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Limit Setting vs. Discipline: What’s the Difference?

22-month old Siya reaches for the glass vase filled with flowers. Her mother, giving her “the look,” firmly says, “No!” With a glint in her eyes, Siya continues to reach for the colorful vase, repeating a chorus of “No! No! No!”

Just before the vase comes crashing to the ground, Siya’s mother reaches her, uprights the vase, and yells; “You know you aren’t supposed to touch the vase.” Siya bursts out laughing, which infuriates her mother.

Shortly after the above incident occurred, Siya’s mother calls a friend, voicing some common concerns among parents of toddlers. “Why won’t Siya listen to me? If I don’t start teaching her now, won’t it just be harder as she gets older? What can I do?”

Three is the magic age

While you do need to teach your children proper behavior, it is best to save your efforts at true discipline till after your children turn three years of age. Remember that all children grow and mature at different rates; three is an average age for all children and is given as a guideline. Your particular child may be ready a little before or after age three.

At around three, children will just begin (“begin” being a very important word) to have the maturity to monitor their own behavior and to control their impulses. When we talk about disciplining kids, we actually mean helping them learn to regulate their own behavior. That means when you give them information, tools, and skills they will be able to listen to you when you say “no” and to behave in ways that follow your values and society’s demands.

Prior to age three, most children do not have the inner control to stop themselves from doing whatever it is they want to do, nor do they have the judgment to keep themselves safe. It is your job as the parent to provide the external control that will protect them until they are able to protect themselves. You can do this by using “limit setting” techniques, such as:

  • distracting them
  • providing a safe environment
  • repeating basic rules
  • You do all of this without an expectation that your under three-year-old will follow the rule.

    As children mature, you can begin to expect them to gradually internalize the rules and behave according to them. It will actually take many years before you can totally trust that your children will curb their impulsivity and show improved decision-making abilities.


    What can parents do?

    A Limit Setting response

    So what can Siya’s mother do now with her 22-month old? As Siya shows interest in the vase, mom can:

  • remind Siya of the rule, “We don’t touch the flowers.”
  • distract Siya by pointing out something else which may interest her, such as a toy, the clouds outside the window, or the sound of the clock.
  • move the vase out of sight or at least out of reach.
  • recognize Siya’s interest in the flowers. While holding her hands, mom can show Siya how to smell them from a distance. “You really like the flowers. They have such pretty colors. Let’s see if we can smell them.”
  • explain why there is the rule. “The vase can fall over, the water can spill, and you can get hurt from the broken vase.”
  • A Discipline response

    When Siya is older – after age three – mom can expect her to display greater inner-discipline. At this point, if Siya reaches for the vase, the interaction could be as follows:

  • Remind Siya of the rule, “No, Siya, we don’t touch the flowers.”
  • If Siya leaves the vase alone, praise her. “Even though the flowers are really pretty, you did not touch them. Thank you for following the rule.”
  • After the fact, make sure Siya understands why the limit was set by asking, “Why doesn’t Mommy want you to hold the vase?”
  • If Siya doesn’t leave the vase alone, mom can remove Siya from the room.
  • Once Siya and mom are calm, she can talk with Siya.
  • “Do you know why we can’t touch the vase?”
  • “What could happen if the vase falls?”
  • “What were you trying to do with the vase when I told you to stop?”
  • “How can you get to touch the flowers the next time?”
  • The answer to this last question could be having Siya ask mom to hold the vase so Siya can get closer the flowers.

    The purpose of discipline is to teach children inner-discipline so ultimately they won’t need their parents to set limits for them. Until they are developmentally ready, it is your job to provide the controls that children need but don’t yet have. You can use techniques which do not shame or blame your children and which leave you feeling confident in your role as a parent.

    Happy Parenting

    The Vidyarambh Team

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