Rules and limits are important for guiding children’s behaviour

Children need to know what you expect of them in order to behave appropriately. This does not mean giving children lots of dos and don’ts – having too many rules, or rules that are too complicated, often confuse children. It is often helpful to involve children in setting some basic rules. This helps them understand the value of having rules and motivates them to cooperate. For example, you might discuss as a family the sorts of rules that will help you all get on well together. These might include things like talking to each other rather than shouting, asking before borrowing things, putting away games and toys after playing with them, or taking a turn to wash up after dinner. Deciding as a family those things that are most important to you and stating rules positively so that children know what to do rather than simply being told what not to do works best. 

Set limits

Set limits for children by giving clear directions for what you expect of them. Providing reasons for the directions you give helps children accept your limits without becoming defensive. It also gives them a basis for understanding what you will expect of them in other similar situations. The following examples show how parents and carers can set limits for children in positive ways.

Kind of limit

Limit stated negatively

Limit stated positively with reasons

Protection from physical harm

Don’t go outside the gate.

Stay in the yard. The street is too busy and you might get hurt.

Stop poking at your sister.

Be gentle with your baby sister. She is too small for rough play.

Looking after things

Don’t leave your toys lying around.

Pack up now and put your toys away on the shelf so we can be ready to go out.

Don’t do that here.

Take the ball outside if you want to play with it. Something might get broken if you play with it inside.

Showing respect and care for others

Stop being mean to him.

You need to play in a friendly way. Make sure Max has a turn too.

Don’t take her things.

Be sure to ask first before you borrow something from your friend. You would want her to ask before taking your things.

Following up

Providing positive consequences for positive behaviour is very important and effective for encouraging children to comply with rules and expectations. For example: 

  • When children do what you have asked, be sure to notice it and praise or thank them. 
  • Expect some lapses as changing or learning new behaviours takes time. Be prepared to offer reminders without nagging. 
  • Checklists and reward charts can be useful for keeping track of positive behaviour and motivating children to complete assigned tasks. 
  • If children repeatedly ignore your clear and reasonable instructions, logical consequences may be necessary. Logical consequences are directed at stopping the undesired behaviour rather than punishing the child. Examples include: 
  • Withdrawal from the situation (quiet time) – use when behaviour is unsafe or disruptive. 
  • Withdrawal of privileges – use when an activity or toy is being misused or neglected. For example, remove a toy that has been used in an unsafe way or fought over.

Max's story

“Max, it’s eight o’clock. Time for bed.” Eight-year-old Max didn’t move. He was watching TV. “Max, did you hear me?” said his father. “Just a minute,” said Max. “My show’s not finished.” “You’ve got school tomorrow and you need your sleep.” “I’m not tired,” Max replied. “But you will be in the morning,” said Dad. “Okay, just let me see the end.” 

At 8:20pm Max’s Dad asked again, “Has it finished yet?” “Nearly,” said Max. At 8:45pm, when the show finished, Max still did not have his pyjamas on. By the time he got ready for bed it was 9:20pm. “Good night, Max” said his Dad. “But Dad, I can’t go to sleep without a story.” 

Setting limits for children’s behaviour

It’s not always easy to get children to do as they are asked. Whether at bedtime or in other situations, children often try to challenge the limits adults set. An important part of positive discipline involves setting effective limits for children’s behaviour. Setting clear and effective limits supports children’s development. Knowing that an adult is in charge helps children feel safe. It can also help to reduce stress in family relationships and make parenting easier. 

It’s also very important not to unintentionally reward children for not meeting your expectations. In the story, Max’s father unintentionally rewarded Max for ignoring his instructions. By being allowed to decide when to stop watching TV, Max got the message that bedtime was flexible and he continued stretching the limits.

Positive discipline techniques help parents and carers manage children’s behaviour with less stress and maintain positive family relationships. 

How to set effective limits

Be firm but friendly

Getting children to follow reasonable instructions does not mean you have to threaten or get angry. Getting angry heats up the situation and can also damage relationships. It works better to first get children’s attention, and then tell them clearly and calmly what you want them to do. 

It helps to get up close and look at children directly as you give them an instruction calmly. Making it very specific helps too. Giving them notice ahead of time with prompts can reduce conflict, particularly with older children, for example: “Max, you need to go to bed in five minutes. When I come back I want you to switch off the TV and go and get your pyjamas on.”

Set up rules and routines

Having some basic rules in place helps children understand what you expect of them. Setting up consistent routines for daily activities like bedtime, meal times, bath time and homework means everyone knows what to expect. Having routines also helps children to feel secure. 

Rules work best when they are simple, few, and positively state what you expect children to do. Asking children to help you make the rules can improve their cooperation. For example, involving Max in advance when his parents decide on a reasonable bedtime would mean there is less to negotiate at night when everyone is tired. This would make it easier for Max’s Dad to firmly say, “Max, we agreed on bedtime at eight o’clock. That’s the rule on school nights.”

Be consistent

Children are more likely to follow your instructions when they know you will follow up. If you are not consistent about enforcing the limits you set, children are more likely to test or stretch them. 

When setting rules and limits, be sure they are enforceable and that you are prepared to stand by your word. Remember to set a good example by following the rules yourself!

Acknowledge, encourage, praise

Show you appreciate children’s efforts in meeting your expectations by praising and thanking them. Your approval is a great encouragement for children. Using an incentive plan for a short period of time can be useful for providing more tangible encouragement for children to comply with the rules you set.

Setting effective limits is not about having lots of strict rules and punishments. It means making your expectations very clear and being consistent in following through.

Here’s what worked for Max

Max’s Dad set up a challenge for Max to see how many times he could get to bed before eight o’clock on school nights. Each day that Max got to bed on time, his Dad gave him a footy sticker (Max was a great footy fan and loved collecting stickers).

As well as the stickers, if Max got to bed on time two nights in a row, then he would be allowed to stay up on the weekend to watch the first half of his team’s match on TV. If he got to bed on time for four nights, he would get to watch the whole match. And if Max could get to bed on time for all five weeknights, the deal was that Dad would take Max to see his team’s footy match live. 

Max's bedtime record

 

Week 1

Week 2

Sun

8:00

*

7:45

*

Mon

8:10

 

7:50

*

Tue

7:50

*

8:00

*

Wed

7:55

*

7:50

*

Thu

8:05

 

7:55

*

 

3/5

Good effort Max! You get to watch footy until three-quarter time on Saturday night

5/5

Fantastic!

Max and Dad get to go to see a footy match live!

 

See also:

Catch them being good

Promoting positive behaviour in the classroom

Managing behaviour: Further resources