Toddlers and preschoolers need you to set rules and limits

Spoiled kids expect to get their way all of the time. They don’t think rules apply to them, and they get everything they ask for. Worst yet, they are rude to other kids and even adults. No one wants to raise a spoiled, self-indulgent child. A key to making sure the word spoiled is not attached to your toddler or preschooler comes back to setting rules and limits. Through limits, you send the message that you, not your child, is in charge. Here are three ways to ward off spoiling.

1. Don’t do it for them

One mistake parents make is doing too much for their young children. As a parent, sometimes it’s easier—and faster when you are late to preschool or daycare—to do tasks for them, from picking up their toys to tying their shoes. Kids who learn from a young age that they are responsible for their own things—and that everyone pitches in—are less likely to act spoiled. In fact, studies show that kids who grow up with chores and responsibilities adjust better to life after home. They have more patience, are more flexible, and have a “can do” attitude when facing challenges on their own. 

Have your toddler start helping you with simple chores. Young kids will remember and accept chores easier if it is a part of their daily routine. For example, have your toddler put her dirty clothes in the hamper when changing into her pajamas at bedtime. Or when she eats breakfast, she helps get the dog breakfast, too.  

2. Set limits and stick to them

Did you know that rules and limits actually make young kids feel secure? Toddlers and preschoolers thrive on routine and consistency. If you find yourself battling with your young child, allow her some power through simple choices, as in, ‘We need to go to the store. Do you want to wear your tennis shoes or your strappy sandals?’ The idea is to build freedom within limits. Simple either-or, if-then, when-then choices work great. For example, ‘When you pick up your toys, then we can go to the park.’

When you set new rules and stand strong, your toddler won’t like it. He’ll notice the change and kick up his undesirable behavior to get you to behave like you did before. But don’t give up. His resistance is actually a sign that the new rule is working. The key is patience—it may take days or even weeks before your child falls in line, but if you stick with the new rule, or behavior (like ignoring tantrums), he will eventually accept it.

3. Consequence rude, unsafe or aggressive behavior

Your toddler wasn’t born knowing how to treat others. That’s where simple, black and white rules come in, as in, ‘You hit, you sit’ or, ‘We don’t call names (or yell, or scream, or whine). When we do we have to take a time out.’ When delivered in a firm, yet calm, voice—without falter—toddlers will learn to accept these rules as just the way the world works. Also, don’t underestimate the power of not reacting when your young child is whining or protesting. No response is sometimes the most effective response. Finally, praise kind, respectful and thoughtful behavior.

When conversing with toddlers, the golden rule is to say what you want in as few words as possible. They don’t need to be okay with the rule or appreciate why you have it. A direct, ‘Time for bed’ works much better than a wishy-washy, ‘What do you say we get ready for bed?’

With toddlers, you want to pick your battles and consequence only those actions that really matter. Too many rules and too many consequences become ineffective and overwhelming. Parents often rank items involving safety and cruelty as non-negotiables. Finally, resist falling into the trap of wanting to please your kids rather than lead your kids. Kids need you to lead, even when they act like they don’t.