Testing the limits is absolutely a toddler's job

Discipline. It’s a complex topic, and inevitably brings up many issues around how we were raised (the past) and what types of manners or values we want to instill in children (the future). As the founder of RIE® Magda Gerber said, “we are raising children based on how we were raised, yet we are preparing them for an unknown future. The whole thing is absurd.” Needless to say, discipline tends to be a charged topic for many parents and caregivers.

But what is discipline? For starters, Magda didn’t like using that word. It infers that children are more incompetent or fragile than they actually are. Believing a child is competent is fundamentally different than approaching a child as if they were helpless. She preferred creating “natural consequences” when limits are crossed. Setting limits with natural consequences allows can and ensure the child will make the socially appropriate choice.

But first, let me say this: it’s a toddler’s job to test the limits; that is what they are supposed to do.

I love this explanation because it means that our job is to enforce and reinforce the limits, and not to be tentative or charged with emotion when toddlers continue to “disobey.” Then why is it still difficult to set a limit? Do we think that the child is not competent or fragile? Do we feel guilty about their discomfort?

Infants and toddlers test everything in their environment all the time. Just as they want to fully understand the properties of a toy, they’re also trying to make sense of our reactions and how they may change, or not, in a given situation. Toddlers are constantly working out cause-and effect–and this doesn’t stop until their curiosity is satisfied. They want to know the limit; they need to see if our reaction is the same each and every time.

Setting a limit once and then backing away from it the second time sends a mixed message and causes confusion. Be direct and consistent, so there is no ambivalent energy behind our words or actions. Toddlers will immediately sense indecision and their reaction to you will reflect it. Stay strong in the belief that you’re helping them on the long journey of learning how to make socially appropriate choices. A consistent reinforcement of limits is the beginning of a toddler’s long process of initiating and maintaining positive social relationships with others.