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Setting Boundaries for Toddlers

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Use these six strategies to establish an understanding of appropriate behavior in young kids.

While I prepared lunch, my 2-year-old sat at the table coloring with markers. Unfortunately, she was coloring her arms instead of the paper.

“We use markers on paper, not on our bodies,” I said. I placed her paper directly in front of her and repeated, “We color the paper.”

She looked directly at me and drew one long mark on her arm. So I scooped up the markers and put them up in the cupboard. Though we would repeat the whole scene again the next day, the boundary had been enforced: We don’t color our bodies with markers.

Teaching appropriate behavior to toddlers can often seem overwhelming, but if children don’t learn to respect sensible boundaries as toddlers, they will face problems later when they are expected to comply in school or church settings. Here are six strategies to help your child recognize and respect boundaries:

Set clear expectations.

Before you impose expectations on your toddler, you and your spouse need to prioritize which ones are most significant. I find it important that my children play without hurting others physically or emotionally. My husband expects our children to listen to one another and to us. We make sure the expectations we set for our children reflect our values — and we consistently help our kids understand how these values govern day-to-day decisions.

Your child will be more likely to remember a small set of expectations (three to five), so start with a short list. You can also post them in the house using a combination of short words and pictures. You can even take photos of your child in various situations to remind him how to behave in those circumstances. Some examples of expectations you may decide are important:

  • We use gentle hands when touching others.
  • We listen to one another.
  • We obey Dad and Mom.

Start early.

Once you’ve established your list of expectations, start consistently enforcing them. We often make the mistake of thinking our children are too young to understand; we end up permitting certain behaviors, which can become bad habits.

When my youngest daughter was 1, she used to get excited and slap my cheek when I was holding her. Though it was fairly typical toddler behavior, I didn’t want my daughter to think that slapping was acceptable. So I would take her hand, use it to caress my arm and say, “Gentle touches.”

Be a role model.

Toddlers are very observant, and they watch what their parents, siblings and caregivers do. One easy way to teach boundaries is to consistently model the right behaviors. When your toddler is learning new concepts, you can reinforce these teachable moments by using words to describe your choices. For instance:

  • “I’m buckling my seatbelt because a seatbelt keeps my body safe.”
  • “I listened to Daddy while he was talking. Now it’s my turn to talk.”
  • “I’m putting away my book so it doesn’t get torn.”

The behaviors I expect from my children are ones that I live out myself. I don’t want my children to think it is OK to interrupt others, so I don’t interrupt others. And when my children are speaking, I try not to interrupt them. I want them to understand the importance of taking turns when talking and listening to one another.

Offer choices and consequences.

One of the reasons discipline can be difficult with toddlers is that at their stage of development, they are learning to assert their independence and often want to do things by themselves. Offering your toddler two acceptable choices allows her to make a decision and can dissuade her from unnecessarily pushing her boundaries.

My youngest daughter loves to walk by herself, but it isn’t always safe for her to do so. Rather than enforcing that she hold my hand, I give her a couple of choices that are acceptable. For example, I will tell her she can hold my hand or she can hold Daddy’s hand. (Other options might be to grip a belt loop, shopping bag or stroller handle.) When she makes a decision, I achieve my objective of keeping her safe, and she feels empowered because she’s made a choice.

Once we have defined our expectations, we begin to enforce those boundaries with consistent consequences. And when children clearly understand the basic boundaries that will apply in a variety of situations, parents can supply this guidance with a much lighter touch. When my daughter refused to choose between holding my hand or my husband’s hand, I made the decision for her — she lost her ability to choose. Through establishing and enforcing consistent expectations, parents can help their toddlers understand what is acceptable and what is inappropriate behavior.

Commend your child for obedience.

It’s easy to focus on negative behavior and forget to praise positive actions. If your child is making good choices, commend her for it. And talking about the spiritual implications adds to the praise and personalizes it. As you reinforce right actions, also reaffirm your expectations. For instance:

  • “You asked your sister for the train. You make Jesus happy when you are kind!”
  • “Thank you for listening to my words.”
  • “You’re taking care of your toys by cleaning them up. Yay!”

Make your praise sincere and frequent. You want to let your child know you see and appreciate the positive choices he makes as you guide him toward wisdom, obedience and respect for others.

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