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Setting Limits: Rules & Punishment

Excerpt from Me, Myself and I

Be a role model.  Young children are highly imitative and like to please.  The more good behavior you demonstrate, the more they will copy.  The more approval they get for their good behavior, the more good behavior you will get from them.

Keep rules to a minimum. Focus on the big-ticket items that govern safety and the important aspects of social behavior.  To set more rules than your child can manage at any given age is just confusing.

Be consistent. Enforce rules consistently.  Only set rules you will maintain.

Don’t overreact. Children explore behavior in stages.  When a new behavior emerges that is unacceptable, such as biting or using bad language, overreaction on your part can actually reinforce it.  Children like oversized reactions.

Match punishment to the child’s understanding. Don’t use punishment until a child is cognitively capable of understanding what action is being punished and why.  Children do not reach this level of mental maturity until somewhere near the second birthday.   Punishment before this achievement is just confusing to a child.  If tendered on a regular basis, a child can withdraw from the entire category of activities that include the offense.  As a result, he may curtail exploration that is essential to learning.  Until a child can understand the offense, parents should use distraction and physical removal to stop unwanted or unsafe behavior.

Punishment should be effective. When your tactics aren’t working, reassess.  As your child’s language skills improve, you can involve her in the process.  Ask what would help her improve her control next time, and what you should do if she doesn’t exercise that control.

Punishment should be appropriate. Punishment should fit the child’s stage of development, temperament, and “crime.”  Don’t overdo.  Especially in the early years, keep punishment for the major infractions, especially those involving safety.  Don’t waste big ammunition on small stuff.  It cheapens the currency and weakens its effectiveness.

Match your behavior to the outcome you want. The way that you act when you set a limit matters as much as your technical prowess in carrying through.  Sometimes, your child is so relieved at your calm, you don’t even have to carry through.

Provide clear expectations followed by anything that encourages self-control. Use words: “Biting means you have to be away from us for awhile.”  Anything that helps a child feel in charge of his impulses, even briefly, is money in the self-control (and self-esteem) bank.  Being the boss of one’s own body or temper is the eventual goal, and language can help your child understand what you and he are trying to work out together.