People Skills Consulting, Wellington
Articles by Madeleine

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Setting limits with little people


No one sets out to spoil or overindulge a child, but in this day and age, setting boundaries as a parent isn’t easy, writes Madeleine Taylor.

Being a parent today is tough. Coping with everything that is expected of us in order to be a wonderful parent on top of the pressures and demands of modern life… well, it’s a big task!

Parents are busier than ever with work commitments, and many of us struggle to find the time to be the parents we hoped we would be. One of the consequences of being time poor is that when we do spend time with our children, guilt leads us to shower them with gifts or give in to their every demand.



Overindulgence is not the badge of a bad parent. Rather, it comes from having good intentions and a generous heart. But despite those good intentions, the abundance we heap on our kids often tips over into being more than they need or can handle. It’s easy to tip into overindulgence without even realising it.

The good news is, there are plenty of simple steps we can take when our children are very small – even babies – to establish good habits that will make it easier to set boundaries later on. Bear in mind as you read this article that it is offered in a spirit of gentle encouragement. Take note of the things that are important for you and leave the rest.

[subheading] Setting boundaries involves risk

We all want the best for our children and to be loved by them but sometimes setting boundaries means taking the risk that in the short term, our children won’t like us. With an older kid, setting boundaries might mean using a timer to make it clear how much screentime they can have, or taking away a device when a child has spent too much time on it, but what do boundaries look like when a child is very small? How do we teach boundaries to babies?


[subheading] What are boundaries?

Physical boundaries provide safety from tangible dangers – e.g. a road barrier indicates a dangerous high road and mostly we don’t hit it or go over it. We need the same for emotional boundaries. As a parent your job is to help your child develop these internal limits. First, by deciding what the limits are, then, by enforcing them. Parents need to give their children time and space to learn, to practise, to make mistakes and learn from these mistakes.

Your child’s development

Understanding what your child needs to be doing in the early stages of their development helps you make decisions about how to respond as parent. Believe it or not, there is plenty you can start to do before your baby is born.

The prenatal stage

The “becoming” stage lays the ground work for all stages that follow. The baby’s body is developing (if all goes well) to a full-term infant with life-supporting systems intact or ready to grow to full potential. At the same time the new being is making life-shaping decisions in response to the environment of the womb.

What the child is doing: growing and developing body systems; experiencing being separate and connected at the same time; taking nourishment, acceptance, reassurance and love; moving – (perhaps by week 10); gaining familiarity with the mother, voices and early language acquisition; forming deep decisions about trust.

How parents can help: exercise, rest and eat well. Allow the baby to grow and provide a healthy environment. Accept your baby’s existence and speak to your baby while developing your responsibility to parent this new being. Increase your commitment to love and care for and develop warmth toward the prenatal infant.

Birth to six months

The “being” stage is about deciding to be, to live, to thrive, to trust, to call out to have needs met, to expect to have needs met, to be joyful.

What the child is doing: calling for care, crying or otherwise signalling to get needs met, accepting touch and nurture, bonding emotionally, learning to trust caring and safe adults and self, and deciding to live and to be.

How parents can help: affirm your child and provide loving and consistent care by responding to the infant’s needs and feelings with confidence. Think for your baby, hold and look at the baby while feeding. Talk to your child and echo your child’s sounds and provide nurture by touching, looking, talking and singing. Get help when you are unsure of how to care for baby, be reliable and trustworthy, and allow/seek help from others to nurture you.

Six months to eighteen months

The “doing” stage is when the child decides to trust others, discovers what is safe and wonderful to explore, begins to trust their own senses, to know what they know, be creative, active, and to get support.

What the child is doing: exploring and experiencing the environment while developing sensory awareness; signalling needs to trust others and self, which helps to form secure attachments with caregivers and develop the expectation that they will get help in times of stress. By starting to learn that there are options, and not all problems are easily solved, they will be developing initiative.

How parents can help: affirm the child in what they are doing and continue to offer love and a safe environment. Continue to provide food, nurturing touch and encouragement alongside a range of sensory experiences. Such as; massage, peek-a-boo, music, patty-cake, pots and pans, blocks, soft toys, going outside to feel wet, cold and be in nature. Refrain from interrupting the child where possible, try to say ‘yes’ to two things for every no, and aim to report on, rather than interpret, the child’s behaviour. For example, “Keone is looking in the mirror,” rather than, “Keone likes looking at himself in the mirror.” Echo sounds your child makes and talk to the child a lot while responding when the child initiates play. Remember, taking care of your own needs is a critical part of this, and each stage.

Eighteen months to three years

The “thinking” stage where children begin to separate from their parents. Children must learn to think and solve problems, and express and handle their feelings.

What the child is doing: establishing the ability to think for themselves, as well as testing reality, pushing against boundaries and the authority of others. They will be learning to think and solve problems with cause-and-effect thinking. They will start to follow simple safety commands such as come, wait, stop, go, stay here, while beginning to express anger and other feelings. They will practice how to separate from parents without losing their love, and start to give up beliefs about being the centre of the universe. They will learn to do simple chores which will help develop their confidence.

How parents can help: affirm the child and continue to offer warmth, cuddling, love, safety and protection. Encourage cause-and-effect thinking. Provide time for the child to think. Expect the child to think about their feelings and start to think about other’s feelings. Celebrate the child’s new thinking ability and help the child make transitions from one activity to another. Teach your child the names of things; provide reasons, show them how to do simple chores, and accept positive and negative expression of feelings. Teach alternative choices for expressing negative feelings instead of hitting or biting. For example “You are angry because Keone has the toy, you must not bite him, instead choose another toy.” This is the time to set reasonable limits and enforce them. Avoid win/lose battles by giving simple, clear directions the child can follow. “You must hold my hand when we cross the road.” You will be encouraging and praising achievement as well as teaching the child basic safety commands e.g. come, go, sit, stay, wait. Think of, and refer to, the child as a “Terrific Two,” and continue to take care of your own needs.

Consequences for a broken rule – stand out of the way of your child’s learning

It’s normal for parents to not want to see their child in distress. However, if you solve the problem when it is the child’s to solve, then the child will not learn that they need to pay attention and will not develop the skills to problem-solve themselves. For example, if the child is trying to climb at the park and they are frustrated it may be tempting to make the challenge less difficult by helping them up. Instead say – “That is tough for you, you are frustrated, keep going and you will get there.” Similarly, it is crucial for a child to learn to have a limit or expectation of behaviour enforced by a parent and to learn to accept a consequence for their action or a decision made. For example, a family rule may be when children are out visiting that they will behave well. If the child acts up then you enforce the consequence. There may be an escalation until the child learns you mean to stick to the rule.

Struggling is normal – for you and for the child

You will be doing a great job as a parent when your child has struggles from time to time. A firm parent is not the ‘bad cop’. A child may not like the parent for a very brief time when the limits or consequences are being set, but it is the job of the parent to do so, thereby establishing clear expectations of acceptable behaviour. In fact, you will be loved by your child for creating a stable and predictable home environment. You are parenting for the long-term benefits of your child, yourself, your family and for society as whole!

Our modern world creates pressures on parents that are unprecedented. Consumerism, media and technology can lead parents to respond in three distinct ways:

To give too much of what looks good for a child, for example providing too many activities for the child or allowing a young child to spend all day in front of a device

To do things for children that they need to learn to do for themselves, for example – feeding a child when they are able to feed themselves

Failing to set limits or allowing boundaries to be broken with no consequence. For example – giving children too much licence over what they might eat or watch on a device in terms of both content and time

Parenting against the tide of modern life isn’t easy. We are living in a culture of abundance – and when that abundance becomes overindulgence our children get into trouble. This world makes it difficult for children to learn basic life lessons that will help them become likeable, competent members of the family – and later on, responsible and respectful members of their communities.

[break out box]

What’s a marshmallow parent?

We all parent from a good heart and none of us plan to make mistakes. A marshmallow parent has agreed limits, rules and boundaries but lets them go when it becomes too difficult or the child acts up too much. It is also where parents give authority to the child when that is not good for the child. This behaviour teaches the child to become irresponsible. For example – you might have a rule about behaving while out but the child nags and nags at the supermarket and while you might say ‘no’ for a while, the nagging continues to the check-out and to avoid an embarrassing scene the parent gives in to the child. Over time this can escalate until the child becomes in charge of when the rules are set.

Madeleine Taylor is a people skills consultant with over two decades of experience as a life coach, facilitator and mediator. She has special interest in raising resilient children, and many of her ideas are taken from the book How Much is Too Much? – Raising Likeable, responsible, Respectful children – from Toddlers to Teens – in an Age of Overindulgence, by Jean Illsley Clarke, Connie Dawson and David Bredehoft, which she uses as a teaching tool. For more information visit

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