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Setting Limits

“To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control, is to betray the idea of freedom ... Real freedom, instead, is a consequence of development; it is the development of latent guides, aided by education.” – Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind.

When you are trying to implement clear and consistent boundaries and your child continues climbing on the furniture, running away from you on a busy street, throwing things on the floor or refusing to tidy anything away, you might start wondering what you are doing wrong and start losing your cool. In such difficult moments try to pause and remember the following:

· Your child is doing exactly what he/she is supposed to

Limit testing is an important part of child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Children explore what is safe, acceptable and exercise their autonomy too. If your child screams and pushes you away, remember, the frustration is not about you even if it might feel like it.

· They are going to keep testing

To understand the limits, children need skills such as impulse control and attention shifting. Developing these skills takes years as the functions of their brain develop over time. Therefore, your child needs to test the limits repeatedly in order to understand and learn from them.

What does it mean to have limits?

Limits from Montessori perspective are all about balance of freedom and following the social expectations. In Montessori classroom, the children can freely move, choose what they want to work on and work on their skills without limitation of time or interruption. This freedom comes with the limits that are based on the respect towards others and the environment. The key is to give children as much freedom and as much responsibility they can handle and with the responsibility we also give them knowhow and time to practice the skills in safe and prepared environment.

Why children need limits?

Young children do not know yet what is best for them in terms of safety, learning and social interaction. It is us adults who do have that knowledge and therefore it is our responsibility to take the lead. If you feel uncomfortable setting up limits because you don’t like seeing your child upset and frustrated please know that your child will crave limits anyway and it will get worse over time. Limits provide a sense of security. When children don’t know what the limits are, they feel lost, confused and many times they just bounce around trying to find some. Limits make children feel that we care about them. On the contrary, children who grow up without any limits often feel abandoned. A child with unlimited freedom may become an adult who will not accept the authority of teachers, other adults, employers, and even laws. Furthermore, children need limits because they:

· learn to recognise other people’s limits as well as their own;

· learn what is socially acceptable and that there are consequences;

· learn how to deal with frustration and anxiety;

· develop self-discipline;

· develop empathy and awareness of other people’s needs and feelings;

· learn how to make healthy choices;

· develop perseverance, concentration and confidence.

What can we expect when we start setting limits?

You might expect that your child will test you. They will try everything in their power to test multiple times whether you really mean what you say and you don’t change your mind about it. They cannot reason like adults can, and they will not explain to you why they test you because they simply don’t have that answer. They follow the urge to test your commitment or learn from the experience. Consistency is the key here. Say what you mean and mean what you say. If you tell a child not to do something and then let them to do it, the child begins to distrust what you are saying and won’t pay attention to it next time. A young child can not differentiate when to do something or not do something. Our ability to set clear boundaries and constantly enforce them leads a child to feel that you present constant safe space in their life.

Children need to understand

‘Because I said so’ is not good enough if you want your child to follow. Even if we have been repeating ourselves over and over, it is very important to have a reason for setting a limit and being able to communicate it to our children. Not only does this show that you respect them, it also gives them a chance to rationalise the limits on their own time. We can appeal on their and other’s safety, care of the environment and things in it, feelings of others, care of self, etc. Once you know that they understand the reasons behind the limits enforce the further understanding by asking questions instead of giving them the answers. For example: ‘’What do we do with our toys after we finish playing with them?’’ or ‘’What might happen if we run across the busy street without mummy or daddy?’’ In this way the children will get to think about the reasons behind the limits and accept the limits easier and faster.

Model, create, and maintain order.

Show how to put toys away. Keep just a few toys on the shelves and rotate them from a cupboard to keep the play area always fresh and tidy. If you model putting things away, your child will eventually do the same. Children like their world to have order. You can help them by cheerfully saying, 'I wonder where the blocks go when we are finished?' An orderly environment supports your toddler in structuring his own mind.

Do what you want your child to do. What you do is more important than what you say. If you want your child to only eat seated at the table then you need to do this yourself, not while walking around, talking on the phone, or in the car. Your child cannot accept that it is different for you.

Setting limits with love

· Get down to their height and maintain eye contact when you talk to them.

· Don’t raise your voice. Be firm but loving.

· Go to the child rather than shout from where you are.

· Manage your own anger. Leave the room if you need a moment.

· Show respect and empathy when they are angry, frustrated or sad.

· Keep them safe if they lose control.

Use positive language to redirect.

If you overuse negative language such as ‘No’ or ‘Don’t, it will lose its meaning over time especially if you don’t follow through or you don’t give them the explanation. Phrase your requests as positive statements, such as ‘The fruits go in the bowl’ rather than ‘Don’t throw the fruits on the floor.’ Instead of ordering, 'Get off the table', lift your climbing toddler off the table and say, 'Feet stay on the floor'. Or instead of saying ‘Don’t hit me!’ you can rephrase it as ‘It hurts when you hit me. I see that you are upset. Can you say it with words instead?’ What is important here is to make your child understand why there is a rule and what he/she can do instead. Focus on what the child should be doing and not on what he/she is not allowed to do.

Too few or too many limits

Freedom within limits requires balance. We might impose too strict limits or give a child freedom that the child can’t handle. Signs of too few limitations are that a child display attention seeking behaviour as a result of a need for structure that hasn’t been met. This behaviour is a communication. The child is telling us that he/she is confused about what the boundaries are and needs guidance to appropriate activity.

On the other side, when a child is given too little freedom or our expectations are not age appropriate and unrealistic the children will not seek attention, but rather look for ways around the limits. They will have power struggles with you because they feel that have very little control over their life.

Prevention is the best

The best prevention is to avoid situations where you know your child will end up frustrated: when a child is overtired, underfed, thirsty, stressed, over stimulated or given too little opportunities to do something purposeful or given too much freedom without set boundaries.

If you set up a safe and stimulating space for your child to explore, the number of opportunities to test the limits will be reduced significantly. Make sure that the environment promotes independence and things that you don’t want your child to touch are out of reach.

We also have to ask ourselves whether the undesired behaviour is a result of testing limits or a desire to refine a skills or whether it is simply a physical need of a child. When your child wants to climb and run inside, make sure he/she has plenty of opportunities to be outside. Then you can explain that we use ‘walking feet’ inside and we can run outside. If your child keeps throwing things on the floor, he/she just might want to develop new skills such as hand-eye coordination, gross motor skills and understanding of cause and effect. If that’s the case, then set up a basket, box or designated area where your child can throw stuffed animals, soft balls, etc. and master those skills over time.

If your child gets frustrated because he/she does not want to wear clothes that you prepared for him/her in the morning, the child might just feel left out of the decision making. Give your child an opportunity to make choices; however, limit them and give them time. Before going to bed give him/her the opportunity to choose from a couple of outfits. The child will feel respected, included in the decision making and you might have much easier morning the next day.

Rewards and Punishments vs. Natural and Logical consequences

Rewards such as ‘if you go to bed, you can get ice cream tomorrow’ or punishments such as ‘if you don’t stop screaming and running, there is no TV time today’, has never worked long term. It doesn't give the child any feedback or alternatives on more appropriate behaviours. On the contrary, natural and logical consequences are empowering for children. They leave the child in control of the situation and provide valuable learning opportunities. When children experience a natural consequence of their behaviour, chances are the experience itself will teach them what they need to learn. E.g. your child refuses to eat his/her dinner and as a result he/she will go sleep hungry.

Logical consequences on the other hand are imposed by adults and are directly related to the action of the child. For example, you take your child to a birthday party. Your child is unkind to others and tests yours and other children’s patience. The logical consequence would be that he/she has to leave the party early. You would tell your child that he/she can try to consider other people’s feelings next time. We must be careful and avoid shaming the child, and to present the situation in such a way that the child is not defined by the behaviour. The behaviour is simply something the child did that we would like to teach them not to do.

It takes time and patience

It is easy to get caught up in giving in to our children’s every desire. The good news is, we don’t have to do that to make them feel loved. Our children look up to us and want us to be the adults in their lives. Each and every child deserves adults who love and respect them for who they are, while also holding kind and firm expectations. It takes a lot of patience and time but it is so worthwhile as our children grow up to be confident, kind, self-disciplined, respectful and respected human beings.

Eva is our manager at Little Gems Montessori in Larnaca. Something often misunderstood in a Montessori setting is the concept “freedom” where people seem to think that children in a Montessori setting are free to do whatever they want to do. Freedom within a Montessori classroom has limits – an agreement of ground rules and boundaries. And, as everyone knows what the agreement entails, it works wonderful! Everyone knows what is expected and what to expect. Therefore, we can do what we like to do! Please contact us should you want to learn more about “freedom within limits”. Email:


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