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Appropriate Limits for Young Children 1

                     Karen DeBord, Ph.D.

                    Child Development Specialist

                 Denita is 5 years old. She whines not only when she is left in child care, but during most other times when she goes from one place to another. Once she gets interested in an activity, Denita's attention is completely focused until another child tries to join her or she is asked to put the activity away. Then she lashes out, usually throwing a toy or disrupting a corner of the room. During group time, she cries until she is allowed to sit on the teacher's lap. Teachers give her time-outs in the beanbag chair, which she doesn't seem to mind. When it is time to go home, she cries. Her teachers and parents are frustrated.

How can Denita's teachers and parents work toward more desirable behavior?

Should she be punished or disciplined?

Punishment is taking some action against the child as a pay-back for a child's behavior.

Discipline is shaping a child, teaching the child to understand limits at home or in other settings. While you can make rules for how they should behave, most children do not begin acting with self-control until their middle childhood years (around ages 7 to 9). For children younger than this, discipline is learning self-control.

Children must pass through several learning and developmental stages as they mature. Discipline problems are a normal part of child development. While it appears that there are "good" and "bad" behaviors, each stage does have a positive and a negative side. Parents and teachers alike must understand these developmental stages in order to determine what behavior they can realistically expect and to decide whether a child's behavior is appropriate.



According to some child development experts, children usually misbehave for one of four basic reasons: attention, power, revenge, or inadequacy.

Attention - When children believe they "belong" only when they are noticed. They feel important when they are commanding total attention.

While Mother was getting ready for work, Amanda jumped up from her breakfast and asked Mom to come help her in the bathroom. Encouraging her that she could manage alone, Amanda began to pull on Mom's leg and whine, "But I may not be able to." Mom replied, "Yes, you can, Amanda, just try it." After a few minutes, Amanda was back asking Mom to snap her pants. Helping her, Mom resumed her routine. Amanda called to her again, "Can you come here?"

Parents can respond by giving positive attention at other times, ignoring inappropriate behavior, setting up routines, encouraging, redirecting, or setting up special times.

Power - When children believe they belong only when they are in control or are proving that no one can "boss them around."

Whitney was ready to go shopping when Dad announced they were going to the mall. She grabbed her jar of pennies, ready to shop. At each store, she asked for items too costly for her budget. When she found an item for less than a dollar, she counted out the pennies and paid. Having spent her money, she continued to whine for other things "she needed". Mom said, "We will need to just leave if you can't quit asking for things." She begged not to leave, so browsing continued.

A short time later, she asked for another special item she had seen and loudly insisted she have it. This time Dad tried to get her quiet but had lost patience. "You're mean!" she screamed. She gave a glaring stare and mumbled "You don't love me." Dad took her hand and led her to the car. When she got home, the dollar toy was left in the car, forgotten.

Parents can respond with kind-but firm respect, giving limited choices, setting reasonable limits, encouraging, and redirecting the child to a more acceptable activity. When children test their limits and use a public display to assert themselves, parents can continue to stick to the basic rules letting them know their behavior is unacceptable. Leave the situation if possible (store or home in which you are a guest). Talk when things are calmer at a later time.

Revenge - When children believe they belong only by hurting others, since they feel hurt themselves.

Larry had been whining when Mom left him each morning with the child care provider. That evening, Dad was cooking dinner while Mom worked late. Suddenly Logan screamed. Dad threw down the potato peeler and ran to see what the problem was. Larry had pinned Logan in a wrestling position and was twisting his ear. Dad hollered to Larry, saying "Why can't you leave your brother alone? Go to your room and wait for me!"

Sometimes the reason for misbehavior is not clear. When there is a new pattern of acting out, children and parents should talk about how they are feeling. Parents can respond by avoiding harsh punishment and criticism, building trust, listening, reflecting feelings, practicing sharing of feelings, encouraging strengths and acting with care.

Inadequacy - when children believe they belong only when they convince others not to expect anything of them since they are helpless or unable.

Jorge's teacher asked his parents what might be affecting Jorge's work at school. His teacher says, "He doesn't complete assignments and no matter how much I help him, he gets further behind." Mom replied, "He doesn't do anything at home either. I have quit asking him to do any chores at home because when he does them, he is so sloppy and does it so badly, I have to do it again."

Parents can respond by encouraging their children to try things, focusing on the child's strengths, not criticizing or giving in to pity, offering opportunities for success and teaching skills in small steps.



From birth to about age 2, infants need to build close relationships with their parents or other important people around them. These attachments make it possible for infants to build a sense of love and caring. They are learning to make sense out of permanent objects and developing a sense of trust. Only as children experiment through touching, dropping, pushing, and pulling do they begin to learn.

During this time, children do not believe that things exist unless they can see them. This is why it is so difficult for them to be away from their parents.

To feel close to someone, infants need to be able to count on having their needs met in a timely manner. Gaining a sense of trust is the first stage of their emotional development.


These years are the most significant in a person's life. Language and social skills are developed. Children at this age also learn symbols. For example, they learn to see a picture of a ball and recognize that the picture represents a real ball. Recognizing symbols is an important step toward developing important skills such as the ability to read.

Toddling, exploring, and pounding may worry parents, but they are normal behaviors. When children touch, feel, look, mix, turn over, and throw, they are developing skills. Exploration is intellectually healthy and helps children test their independence. Although these behaviors create a struggle between child and parent, they should be expected and planned for them.

Independence is an emotion to be encouraged during the early preschool years. The alternative is shame and doubt. Many significant events occur during these years (between 2 and 3, toilet training and language in particular). In responding to a child's misuse of language or accidents when toileting, parents and caregivers should be sensitive to avoid using guilt and punishments for what are most likely normal acts of development.

Once children learn to handle independence, they are ready to develop a healthy sense of initiative. Initiative means starting activities, creating, and working. Children who learn to start their own activities lay the groundwork for positive and productive school experiences. Again, explorations, questions, and investigations play major roles in development.



From the time they begin school until around age 12, children are in middle childhood, when learning skills become better defined. Children at this stage have higher-order thinking skills and can use them to make more complex decisions. As children they have always believed what adults say as basically true, but they now begin to question the pedestal upon which they have placed adults.

Rules become more significant and children learn not only rules for games, but rules that will help them understand math concepts and social rules, such as saying "please" and "thank you." Rules make formal education possible.

Closely on the heels of developing a sense of initiative in the preschool years is the development of a sense of industry. Groundwork is laid during this middle childhood for becoming productive members of society. Children can learn to be inferior (or inadequate). Adults should seek to build a sense of confidence that children in the middle childhood can do jobs well. Many children have their sense of industry undermined by well-meaning parents and teachers who mistakenly try to use criticism to motivate them.



Children spend their young years trying to figure out how they fit into the world. How independent or dependent will they be allowed to be? What will be the consequences of various actions? Who will give them direction? Who will be their role models? In addition to the reasons for behaviors, parents must determine if they have provided a stable, loving, understanding place to help children learn and grow. The questions that follow may be used as small group activities or between parenting partners. It may be helpful to consider these questions:

Are expectations for the child clear?

Children develop at different rates, have different interests, and certainly have different kinds of homes and families. Are attempts made to prepare the child for new situations? Offer explanations of what the occasion is about and what behavior will be expected so guessing isn't necessary. To prevent reactions, use continuous two-way communication and allow the child a certain amount of responsibility in setting his or her own rules or limits.

Is behavior driven by the child's need to test the boundaries of particular relationships?

There is security for children who realize that the adult will "still love them" if they are "bad." This may be particularly true when there have been many changes in the family home.

Are consistent limits understood and followed?

Children may resist limits if there is too much adult control and not enough room allowed for their choice. Discipline allows children to develop their own "inner voice," which will sensibly guide their behavior as they grow. Often adults must be careful that they, too, follow the rules they make for children. Consistency plays a major role in parenting.



Discipline is shaping and teaching a child to understand limits.

Children may act out because they want attention.

Children may act out because they need some control.

Children may hurt others because they don't feel important.

Parents can ask questions such as, "How can you behave differently the next time?"

Parents can prepare the child for new situations by describing expected behaviors.

Parents who understand stages of behavior will know better what to expect.



The group leader sets the tone for the group to allow informal sharing, a sense of understanding and confidentiality without ridicule. Parenting is a very personal topic. Often to set the participants at ease and ease transitions, activities are needed. Some suggested activities are presented here as a stimulus for group leaders.


Ask the group participants to imagine a child with whom they have come in contact, one who they see daily or quite often. Ask them to think of ways to characterize this child. List these terms on easel paper or on a writing board before the group.


Scene setting descriptions of children to use for discussion. How would you respond to these situations:

Daryl is 4 years old. He cries when Mom leaves him at day care. He plays but is subdued. He can't seem to concentrate to finish puzzles and other tasks. He won't zip his jacket and tries to leave the group. The teacher shouts to the child to stay with the group and thinks he is just trying to get attention.

Marilyn is an attractive 2-year-old child with an advanced vocabulary. She enjoys most learning activities but has trouble sitting still during group time and during meal time and naps. Marilyn is very loving but independent, often creatively precocious. When asked to "come here" by parents and teachers, she often plays games and runs away.


On index cards, ask parents to list the characteristics of ideal children, one characteristic per card. Take the cards and mix them up, then have each participant draw a card and read that characteristic aloud.


Ask participants to describe their definition of discipline. After this has been discussed, ask for their definition of punishment.


Ask participants to brainstorm in small groups or as a large group regarding their ideas about why children misbehave.



Divide into small groups, allowing parents to share misbehavior incidents. Try to decide which goal may have generated the child's behavior at that time.



Dreikurs, R. (1964) Children the Challenge. New York: Hawthorne Press.

Dreikurs R. & Grey, I. (1968). A new approach to discipline: Logical consequences. New York: Hawthorne.

DeBord, K. (1996). *Appropriate limits for young children: a guide for discipline. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.

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