When I talk to other parents, one of the most common concerns is how to set limits with their child. Whether it is how to have a consistent bedtime, or stop a child from hurting them, or being able to safely cook dinner, saying “no” in a respectful way is challenging.
I struggled with this the first couple years as a mom. As a child, I felt belittled when I was told “no”. Even as an adult I sometimes hate asking for things because I don’t want to feel embarrassed if I’m told “no”. I didn’t want my son to feel rejected like I had, so I ended up saying “yes” to many more things than I should have.
It burned out our family, and we finally had to change things when my second son was born. It was physically and mentally impossible for me to cater to their limitless world. If RIE hadn’t found me (through Lisa Sunbury Gerber and Janet Lansbury) and helped me understand how to create the boundaries we needed, and I know the relationship I have with my kids wouldn’t be as happy and strong as it is now.
This is how I set boundaries in my home. When I first started, I wasn’t very good at it. But as I saw the positive changes in all the relationships in our house, I wanted to get better, and practice has made it easier.
1. Decide what you want your limit to be. One of the things I love about RIE is there is no “have to”. Magda Gerber, the founder of RIE, trusted moms, just as she trusted children. If you’re new to RIE, you have probably heard things that don’t feel right to you, or that are out of your comfort zone. Don’t feel like you need to turn your home upside down right away to conform to RIE “ideals”. We are all on our own journey.
If you try to implement something that doesn’t resonate with you, you will have trouble sticking with it. So set a limit you feel comfortable with. Some examples could be having your child go to bed at a certain time, taking away a toy if your child has thrown it, or providing a safe area for your child to explore independently while you cook dinner.
2. Explain to your child why you set the limit. Simple, honest explanations, said in a calm voice, are all that are necessary. “We haven’t been sleeping well and I’ve been grumpy during the day, so our new nighttime routine is for you to be in bed by 7.” “If you throw that, it can hurt someone. I’m going to take it so no one gets hurt.” “I don’t want you to get stepped on or burned when I cook dinner. I’m going to put this gate up to keep you safe.”
The explanation only needs to be said once. Babies and children understand our words and our tone, so believe in it and say it with confidence.
3. Acknowledge your child’s feelings about the new limit. It is our children’s job to test limits. This is especially true with new boundaries and changes. They will pile on the testing to great heights if setting limits isn’t a habit you’ve had in the past. Big emotions are completely normal and expected. It’s often not easy to face them, but don’t take it personally.
To help understand where your children are coming from, consider how you feel if your significant other says they won’t be home for dinner because they have to work late. You really, really want them home. You will miss them not being there. It’s upsetting to have to deal with all the prep, cleanup, and dinner conversation all on your own. It doesn’t feel right, even though you understand the reason. You might feel sad, lonely, frustrated, or angry, but having all those emotions doesn’t mean you love your significant other any less or think they love you less.
Whatever reaction your child has to a limit, acknowledge it and allow it.
Talk about what you see: “You don’t want to be in your crib right now.” “You want that toy” “You want to come into the kitchen.” Unless a child is verbal and says what emotion they feel about the change, you don’t need to attach a feeling to the narration. A baby might look or sound sad or angry or upset, but it’s hard to know for sure.
4. Stick to the limit. You can say, “You don’t want to be in your crib right now, but it’s time for bed. I will be in the living room.” “You want the toy, but I put it away. Would you like to play with the blocks instead?” “You want to come into the kitchen, but I need to keep you safe. You can play or nap while I cook.”
It will probably take a few days (or more) before everyone is used to the changes. During the transition, slow down everyday moments like diaper changes, feeding, and bathing. Spend time observing your child during play to build up trust and understanding.
Learning to set limits has been one of the hardest but most rewarding things I’ve learned as a parent. It was difficult and confusing at first, but it’s gotten easier with practice. The trust I have from my children and the ease of our relationship has made all the challenges of setting them worth it.