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Setting limits

Published on: May 01, 2010

Your 9-year-old is pushing your buttons again. Despite seemingly endless reminders, he will not get his homework done. As your frustration builds, you cast about for an appropriate response. But in the heat of the moment, all you can come up with is to shout “No TV for a week!”

If this scene plays out in your household, you might benefit from a refresher lesson on setting limits for your child. Setting clear and consistent limits helps children understand what is expected of them, making it easier for them to succeed. The more you can set them up for success, the less you need to step in later with discipline.

Establish family routines

Let your children know what to expect by establishing household rules and routines, recommends Elizabeth P. MacKenzie, Ph.D., a Seattle licensed psychologist. She encourages parents to set up daily routines, such as finishing homework before starting any play activity. “That way, it’s not like every day is up for debate. Children have a better idea of what expectations are, and the rules they get used to can reduce the amount of negotiation that goes on,” MacKenzie says.

Accentuate the positive

“Always start with the positive — if that’s not there, the discipline piece is not going to work,” says Carolyn Webster-Stratton, Ph.D., a professor at the UW School of Nursing and author of The Incredible Years: A Troubleshooting Guide for Parents of Children Aged 3 to 8. Webster-Stratton encourages parents to give praise and encouragement, both to reward children for following rules and to build up positive credit in the behavioral bank account. MacKenzie agrees. “For every negative feedback you give to a child, try to give five positives,” she says.

Building up a positive relationship is key. When you do have to withdraw a privilege, your child doesn’t like it and wants to get back to that good feeling. “If a relationship is generally negative and you start taking stuff away, a child doesn’t have any way to understand how it could be better,” Webster-Stratton says.

Help your child succeed

State rules in terms of what you want your child to do. “If you say ‘Don’t hit,’ the first thing you think of is hitting,” MacKenzie says. “If you say ‘Be nice,’ you don’t provide enough direction. So say ‘Use gentle hands.’ Effective instructions tell your child what to do, such as ‘Start your math homework’ or ‘Use polite words.’”

Also, if a child is not following a rule, like completing homework in a timely manner, at this age, you should try sitting with him and helping, or giving a lot of praise and encouragement for progress, rather than jumping to discipline. Webster-Stratton also recommends putting an incentive system in place, such as posting a check list on the refrigerator to remind them of chores and responsibilities or allowing them to earn points that can be traded in for rewards.

Discipline plans

Establish a discipline plan in advance, so your children understand the consequences of their actions. MacKenzie recommends keeping consequences as simple as possible and explaining the plan at a time when kids are calm. “In a discipline moment, a lot of us get our buttons pushed and get emotional. Your child has to understand the plan. Making it too complicated or having too many shades of gray is confusing. You don’t want to have these conversations in an emotional moment,” says MacKenzie.

Once you’ve drafted a plan, such as when and where homework will be completed and what rewards or consequences will occur if rules are not followed, allow your kids to voice their ideas and concerns. This is your opportunity to listen to them, ask questions, and be open to problem solving and negotiation. For example, you might allow them to play certain video games so long as homework is completed on time. MacKenzie notes, “When you can offer a choice, do it. Kids who feel listened to are better able to follow rules.”

Be consistent

It’s crucial to be consistent, MacKenzie says. “Kids learn from negative consequences when they can connect behaviors to consequences. If the consequence is different each time, it is hard to associate it with the behavior,” she says. Similarly, if you don’t consistently follow through on your directions, you are leaving the responsibility to your child to determine when it’s important enough to follow your rules. 

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is a Seattle-based writer and marketing consultant. She is the mother of two children, ages 1 and 3.

Tips for discipline

The most effective consequences are immediate, brief and provide a new opportunity for success every day, according to Carolyn Webster-Stratton, Ph.D.

Make it immediate — When you provide an immediate consequence, children don’t have to work as hard to connect the behavior with the consequence.

Keep it brief — Remove a privilege, such as watching television or getting time on the computer, for one evening. You want your child to be able to try again the next day and have a new learning experience. If the consequence lasts too long, children start feeling resentful. They get caught up in the unfairness of not being able to try again and show they can do it, says Webster-Stratton.

Speak clearly — Use short sentences and try not to reprimand or lecture. “When children are upset, they are not at their highest cognitive level. If you overexplain, it can be like throwing gasoline on the fire,” says Elizabeth P. MacKenzie, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist.

Choosing consequences — Consequences differ according to age. But in general, MacKenzie advises using the smallest consequence you can to get the job done. “You don’t want to make them fall into a bottomless pit of consequences,” explains MacKenzie. Webster-Stratton suggests focusing on privileges that mean something to the child or disciplining with work chores, such as laundry or dishes. For example, if a child is an hour late, you might discipline them with an hour’s worth or chores.


Originally published in the May, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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