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

A Typical Scenario

toddler playing with flowers22-month old Lydia reaches for the glass vase filled with flowers. Her mother, giving her “the look,” firmly says, “No!” With a glint in her eyes, Lydia continues to reach for the colorful vase, repeating a chorus of “No! No! No!”

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

Shortly after the above incident occurred, Lydia’s mother called a friend, voicing some common concerns among parents of toddlers. “Why won’t Lydia 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 at which children are typically ready for “discipline” 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 Lydia’s mother do now with her 22-month old? As Lydia shows interest in the vase, mom can:

  • remind Lydia of the rule, “We don’t touch the flowers.”

  • distract Lydia 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 Lydia’s interest in the flowers. While holding her hands, mom can show Lydia 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 Lydia is older – after age three – mom can expect her to display greater inner-discipline. At this point, if Lydia reaches for the vase, the interaction could be as follows:

  • Remind Lydia of the rule, “No, Lydia, we don’t touch the flowers.”

  • If Lydia 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 Lydia understands why the limit was set by asking, “Why doesn’t Mommy want you to hold the vase?”

  • If Lydia doesn’t leave the vase alone, mom can remove Lydia from the room.

  • Once Lydia and mom are calm, she can talk with Lydia.

    “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 Lydia ask mom to hold the vase so Lydia can get closer the flowers.

In Summary