It is sadly common for parents and caregivers to place the responsibility around limits in the hands of the child. They set a limit and then expect the child to be responsible for remembering and following it. When the child, inevitably, doesn’t, we adults might respond by giving up on limits altogether (since the child obviously isn’t listening), or by becoming punitive (because they should know better by now!).
I prefer to think of it like this: limits are my responsibility. It is my responsibility to:
1. Set Limits Early
I know that children respond well to limits given in a clear, calm voice. That means I need to be responsible for knowing my emotions, and setting a limit before something is so annoying that I respond with more tension or annoyance than is helpful.
2. Set Limits Clearly
I must also set limits clearly enough that the child understands. I always use first person. I keep it short and simple, especially for limits that are being tested often, and I never phrase limits as questions if they aren’t optional.
3. Use “I won’t let you…”
This is really a subset of #2. The phrase “I won’t let you…” is one of the most useful tools in RIE, since it places the responsibility for stopping undesirable behavior on the adult whenever possible. This phrase needs to be used in conjuction with action. I always say, “I won’t let you hit,” at the same moment when I am backing it up by catching the child’s hand and preventing them from hitting. If I’m not there in time to prevent something, or if it is something I can’t actually prevent (like screaming), I use the phrase, “I don’t want you to…” instead.
4. Help the Child Follow the Limit
Whenever possible, I prevent the child from doing the thing I don’t want them to do. I catch their hands before they hit. I move the keys out of their reach. It is my responsibility to follow through, because I know the child might not be able to every time.
5. Be Consistent
I also need to be consistent about limits that are important to me. If I am inconsistent, it is almost impossible for the child to figure out when I “mean it” and when I don’t, which leads to the need to constantly test the limit.
If this all sounds exhausting, that’s because it is! This is especially true with a child that isn’t used to consistent, respectful limits. That’s why it’s also my responsibility to provide a safe space where there are no limits, giving us both a chance to relax. It’s also my responsibility to choose to set limits only when they are truly important to me.
Children struggle with limits because their brains are still developing. In order to follow a limit independently, a child must be able to hold the rule in active memory and have enough impulse control to prevent themselves from breaking the rule. These things take many years (think preschool and up) to develop. In the meantime, the responsibility is all mine.