Setting Respectful Limits for Toddlers (with Confidence and Love)

I have been thinking a lot about limits over the past few days. After a week of being a single parent while DH was on vacation with friends, things with J were running pretty smoothly. I went the entire week without losing it once or even really ever getting frustrated. That was a real accomplishment for me! At first, I attributed it to having no one to fall back on and having to just make it work. Over the last couple of days though, I’ve realized that it probably has more to do with the fact that I’m finally really feeling confident in setting limits. J is 20 months old and not particularly verbal, but very communicative. He is also extremely physical, inquisitive, and persistent. Those are all wonderful qualities in a person, but in a toddler, they can be exhausting! It means my little guy is constantly climbing something, messing with the dogs, pulling everything out of a cupboard or box or off a shelf, and doing it over and over and over again.

This post was inspired by a fellow Tongonti who said, “I often wonder why so many people hate children.” My response to her, which I didn’t think was particularly enlightened at the time was, “Because they don’t understand that if you say it once, enforce it, and relax, it’s not nearly so hard!”

It was inspired by all the times I’ve heard a parent say to their toddler, “We don’t hit!” “We don’t throw toys.” “We don’t pull the dog’s tail.” “Ouch! We don’t hurt people!” Does this sound like you? Read on!

It was also inspired by my husband, who I will pick on for a moment for the sake of example. (Honey, I want you to know I do it sometimes too and so do the vast majority of peaceful parents I know, so this is not personal and you’re a wonderful daddy!) The other day, my sweet husband was taking J for a diaper change upstairs. He gathered the necessary supplies and told J, “Let’s go upstairs and change your diaper! Come on!” then went on his way up the stairs. I watched J go off to do something else. DH called again, “J! Come on upstairs so we can change your diaper!” Still no movement from J in the direction of the stairs. I bit my tongue and watched. DH called again, still being sweet, but I could tell he was getting a little exasperated – Why isn’t he listening? He knows he needs his diaper changed and I’m being so positive about it, but he’s just not listening! I called up the stairs and asked if I could share something I learned. “He’s not coming!” I said, laughing. So M came downstairs, picked J up, and carried him upstairs. The whole exchange took almost five minutes. It’s no wonder people don’t like toddlers – chasing them around, repeating yourself constantly, and talking to yourself all day – it’s exhausting work!

“If you say it once, enforce it, and relax, it’s not nearly so hard!”

Here’s what I would have done instead:

  1. Give a warning. I would say, “J, your diaper is wet and you need a clean, dry diaper on your bottom. I am going to pick up this laundry to carry upstairs with us and then we will go change your diaper.”
  2. Give a (simple) choice. Having collected the laundry as promised, I would make sure he is paying attention to me and say, “Alright, I have all the laundry. It’s time to go upstairs now. Would you like to walk or be carried? You decide.” The choice part is very important, because it supports J’s feeling of autonomy, which makes him feel good, which in turn makes him more likely to cooperate with me in the future.
  3. Acknowledge and follow through. I usually give about ten seconds for him to make a choice; you will have to see what interval is appropriate for your child. Another mommy friend once told me she counts to ten in her head more to shut herself up than because the interval is particularly important. It really works to keep me from harping on it if I can’t say anything else for a full ten seconds. If he chooses, I move to Step 5. However, it’s most likely that he will not make a choice, or will try to go in the opposite direction. In that case, I would say, “I see you don’t want to go upstairs now. It’s time to change your diaper, so I will carry you.”
  4. Empathize, but keep moving. If he accepts the limit, I move to Step 5. If he becomes upset, I acknowledge his feelings, but I keep moving toward the goal. In this case, hold him so he can’t throw himself too far or hurt me. I like the example Dr. Jane Nelsen gives in Positive Discipline: The First Three Years (affiliate link) when she says, “Imagine a tree, its roots anchoring it deep into the ground… When the wind blows, the tree’s branches sway in gentle arcs but its grip on that small nest remains firm.” This is the image I conjure in my head while I am holding space for J’s upset – firm, but flexible – I sway with him to allow for his emotions, but I do not break in the storm.
  5. Let it go. Finally, I would move on. His feelings do not reflect on me, because they are his. He has his feelings, I set limits, no grudges are held, and we move on. It’s easier not to bear resentment when the whole interaction took less than one minute and very little energy on my part. No punishments were doled out, I didn’t nag, he got to express himself and maybe even work off some pent up negative feelings, and his diaper got changed. The next time I set this limit will be new and I will not carry any negative feelings from this moment to the next.

This is the image I conjure in my head while I am holding space for J’s upset – firm, but flexible – I sway with him to allow for his emotions, but I do not break in the storm.

This formula works in many situations. Magda Gerber talked about discipline and different situations where limits are necessary: “Those things a child is expected to do (non-negotiable areas), what she is allowed to do (negotiable areas), what is tolerated (“I don’t really like that, but I can understand why you need to do it.”), and what is forbidden.” I will give examples of how each one works in our house.

Non-Negotiable: Washing hands after using the potty

“It’s time to wash hands now… I know you want to go get your diaper back on so you can play. We will get your diaper after you wash your hands. Would you like to walk to the sink by yourself, or do you need help?”

Negotiable: Climbing on Mama (Sometimes I let him, sometimes I don’t)

“I don’t want you to climb on me right now… I see you really want to climb, but I don’t want to be climbed on. Please find something else to do (or If you want to climb, you may climb your slide).”

Tolerated: Banging his fork on his tray or making other annoying sounds

Say nothing. This is the best response, because the more opportunities you can find to allow tolerated actions, the easier you will find it to set limits when necessary. If you must say something, make it as unexciting as possible, so as not to encourage repeat performances for the sole purpose of eliciting the same response.

Forbidden: Pulling the dog’s tail or legs, climbing on the dog, poking the dog’s face; climbing the furniture; hitting mama

Try to stop these from occurring if at all possible. If you can prevent it, “I won’t let you” is appropriate. If you catch it too late, “You may not” is more authentic.

“<block his hand> I won’t let you pull D’s tail. She doesn’t like it. <Help him move away> We will let her have some space now and she will come back when you are being gentle. <Offer the dog a chance to go to another room behind a gate> Thank you for giving her space.”

“You may not climb on the speaker. You may come down yourself or I will help you get down… I am going to lift you down now… Please find something else to do. Thank you for cooperating.”

“<block his hand> I won’t let you hit me. Hitting hurts. You may rest your hand on my chest. If you hit me, we will be done nursing.” ← I really will stop nursing if he hits me again. This is a big one. No more warnings, no second chances, no excuses or thinking “Well, it’s been awhile since I warned him” or “He was just excited”. One more hit, and nursing is done for now. I have been doing this for many months, so at this point, if he hits me on purpose, nursing is done immediately, without any warnings. He knows this, so it doesn’t come as a surprise.

With each of these situations, it is important to have an awareness of normal toddler behavior. Toddlers have little or no impulse control, so you will have to set the same limit over and over again. The point I want to make here is that each time you do set a limit, you say what you mean (in as few words as possible), mean what you say, and do what you say you’ll do (firmly, gently, and with love). If you are confident in yourself, your toddler will be confident in you and will be more likely to trust you and cooperate with future limits. This type of limit setting feels like it will take more time, but for a relatively small investment of mindfulness up front, you will actually save a lot of energy in the long run. So when especially when I’m feeling tired and run down, I try to make the effort to set limits effectively the first time so I don’t have to do it 30 times. Who ever thought being firm and decisive would be the easy way out?

How do you set respectful limits?

Autonomy Quote

I highly recommend starting here for some additional reading on setting respectful limits with toddlers:



DISCLOSURE: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I receive no benefit from other links not marked as affiliate links.

11 thoughts on “Setting Respectful Limits for Toddlers (with Confidence and Love)

  1. Thank you I needed this! With 3yr old twins I sometimes just feel drained. I needed some more ways to word some things. Hitting is making the rounds again was worse after daddy deployed went away and back. 🙁

    • That sounds really tough, Virginia! The best thing I have found about setting firm limits is that it pushes the child out of the testing, trying stuff and gives them an “excuse” to let it all out. Every time I set a limit, I’m prepared for J to lose it, but I don’t fear that anymore. I see it as an opportunity for him to let go of some baggage and start feeling good again. In that respect, setting firm limits is actually a gift to your child. It really helps me to think of it that way.

  2. Tiffany, great post! I have a question on how you would handle something. My daughter K is a very similar age. I do much of what you suggest- for example, when she needs to go and get undressed for the bath, I ask her if she wants to walk or be carried, give her some time to think about it, and then if she doesn’t start walking I say ‘Ok, I’ll carry you then’ and come to get her. As soon as I pick her up, she of course invariably decides she wants to walk. I put her down and off she goes. What would you do in this situation? Just go with it, or carry her once I’ve started so she gets the idea I’ll follow through and maybe eventually stops messing with me?!

    • You know, I used to do exactly what you described. I would let him do it himself, then he would run off to do something else and I would end up having to give him the choice again (or even picking him up to carry him the second time, I would have essentially given him the choice twice) and I would start getting frustrated, feeling like I was repeating myself, and no longer feeling confident in my leadership. Now, once he has made the choice, it’s done and he can choose again next time. I hope this will avoid most cases of 4-year-old waffling (“I want the green one. No, I want the blue one. No…. Um… I want the PINK one!!!” You know what I’m talking about.).

      My sense is a lot of this changing his mind is sort of avoiding the frustration, which may be small or big, but which is contributing to that full “emotional backpack” at the end of the day. If I set firm limits throughout the day, he gets out little frustrations before they build into a full-blown meltdown.

  3. Loved this and your solution to the diaper changing battle and the quote. My son is just over two and when it is time to get changed after naps, he always runs behind his chair and it turns into a 3 minute cycle, “Davis, come here!” Big grin. “Obey?” ” big grin and then as soon as I get up, then he’ll come running. I feel like I let him get away with not listening the first time. How would you handle this?

    • Hmm… It does sound like he’s testing you. Are you able to physically remove him from behind that chair? You don’t want to set yourself up to play chase, so if not, I would wait it out. My gut says that you would wait in front of the chair and say, “Davis, its time to get your diaper changed now. I will wait here until you are ready to come out.” In this case, I would make your response as unexciting as possible as it sounds like its become a bit of a game for him. I would just make it as boring as possible and not make it a power struggle.

      If you’re short on time, and can retrieve him from the corner, I would say, “We need to get you in a clean diaper. You can come out on your own, or I can pick you up? You decide.” Then hold him standing next to the changing table until he is ready to lie down. That’s what works with my son.

  4. Tiffany, thank you so very much for posting this article. I have implemented your suggested wording in various situations in the past few days and how found a significant difference both in my responses and stress levels as well as my toddler’s behaviour. I was hoping for some insight into when hitting another child is involved. I’ve used wording such as ‘we don’t hit it hurts people.” I find that I’ve used this so many times without little effect. I’ve also removed my child from the room and sat quietly with her or told her that if she hits the play-date will stop (and I leave). I feel like I need fresh wording.. do I say “you may not hit, if you hit again we will stop playing”? Di I take away something tangible like a toy or my attention? Any suggestions would be most welcome. Thank you 🙂

    • Thanks, Ania! Hitting anyone (causing pain or damage) falls in the forbidden category in my book.

      “Forbidden: Pulling the dog’s tail or legs, climbing on the dog, poking the dog’s face; climbing the furniture; hitting mama
      Try to stop these from occurring if at all possible. If you can prevent it, “I won’t let you” is appropriate. If you catch it too late, “You may not” is more authentic.
      “ I won’t let you pull D’s tail. She doesn’t like it. We will let her have some space now and she will come back when you are being gentle. Thank you for giving her space.”

      In regard to hitting another child, I would respond similarly to the dog example above, or the mom example. I would not recommend taking away toys or your attention. To a child, those things are unrelated to the hitting, so that will not make sense. Those fall in the category of punishments to me, which I consider ineffective. I would do two things:
      1. Try to identify what emotion is triggering the hitting (excitement, nervousness, fear, jealousy, frustration, anger, pain, etc…) and see how you can validate that emotion.
      2. Try to identify what is causing that emotion and move close to stop the hitting before it happens. If you can do that, you can simply place your hand in between / on both children and say, “I won’t let you hit. Hitting hurts. Gentle. Gentle.” If the hit has already happened, you can say, “you may not hit. Hitting hurts. When you’re feeling ___ and you want to hit, its your job to walk away and ask a grownup for help. Lets go sit over here for a little while until you’re feeling better.”

      I think it’s important to remember a couple things: make sure your limit is reasonable and the consequence (if a natural one doesn’t automatically present itself) is one you’re willing to follow through on every. single. time. Does that make sense? Also, bring to your interactions an awareness that your toddler doesn’t have the same impulse control as even, say, a preschooler. She is likely to hit before she even realizes why she’s upset, which is why it’s so important for you to try to identify it before it happens.

      One other thing — if she does hit and you aren’t able to block it, let her see you make amends to the hit child. Don’t do it from a perspective of seeing bully and victim, but model this process for her and it will help her to develop empathy for others. You’ll have to see when the appropriate moment is, but I’d suggest a quick apology to the other child in the moment (“A, I’m sorry B hit you. We will be back in a little while.”) then later you can briefly talk to your daughter about making amends (“When you got angry and you hit B, he felt sad. Lets go ask B if we can do anything to help him feel better.”). You can skip talking to her about it if you feel like its too much and just model the apology. You know your daughter best.

      Good grief! That’s like a second article! Also, if you haven’t, check out Janet Lansbury’s article I liked above on hitting.

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