Tips for Setting Rules with a Toddler

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 05, 2021

As much as you love your toddler, their determination to test boundaries can make you want to scream. You know that family rules are important, but it can be tempting to give up and give in when confronted with a screaming child. It’s also easy to go too far in the other direction when parenting, creating too many rules that are too hard to follow.

Use these tips for deciding on and enforcing rules with your toddler.

Set Specific and Reasonable Rules

Make sure that your toddler can visualize and follow the rule. It should be something within their power, and specific. Abstract concepts make poor rules. “Be kind to others” is too vague. “Don’t hurt other people” is better. 

Pair each negative with a positive that models good behavior. For example, “keep your hands to yourself” could follow “don’t hurt other people”.


Know your child’s limits. A toddler can’t focus on more than a couple of rules at a time, so choose the most important. Choose rules geared towards their safety or the safety of others. As they gradually become comfortable with those rules, you can slowly introduce new ones.

This approach will help your own mental health and the health of your relationship with your toddler. Pick your battles. Bad behavior is sometimes a cry for attention, and ignoring it can prove to be a useful tactic in and of itself so long as the bad behavior doesn’t violate one of the rules.

Explain the Rules

Kids need to understand the “why” of things. Talk about the rule as you set it. Why is this important? Be patient, and listen to their concerns during the conversation.

You should also clarify the parameters of the rules. For example, what sort of activities could be construed as “hurting”? Your toddler needs to understand that actions like biting, hitting, and kicking are included in a “no hurting” rule.

If you encounter something new that should be covered under the rule, be clear about the rule that you are enforcing. If your toddler pinched someone, you would need to explain that pinching also counts as hurting.

Enforce the Rules Consistently

Avoid mixed messages. Everyone needs to know and enforce the rules so that your toddler doesn’t suffer confusion. Inform all caregivers about what is and is not allowed and the consequences attached to those rules.

You also need to model the rules for your child. One reason that most current experts disapprove of spanking is that it sends the message that hitting is okay when you’re angry.

Set Mild Consequences

Harsh physical and verbal consequences — like spanking and yelling — can backfire and lead to more misbehavior. They also keep the focus firmly on bad behavior rather than promoting good behavior. At their worst, they can have lasting physical and mental effects on your child.

Instead, try one of the following strategies:

Let them experience natural consequences. As long as they aren’t endangering themselves, you can let them discover the effects of their actions. If they throw their cookie at you, don’t rush to replace it.

Withhold privileges. Take away a favorite toy or refuse to allow your toddler to watch a certain program. Establish the punishment as a logical consequence of a specific rule.

Give them a short timeout. The rule of thumb is one minute per year of age. There is no added benefit to longer timeouts, and you run the risk of your child getting antsy and undermining the punishment. Settle your child in a designated timeout area that is clear of distractions. Don’t talk to them or provide attention during the timeout.

Reward Good Behavior

When setting the rules, it’s important to model and reward good behavior rather than solely focusing on bad behavior. Let them see you following the rules that you've set.

Provide “labeled praise,” telling your child exactly what you like about their behavior in the moment. For example, if they put away their toys, exclaim over how well they have done so to emphasize the desired behavior.

Parenting is a tough job, so do your best and follow your instincts. In general, make sure that displays of love and pride outnumber those of criticism and punishment.

Show Sources


American Academy of Pediatrics: “What’s the Best Way to Discipline My Child?”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Creating Rules.”

International Journal of Early Childhood: “How do infants and toddlers learn the rules? Family discipline and young children.”

KidsHealth: “Disciplining Your Toddler.”

Mayo Clinic: “Parenting tips: How to improve toddler behavior.”

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