratulate them so they’re encouraged to continue their good behaviour.
  • Keep the rules short and age-appropriate. Before age 2, it’s best to give your toddler one-step directions (e.g., “Sit down,” “Come eat”). From ages 2 to 3, they can follow two-step directions (e.g., “Take your cup and bring it to Mommy”). From age 3, they can understand three-step directions (e.g., “Go to your room, get your pajamas, and bring them here”).
  • Make sure you have your child’s attention when explaining a rule. Move closer and make eye contact. Make sure they’re listening.
  • Tell your child what they’re allowed to do instead of what they’re not allowed to do. They’ll have an easier time understanding and adopting the behaviour that’s expected of them. For example, instead of saying “Don’t put the crayon in your mouth,” say “Hold the crayon in your hand, like this.” If you simply tell your child not to do something, they may not know what you want them to do instead.

When your child does something that’s off-limits

  • Redirect your child’s attention to something positive. Before age 2, simply explaining a rule is usually not enough. For instance, if your toddler throws a puzzle piece and topples their big sister’s block tower, take their hand and show them where the puzzle pieces go. You can say something like “This piece belongs here, in your puzzle.” You can also bring them to another room to play, if necessary. Similarly, if your toddler throws sand at the park, you might say “Sand is not for throwing. Do you want to run around or go down the slide?”
  • Avoid long explanations. These are difficult for your toddler to understand and remember, which makes them ineffective.
  • Use “no” sparingly. The less you say no, the more likely your child will be to follow the rules. For example, if your child asks for a cookie before a meal, you can say “Yes, as soon as you’ve finished eating dinner,” rather than “No, it’s time for dinner!” That said, if your child does something that’s not allowed, you can tell them to stop.

The 5 C’s of good discipline

To be effective, a rule should have the following:
  • Clarity: Explain each rule clearly. Use age-appropriate words that your child understands.
  • Concrete expectations: Establish rules that describe how your child should behave rather than how they shouldn’t behave.
  • Consistency: Whether your child is with you or another adult (e.g., your partner), the rules must always be the same and shouldn’t vary according to your mood. This may mean having to stand your ground at times while supporting your child.
  • Coherence: Before establishing a rule, think about whether you can actually enforce it. Since you’re an important role model for your child, make sure you also follow the same rules.
  • Consequences: Ideally, if your child breaks a rule, there should be consequences directly related to their behaviour. Consequences help your child learn from their mistakes and adopt new, positive behaviours.

The importance of repeating rules

Mère qui répète une règle à son enfant afin de l’aider à s’en souvenir.

It takes a long time for children to understand and remember what’s expected of them, so don’t be surprised if you have to repeat the rules often.

In early childhood, the regions of the brain involved in impulse control haven’t fully developed. That’s why your child may sometimes break a rule—they simply can’t help themself. As they get older and their brain develops, they’ll get better at controlling their impulses. In the meantime, you can practise the expected behaviour with your child. Going through the steps together will help them remember and understand what they’re supposed to do.

Other times, you may need to repeat a rule to your child because they haven’t fully understood it. This could be why they’re disobeying. In this case, explain the rule again using simple language. Insist on why they need to follow the rule. If your child is 3 or older, you can ask them to repeat the rule in their own words to make sure they’ve understood.

Even if your child fully understands and remembers a rule, they may decide to disobey out of defiance or frustration. This behaviour is perfectly normal and part of their development. They may simply be expressing a strong emotion or asserting themself. If it happens, stay calm and acknowledge your child’s feelings, but don’t change your rule. You can say “I understand that you don’t like brushing your teeth, but it’s a very important habit,” or “I know that you’re disappointed/sad/angry, but . . .”

Occasionally, your child may be less attentive than usual, unfocused, or stressed. In these cases, they need your support more than ever to adopt good behaviour. For instance, you can stay nearby and offer help if they need it.

Is it worth getting angry 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, try to stay calm. Avoid placing blame or making threats, which may scare your child and damage your relationship. If you think you’re going to lose your temper, take a moment to calm down (e.g., take a break or let your partner step in).
Helpful resources for when your child disobeys (in French only):

Things to keep in mind

  • Toddlers are natural explorers, so it’s important to set rules to keep them safe and offer reassurance.
  • Children often need to be reminded of the rules several times before they understand and respect them. In addition, being consistent when enforcing rules will help your child feel more secure.
  • It’s important that you spend quality time with your child and support them as they learn what behaviours are acceptable.
Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Céline Blanc, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: July 2023

Photos: GettyImages/Lisa5201 and lostinbids

Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

  • Bilodeau, Mélanie. Soyez l’expert de votre tout petit : éduquer dans la parentalité sécurisante. Quebec City, Éditions Midi trente, 2022, 230 pp.
  • Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. “Aggression.” 2022. www.child-encyclopedia.com
  • Faber, Joanna, and Julia King. How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2–7. Scribner, 2018, 384 pp.
  • Filliozat, Isabelle. J’ai tout essayé! Opposition, pleurs et crises de rage : traverser sans dommage la période de 1 à 5 ans. Paris, Marabout, 2019, 256 pp.
  • Nelson, Jane. Positive Discipline. New York, Ballantine Books, 2006, 384 pp.
  • Office de la Naissance et de l’Enfance (ONE). Grandir avec des limites et des repères. www.one.be/public/
  • Racine, Brigitte. L’autorité au quotidien : un défi pour les parents. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 288 pp.
  • Racine, Brigitte. Le respect : une valeur pour la vie. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2016, 264 pp.
  • Canadian Paediatric Society. Caring for Kids. “Positive discipline for young children.” 2020. caringforkids.cps.ca
  • Vallière, Suzanne. Les psy-trucs pour les enfants de 3 à 6 ans. Montreal, Éditions de l’Homme, 2017, 256 pp.

For kids

  • Gravel, Élise. C’est moi qui décide! Montreal, Éditions La courte échelle, 2020, 30 pp.