An unavoidable part of parenting is setting limits. In the first part of Triple P’s Disobedience series, we looked at setting limits for curious toddlers. In this post, we explore how to create reasonable expectations and set fair limits for preschoolers.

The mind of a preschooler is like a sponge, absorbing all sorts of information about their world. From shapes to colors, to what it means to share and be a friend, preschoolers are eager to learn and demonstrate their new skills or share exciting facts on everything from dinosaurs to Disney princesses.

During this developmental period, your preschooler starts making more independent choices and having specific preferences for things. This independence streak sometimes looks like disobedience or “misbehavior” when a child doesn’t follow your house rules or has a tantrum when asked to do something they don’t want to do.

Instead of looking at the behavior as disobedience, try reframing it as an opportunity to set firm and consistent limits that allow your preschooler to retain their new-found independence and sense of identity while still following the rules of your home and society.

Constructive Instructions

We can’t expect young children to always meet our expectations for their behavior or do everything we say. But, in some cases, misbehavior (or more accurately miscommunication) can be avoided by looking at how we give instructions. Problems can arise with instructions when:

  • Frequency: Too many instructions can boggle the brain, making tasks hard to follow. If you ask your 4-year old to put away their cars, then clean up their cracker crumbs, and change into their pjs, they may feel overwhelmed or get distracted from the list and then forget. You might be tempted to think they are  avoiding doing anything you’ve asked of them on purpose. On the flipside, not giving expectations before an event can look like misbehavior, such as stating a rule like using a quiet voice at a restaurant. Preschoolers have busy minds and benefit from going over the expectations each time. Have your preschooler tell you the rules after a few times, to make sure they remember, then praise them when they follow the rules.
  • Difficulty Level: Sometimes a child is unable to complete your requests if a task is beyond their skill set, such as changing clothes without help. Strive to make what you are asking of your child age-appropriate and something they have demonstrated they are capable of doing. In addition, use this time to teach your preschooler new tasks and support them to master it.
  • Clarity: With preschoolers, keep your instructions clear and simple. If you want your child to stop running in circles in the grocery store, it doesn’t cut it to say, “Bailey, please stop. You’re being too silly right now.” Bailey won’t know what to stop doing and will likely get a rise out of being told she is silly. Instead, be clear about what you’d like them to do: “Bailey, we need to have a calm body and use our walking feet in the grocery store” Give a reason, such as, “I want you to keep your body safe.”

Preventing Misbehavior at Home

Like with infants and toddlers, having a childproof home is a good way to avoid having to say “no” or “don’t touch” all the time.


  • Keep fragile items out of reach, or out of sight if they are too tempting.
  • Use childproof latches on cupboards.
  • Keep doors closed that are off-limits to children.

Let the Good Times Roll

Any experienced parent will tell you: Bored children find trouble. Children who are kept busy with games and activities are less likely to misbehave. Sometimes preschoolers need help deciding on an activity. Keep in mind that when offering options for your child, less can be more. You may find that the more toys you leave out for your child to play with, the less they actually play with any of them. By offering just a couple options at a time (such coloring books, some dolls, and stamps), you might get more mileage out of their playtime. Many parents also rotate toys in order to keep their children interested. As your child plays, watch for the times that they follow instructions or do something helpful: “Taylor, I saw you put your trucks away. That was so helpful.”

Many preschoolers struggle with transitions. You’re likely to get a protest when it’s time to leave a friend’s house, put the dollhouse away, or eat lunch. Giving warnings is a helpful way to lessen the blow: “Railey, you can play with your dollhouse for 10 more minutes, then we are going to eat lunch.” Let her know what is next and get her excited about it. Provide another warning at the 5-minute mark, and then again at the 1-minute mark. When it’s time to stop playing, be clear about what you’d like them to do next: “Railey, playtime is over. It’s time to wash your hands for lunch.”

In these situations, you can also allow your preschooler to make decisions, which helps them to feel a sense of control over their world: “Railey, do you want apple slices or string cheese with your sandwich?”

Even though these “big kids” are exercising their newfound independence, they still thrive on routines and guidance from their caregivers. Setting clear limits is one way help preschoolers learn the rules of their home, as well as self-control.


This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (  Parenting Now! is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now! please visit their website ( or contact us at

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