Parenting Tips

Setting Rules for Toddlers

Setting Rules for Toddlers

As any parent of a toddler can tell you, enforcing rules is hard. Not only is it inherently difficult, but every family enforces rules differently. How can a parent be sure they aren’t being too harsh or too lenient? This article provides a few age-appropriate rules for toddlers and ways to implement them. 

Have you ever had to be the one in your workplace to enforce the rules? Whether it was telling Blake that his neon-green tracksuit wasn’t office-appropriate or telling Tiffany that she can’t microwave her shrimp in the breakroom, laying down the law is uncomfortable for most people. 

A lot of what makes it undesirable is the reactions of others. Blake and Tiffany don’t want to hear your rules any more than you want to give them. Even as adults, this kind of conflict is uncomfortable.

Now, change Blake and Tiffany’s ages to 3 and 4. Instead of tacky clothes and stinky food, you’re dealing with hitting and not wanting to eat. Inexperienced adults might say, “Oh, this will be way easier. If I can convince adults to follow rules, I can get a toddler too, as well.”

And all the parents said …


Guess what? The situation is harder. Kids under 5 aren’t thinking about anyone but themselves. (This sounds harsh, but it’s completely age-appropriate and nothing to be concerned about.) So how can a parent be sure they aren’t being too harsh or too lenient?

The Brain of a Toddler

One of the most important things to understand right from the start is that toddlers are incapable of fully rational thought. Toddlers are in the preoperational stage of cognitive development. Simply put, that means they have a limited ability to understand cause-and-effect relationships, lack logical reasoning skills, and have an egocentric perspective on the world. 

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Parents and guardians can forget that they aren’t dealing with a fully-formed brain when they are trying to establish rules with a toddler. In fact, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain in charge of decision-making and planning) isn’t fully developed until early adulthood. It’s also why adults can look at teenagers, completely baffled, and ask, “Why did you make that decision?” It’s all about that prefrontal cortex.

As you start enforcing rules with your toddler, just remember that their brains are not operating in a way that understands the importance of rules. To them, you’re the unreasonable one. 

Which Rules for Toddlers to Enforce

Bombarding your child with rules and regulations is a bad idea. Their tiny brains can’t remember much yet. So instead of enforcing lots of little rules, pick a handful to really focus on at first. As they get older, you’ll be able to ask them to remember a few more.

Here are a few age-appropriate rules you can work on with your toddler. 

  • Use gentle hands – Toddlers can be prone to hitting or pushing, so establishing a rule about using gentle hands can help prevent these behaviors. This rule can also extend to being gentle with toys and other objects.
  • Say “please” and “thank you” – Teaching toddlers to use polite language can help them develop social skills and show respect to others.
  • Hold hands in public – This rule can help keep toddlers safe when out in public, especially in crowded areas or near traffic.
  • Eat healthy foods – Encouraging toddlers to eat healthy foods can help establish good eating habits and promote healthy growth and development.
  • Clean up after yourself – Teaching toddlers to clean up after themselves, such as putting away toys or wiping up spills, can help them develop responsibility and independence.
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We’re talking about toddlers in this article. Enforcing rules with a child less than a year old is more or less pointless. And keep your expectations very low for effectively enforcing rules with a child younger than 2. Their brains are brand-spanking new and aren’t capable of remembering anything at all. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t start working on something like gentle hands at an early age, but don’t punish your child for not “following the rules.” They literally aren’t capable of understanding concepts like rules or “right and wrong” until they are older.

How to Establish Rules

Once you know which rules you want to start setting for your toddler, it’s time to start implementing them.


Easier said than done, right? Here are some tips on how to establish rules for your toddler.

  • Be clear and consistent – This may be the hardest advice to follow in this article. Because your toddler will probably push back hard on at least one of the rules you set. And it’s going to get tiresome pushing back all of the time. However, it’s important to be clear about what the rules are and consistently enforce them. Despite how they may be acting, toddlers thrive on routine and structure. Having clear and consistent rules that they know about actually helps them feel secure.
  • Adjust rules as needed – You may be thinking, “Hold up, didn’t you just say to be consistent?” Yep! But these first two points aren’t mutually exclusive. As your toddler grows, you may need to adjust the rules to fit your current reality. Eventually, they will be able to go down the stairs by themselves, move around their room at night, or go outside and play in the backyard without you. Along with your preschooler, adjust the rules as they grow to better fit their age level. It also gives you the chance to express trust in their growing independence. 
  • Use positive language – No one, including your child, wants to be told no 100 times a day. Instead of saying “no” all the time, try using positive language to explain what you want your toddler to do. For example, instead of saying “no hitting,” say “use gentle hands.”
  • Be patient – Important things take time. Your toddler may push back hard on new rules at first, but be patient with them as they learn and grow.
  • Model good behavior – Toddlers learn by watching the adults around them, so it’s important to model the good behavior you’re asking them to engage with. All of the age-appropriate rules listed above are things you can be overtly doing in front of them to show that you have to follow your own good advice. 
  • Praise good behavior – When your toddler follows the rules, be sure to praise them for their good behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics positions it as an “attention meter”: give children a lot of attention when they follow the rules and remove attention when they don’t. 
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Enforcing the rules is an inherently difficult job, but it’s a vital part in raising a child. Keeping them safe and establishing household norms and responsibilities helps everyone in the long run. And though your toddler may let you constantly know that they do not appreciate your rules, they’ll eventually embrace them and see them as a normal part of life.

For similar content, check out the blogs below.

  • Creating Family Rules
  • Helping kids Understand Forgiveness
  • 7 Way to Help Your Child Listen Better

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