Teaching Acceptable Limits

As soon as your child can reach, pull, walk, and talk, it's time to teach acceptable limits. Here's how to get those lessons to stick.


The frustration of trying to teach proper behavior to a 1-year-old is something all parents share. Whether you're attempting to elicit please and thank you, prohibit pinching, or encourage sharing, getting a toddler to do as you say can be an epic struggle. The reasons lie in both the milestones and the limitations of development during this second year of life.

The Thrill of the Skill

Between the ages of 1 and 2, children make astonishing cognitive leaps, but their comprehension is still enormously undeveloped. When it comes to rules, what we call common sense simply doesn't exist for them yet, says Fred Rothbaum, Ph.D., a professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts. In addition, he says, toddlers don't have the ability to anticipate what others want.

It's no wonder, then, that 20-month-old David Seim had no idea that his mother, Dawn, would be angry when he colored all over the wall. "Scribbling on big, blank sheets of paper has always been okay, and it's lots of fun," says Seim, of Charleston, South Carolina. "But now I somehow have to explain why the wall, which looks pretty much like a big, blank sheet of paper, is definitely not okay."

Toddlers' limited capacity to understand language adds to the difficulty of teaching them what's allowed and what isn't. "One-year-olds have some rudimentary use of words and a little comprehension," Dr. Rothbaum says. "But language on its own is not a powerful way to communicate with a 1- or a 1½-year-old." Long verbal explanations basically pass toddlers by.

In fact, even the relatively simple words and ideas that may accompany your lessons are often too advanced. The notion of hot, for instance, is difficult to get across. Concepts of time are even more bewildering. That's why it's pointless to ask your son to "wait a minute" for you to get off the phone before you read to him: What on earth is a minute?

Young children also have an extremely hard time delaying gratification of their desires and impulses, even if holding off means getting something better later, says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib (William Morrow and Company, 1999). In one study, researchers placed a candy in front of kids and told them that if they waited ten minutes before eating it, they would get two candies. Universally, the toddlers grabbed that one piece. It's a huge job for a toddler to wait his turn, because he doesn't perceive a payoff; it's simpler to snatch the shovel he wants from another child's hands.

Your child's developmental advances can also work against your immediate objectives. Sara Berwald, for instance, is thrilled with her new ability to push the TV's power button and wants to try out her skill repeatedly. When she peers at her parents, it's not to show how devious she is but rather to receive confirmation of what she is learning: When I touch this, Daddy's face crinkles up and he says, "No!"

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