Setting Limits

John Lennon once commented in Rolling Stone magazine that he and Yoko Ono, his wife, had at first thought it would be good to raise their son Sean without many rules. Like many spirited parents of the sixties and seventies, they thought that rules restricted the emotional growth of children. But Lennon and other parents found that thoughtful and realistic rules are not only necessary to development, they help children thrive. Rules and limits — bedtimes, instructions on behavior, overseeing a child's activities — help a child to feel safe and to understand that life is structured and organized. Limits don't only work for children, either. A parent needs to set them so that life with a one-year-old is not out of control.

The Short Rope Theory

Aside from basic safety issues, one-year-olds don't get into the most serious types of trouble — they don't drink and drive, do drugs, or flunk out of high school — so some parents are tempted to let typical one-year-old behavior slide. Why make a big deal out of biting or hitting? Why worry about her running away from you in a store or at the beach as long as you find her quickly? Everyone has seen those parents who let their kids run across the couch, throw food, and not clean up their toys or clothes. After all, these parents reason, the child is only one, and there is plenty of time to teach her how to behave — later.

But involved parents and developmental experts believe that if you give children less behavioral leeway when they are young, you can eventually give them some more freedom as they get older. If a one-year-old grows to understand that her parents are paying attention and giving her consequences and helpful responses to her behavior, chances are that she will be less likely to be out of control when she is older.

Creating Clear Boundaries

Children like rules and boundaries. While there should always be room for horseplay, joking, and an ease of communication, you should make it clear to your one-year-old that you set the rules and you are the grownup. You can do this by being clear and consistent about the rules, meaning that you'll have to repeat yourself a lot to a one-year-old. You can't just say “Be good.” “Be good” is too vague for a one-year-old to understand. You need to be specific, such as “I can't let you climb on the counter because there are hot foods there and you could fall, too.” This information is clear.

Good habits will make things easier for everyone later on in life. For example, if your child learns sooner rather than later how to clean up, you won't have to worry about breaking a bad sloppiness habit as he grows older. If you know he won't run away from you in public, you'll have to worry that much less about him as time goes by. As your child gets better at setting boundaries for himself, you'll be able to trust him to make good, safe decisions as he gets older.

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