Many adults set a limit and then expect the child to be responsible for remembering and following it. When the child, inevitably, doesn’t, we 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
Children respond well to limits given in a clear, calm voice. We are responsible for knowing our own emotions, and for setting a limit before something is so annoying that we respond with more tension or annoyance than is helpful.
2. Set Limits Clearly
We must also set limits clearly enough that the child understands. Use first-person statements. Keep it short and simple, especially for limits that are being tested often. Don’t 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 is used in conjunction with action. For example, you might say, “I won’t let you hit,” while at the same time backing it up by catching the child’s hand and preventing them from hitting. If you aren’t there in time to prevent something, or if it is something you can’t actually prevent (like screaming), you can use the phrase, “I don’t want you to…” instead.
4. Help the Child Follow the Limit
Whenever possible, help stop the child from doing the thing you don’t want them to do. Catch their hands before they hit. Move the keys out of their reach. It is the adult’s responsibility to follow through, because the child might not be able to every time.
5. Be Consistent
We also need to be consistent about limits that are important to us. If we are inconsistent, it is almost impossible for the child to figure out when we “mean it” and when we don’t, which leads to the need to constantly test the limit.
If this all sounds exhausting, that’s because it can be! This is especially true with a child that isn’t used to consistent, respectful limits. That’s why it’s also our responsibility to provide a safe space where there are no limits, giving both you and the child a chance to relax. It’s also our responsibility to choose to set limits only when they are truly important to us.
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 ours.