The Smartest 5-Step Formula to Set the Right Parental Limits Without Punishments!

The Smartest 5-Step Formula to Set the Right Parental Limits Without Punishments!

You’re always trying to be the best parent that you can and do what’s right, and that’s why it can be quite helpful in thinking through how to set the right limits for your children. This isn’t something that many of us think through in advance, though we should. The reality is that if we learn how to set boundaries and teach our children to adhere to them, it benefits them and us. It’s not always easy, but if you start the process early on then you can both quickly make this your norm in no time at all.

As you think of how to set the right limits for your family, here are 5 steps which will make your job easier.

1. Consider what is truly important to you and what you can let go

Know what really matters to you as a parent and what is important to your child’s formative years. You can’t have hard and fast limits for everything, so be honest with yourself about what really matters and what you can let go.

2. Figure out creative ways to set limits

When you think of how to set the right limits for your children, take their age and personality into consideration. Rather than it just being a disciplinarian type of situation, figure out what is the logical consequence to each behavior you want your child to change. Come up with positive reinforcements and also ways to warn if the child isn’t doing what they are supposed to. Always do it with love, not anger! Setting boundaries is not a punishment, it’s a loving life lesson.

3. Communicate the limits to your children

Be sure that your child is very clear on what the limits and consequences are. It’s not enough to just say that you have limits, kids understand actions better than words. Sit down and have a nice quiet talk with them, explaining the new boundary and the consequences of breaking it. Do this when you are both calm and in good spirits.

For example, you want your child to stop biting other kids (and yes, this works even when they are 1.5-2 years old!). You can say something like this: “my love, I wanted to let you know that you cannot bite other children because it hurts them and we don’t hurt others. Starting today, if we have a child over or if we visit someone and you bite them, we will go home / ask the friend to leave. OK?” They will either say yes or ask questions (depending on their age), but as soon as this talk is finished, you will not repeat it again. The boundary has been set!

4. Be sure that you follow through

This is the hardest part of setting limits. It’s not always easy to make your child take responsibility for their actions or take something away from them, but it’s essential because again – kids learn from actions, not words. If it’s hard for you, start with something small – say, no throwing food on the floor. Let your child know that if they throw food, you will take it as a sign that they have finished eating and take their plate away. The next time they throw food, take the plate and DO NOT give it back. There will probably be a lot of screaming and shouting – you need to stay calm. And if you are worried they are still hungry, give them some kind of drink once everything has quieted down. Once you will experience success with something relatively simple such as food throwing, you can have the confidence to move on to larger issues.

Here is an example of a larger issue:

You told your child that hitting and biting other kids is unacceptable and that if they do it again when a friend/relative comes over or when visiting friends/family, you will either apologize to the friend and ask them to leave early or take your child home early. Then, when your child hits another kid again, lovingly and without anger warn them once, and if it happens again enforce the rule you made. Simply say: “I see it’s still hard for you to stop yourself from hitting/biting, so let’s go home where you can play on your own, and we will try again next time.” Then, say your goodbyes and follow through! After 3-5 incidents of this type, your child will come to the conclusion it’s just not worth it and will be able to control their urge to use physical force. 

Make sure that you react in a way that can help your child feel the consequences of their action, instead of punishing them in ways that will not help them learn from their mistakes (like sending them to their room).

5. Finally, once a boundary has been properly set and understood, let them break it from time to time

This relates to certain types of boundaries, naturally. For example, you have successfully asserted a always-put-your-toys-away limit (when they are done with them, naturally. And in case you were wondering – a possible consequence would be to take the toys away for a day because if you can’t tidy up, you won’t be able to find anything and therefore you wont be able to play). When you see that this boundary has completely sunk in, let them off the hook every now and then if they ask that you do it for them – this way they feel they also have a say. But don’t do it too often, or you will have to start all over again!

So, just to sum it up:

1. Decide which boundaries are really important to you, but be reasonable.

2. Figure out the most logical consequence to each behavior you would like your child to change. Remember, this is not a punishment – you are teaching your child that their actions and words have consequences, so the action-consequence link needs to be a direct one.

3. Communicate the limits only once! Sit your child down for a talk when the atmosphere is calm and you are both in good spirits (never do this during a crisis), and let them know what’s coming.

4. Always follow through! This will only work if your child fully understands that you mean what you say. Kids react to actions, not words. And always stay calm – enforce the boundary with love so that your child doesn’t feel like they’re being punished.

5. When appropriate, let them break a boundary every now and then so that they don’t feel too restricted, but don’t do this too often.


Parenting with love and limits is important in developing a strong , loving, yet authoritative relationship with your children. Make sure to check out our tips, if you’d like to learn more about authoritative parenting skills.

Featured image by Aaron Nace of Phlearn

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