University of Illinois Extension

Setting Limits for School-Age Kids

Janice McCoy, Family Life Educator

We all know that children need limits. Children want to know what the rules are and where parents draw the line for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. According to Ellen Galinsky, a child development expert, "Limits make children feel safe." In addition, rules help school-age children practice decision-making and gain an understanding of natural and logical consequences.

Each family is unique and needs to determine its own rules and limits. Some limits can be negotiated; others may not be up for discussion. For instance, a non-negotiable rule might be completing homework as soon as a child arrives home from school. A negotiable rule might be weekend bedtimes.

Here are a few guidelines to follow when establishing limits:

  • Make sure the limit is necessary. Having as few rules as possible makes it clear to children what is expected of them. Too many rules make children feel overwhelmed and rebellious. Remember that you will have to impose the consequences later - if you can't impose the consequence, consider whether the rule is necessary.
  • When possible, state limits in a positive way. Instead of saying, "No pop in the living room," say, "Keep pop in the kitchen so it doesn't spill."
  • Have your grandchildren help you set the rules. Remember that some are negotiable and some are not. The children only get to help make the negotiable rules.
  • Decide consequences ahead of time. For most limits, you can have a general idea of what will happen if they are broken. If possible, involve the children in deciding consequences. Then when a consequence needs to be imposed, you can simply say to the child, "Remember, you decided what would happen if this rule was broken."
  • Take into consideration your grandchild's abilities and skills. A 4-year-old will not have the same rules as a 12-year-old. In addition, children with developmental delays or other special needs may need different rules from others in the home.
  • VERY IMPORTANT! Once you establish limits, be sure to enforce them consistently. Rules that are not enforced consistently are ineffective.