How to set limits the RIE way: 4 steps

March 3, 2014 · 7 comments

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.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jennifer Tejada March 6, 2014

Hi! I love this. In the beginning you discuss how you felt belittled as a result of being told no. I wonder if you could explain a little more about how this type of limit setting is different from the way you received your limits as a child that left you feeling embarassed. thank you. I love reading this blog!!


2 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 6, 2014

Thanks, Jennifer! It’s hard for me to remember a “system” of limit-setting my parents used. I don’t think I was put in time-outs, but I was spanked and there was yelling. When I got older they used grounding and rewards.


3 Francine March 7, 2014

Thanks so much for this! I have been practising RIE for a few years now, but my son is home on vacation this week and I really needed a refresher course :)


4 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 7, 2014

LOL! My son has spring break in a couple weeks, also. I should re-read all my old posts to make sure I’m ready to handle all three, all day, again! ;-)


5 Becky March 7, 2014

I’m good at setting limits, but what do you do when they refuse. My boy is 3 and flat out won’t do something unless I attach a consequence. It doesn’t happen all the time and when it does I like to give a natural consequence, but what’s the natural consequence for hitting me? For me right now it’s an automatic time out. It’s the only thing that works for me. Any other suggestions? An example is if I take a toy away that he has thrown, he may (not always) start hitting me. I can’t ignore that and I have tried to get down on his level and connect, but it isn’t effective. He doesn’t respond.


6 Suchada @ Mama Eve March 8, 2014

To me this sounds like it’s less about limit-setting and more about power struggles and control. I went through a period where my children were doing that, and what worked for me was to take a step back and look at our entire situation. I’m committed to no rewards/no punishments/no shaming, so I had to figure out where there was a disconnect and where we lost respect for each other.

It sounds a little counterintuitive, but I ended up completely giving up control of some situations while also giving opportunities for more responsibility. If my son threw something, I would take it, and if he hit me, all I would calmly say was, “that hurts me.” (And I’d also move away or hold him so he couldn’t hit — even if it’s a full-blown tantrum). When I stopped thinking about these behaviors as things I needed to control and saw them instead as expressions of frustration, it was easier for me to empathize and allow him to get his feelings out.

I also allowed him to regress in certain behaviors — wanting me to bathe him, brush his teeth, or ride in the stroller. When we weren’t fighting about those things, his aggression diminished significantly. It was a little frustrating for me, because those were things he had been happily doing on his own, and it annoyed me to have to start doing them again. But, they are only occasional now and it’s apparently what he needed.

And lastly I took more time during regular routines to show him ways he could help out, like scraping and putting his dish in the dishwasher instead of just bringing it to the sink; moving a towel rack down low so he could hang his own towel; and giving him an opportunity to help me make his bed. I didn’t force him to do any of these things, but I invited him to do them with me, and he seemed to really enjoy it when he decided to participate.

Now if either of my kids are throwing or hitting, it’s because they’re hungry or tired or both, so I just fix the root cause and skip any consequence. It’s made our entire home much more peaceful. I hope there’s something in my experience that’s helpful to you.


I love to hear your thoughts. Please, join the conversation!

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