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Positive Discipline: Structure and Limits

This is part two of a four part series on Positive Discipline (or positive parenting).  Over the next four weeks I will focus on four key areas of positive discipline.  Last week I discussed the importance of conducting self-evaluations.  Please feel free to send questions in the comment form if you are looking for more specific information.

Providing structure and setting clear limits are essential to positive parenting.

For reasons I can’t quite understand, many parents have a strong aversion to using structure.  Some parents feel that it’s impossible to stick to a set structure given the changing demands of day-to-day life.  Others feel a less structured environment will create a more relaxed feeling in the house.  And some just don’t know where to start.

Structure, as it pertains to parenting, means having a general plan.  It means breaking up the day into manageable blocks of time and using consistency when it comes to eating and sleeping.

Structure means predictability.

Young children thrive in predictable environments.  When they know what comes next, they don’t have to worry.  When they know what’s happening, they feel safe and secure.  They feel in control of their own environments.

Not every day will be the same.  Classes, preschool, doctor visits, grocery shopping, play dates, etc. will make each day seem different.  Different experiences are fun and exciting for young children.  They learn by experience.  My kids even love a trip to the grocery store.  Choosing fruit has become a favorite pastime.  As long as they’re not hungry or tired, that is.

Keeping the timeframe the same helps them feel safe, settled and in control.

They feel safe when they know what to expect.

Tips for creating a daily structure:

Break up your days into manageable blocks of time (i.e. breakfast, play time, quiet activity, snack, outdoor activity, lunch, etc).

Keep meal and snack times consistent, even if that means snacking on the go.

Shift to quiet activities before the kids start to become over-stimulated.

Naptime and bedtime should occur at the same time each day/night.

Post lists for morning and nighttime jobs on bedroom doors to help kids know what they should be doing.

Try to stick to your general schedule during vacations and holidays.

Involving your children in meal preparation is a great transition from unstructured play to a quiet activity.

Quiet time is a must!  Whether or not your child naps, there should be a block of time dedicated to quiet time (45-75 minutes) to help your child decompress and regroup.

*All people who care for your children should follow your structure to maintain consistency.  Post a schedule to help caretakers know how to keep things moving.

Setting clear limits has the same effect as providing structure:  It helps your child know what to expect.  It creates and atmosphere of predictability.

It’s nearly impossible to follow the rules if you have no understanding of the rules.  It’s nearly impossible to follow the rules if the rules are constantly changing.  It is impossible to follow the rules if there aren’t any rules to follow.

Children need to know what is expected of them.

One of the most common parenting mistakes that I come across in my practice is failure to set clear limits.  Often there are so many rules in any given house that it’s very difficult to remember each one, or the rules change on a daily basis.

Setting limits (or establishing rules) means making a list of negative behaviors that need to be avoided in order to keep everyone feeling safe and secure.  It doesn’t mean slapping a new rule onto every little behavior that causes a small moment of frustration.

Tips for setting clear limits:

Choose 4-5 negative behaviors to focus on, such as:  No hitting, no yelling, no teasing, etc.

Post the rules (with pictures beside each rule for non-readers) in the most frequented room of the house.

Review the rules often, both after a rule is broken and just during a quiet moment

Choose 4-5 positive replacement behaviors (i.e. ask for help, give a hug, do a silly dance, etc)

Post the positive behaviors next to the rules and review often.

If a rule needs changing, so does this list.  Explain it to the kids immediately.  Review often.

Remain calm when reviewing the rules after a rule is broken.

Help your child choose a replacement behavior that works for him.

Replace rules as they grow, but don’t keep adding on.  Too many rules can be difficult to remember and follow.

At two, my son can list off our five core house rules and the six replacement behaviors that we created as a family.  It doesn’t mean he won’t test the limits from time to time, but he knows exactly what is expected of him (and when he pushes it too far).

Providing structure and setting clear limits shows your children that you are thinking of their safety and welfare.  It shows them that you will be there for them, no matter what.  It shows them just how much you love them.

How do you structure your days?  Do have specific limits or rules?

Check back next week for information on positive reinforcement.

Katie is a Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist/Parenting Consultant in Los Angeles, CA.  She has a four year old daughter, two year old son, and a rock and roll husband who makes her life complete. Katie has a parenting advice blog at can also be found on Twitter.



Saturday 24th of September 2011

THANK YOU!!! For being so precise! I am a mother that has "lost control" of the house rules and the only advice I have been able to get is "you better get it under control now!" With explaining exactly 4-5 rules and having a alternative board, I am feeling much more positive about gaining control again! I look forward to your next posts!!!

Practical Parenting

Wednesday 5th of October 2011

It's always fun when people say, "get it under control"...what does that mean??!! I'm so glad you are finding this helpful. Feel free to contact me directly through my site if you have any other specific concerns.

Clayton Thomas

Friday 23rd of September 2011

Super post Katie- Structure IS the key with the most difficult children I have worked with. The tips for setting clear limits were great as well. Even teachers should have a list like what you suggested.

Practical Parenting

Wednesday 5th of October 2011

Thanks, Clayton. It's's amazing what some structure can do, even for difficult children!

Missy | The Literal Mom

Thursday 22nd of September 2011

Great, great, great. My children's hardest time to function is when the structure goes away. It's soooooo important. Thanks for this great post.

Practical Parenting

Wednesday 5th of October 2011

Mine are always hard because of this. We try to keep the same structure even when away, but they are creatures of habit!

VA Blondie

Thursday 22nd of September 2011

My child is 20 months old. Can I start some of these things at his age? And will he eventually get it if I keep at it? He is not so great at following directions. (Unless it fits with his objectives.)

Any advice for positive discipline for stubborn and very active toddlers?

Practical Parenting

Wednesday 5th of October 2011

Yes! You should absolutely start setting limits and teaching replacement behaviors. Toddlers are impulsive and require frequent reminders...but the sooner you start, the sooner they understand and internalize new ways of doing things.

Practical Parenting

Thursday 22nd of September 2011

Thank you, my friend :)