Parents often feel they spend a great part of each day disciplining their young children: “Don’t use the toy that way, you might hurt someone,” “No hitting,” “Leave the dog alone,” “You have to come in now,” “That’s too loud,” or “You need to listen better.”
Setting limits for young children can be difficult, frustrating, complex, and time-consuming, but it’s essential. Parents have to teach their child acceptable behavior while controlling or changing unacceptable behavior until she’s old enough to exert some self-control (by age three) and understand why rules are important (by age seven). In order to handle this task effectively, parents need information about their child’s egocentric development, plus realistic expectations, empathy, patience, love, and respect for their child.
Disciplining young children is an extremely important part of parenting. Parents who don’t set adequate limits do their child a great disservice. They also reinforce unacceptable behavior as their child quickly learns she can act as she wants.
Some parents feel overwhelmed by their child’s behavior and may not know where to start. Other parents just don’t think about the importance of setting limits or leave the job to friends, relatives, and most commonly, teachers. One reason parents fail to discipline their child is because they fear her anger, and they don’t want to disappoint their child. Rather than face rejection or anger, they ignore unacceptable behavior, give in, or rationalize, “Kids will be kids.”
But setting limits is one of the major responsibilities of parenting and is not a job that should be ignored or put off.
Many parents doubt their ability: “Am I too strict? Lenient? Do I expect too much?” Parents are embarrassed by their child’s misbehavior in public and wonder what they’ve done wrong or why she seems worse than others. Since a child’s behavior is often a reflection of her parents, they feel vulnerable and judged by others when their child acts inappropriately; such feelings are normal. Yet parents should realize that limits are very important, and misbehavior is a basic part of childhood. A child learns what is correct by trying all sorts of behavior, “good/right” and “bad/wrong,” until she finds out what is and isn’t acceptable.
Parents should base their expectations and methods of disciplining on their child’s age and ability to understand. Distinguishing right from wrong is a gradual process, and young children don’t yet have the necessary reasoning skills to fully understand right from wrong. In general, most children under five are motivated to change their behavior “because mommy said” or when threatened with a punishment, not because they understand how their negative behavior impacts others or fully understand right from wrong.
The motivation to not hit comes from wanting to watch cartoons, play outside, or have dessert, not from thinking about someone else’s feelings. It’s normal for young children to reason in this way.