I recently got a question from a young couple about to embark on their marriage and parenting journey.
The question was about setting limits for children, and whether and how to do it. One of them grew up with many firm limits, while the other was raised to find his own way and make his own choices for the most part. Both felt very strongly that the way they were raised was the best way.
Which one of them was right? they asked.
Although I never like to be the one to determine “rightness,” I do want to attempt to address this intriguing question from a respectful parenting perspective.
With respectful parenting, or RIE®, we recognize children as whole, capable beings from the moment they are born. This means, in part, that we make space for our children to explore their world, and to participate in what happens to and with them as much as possible.
Respectful parenting also has “consistency and clearly defined limits” as one of its core values. We hold this value dear because we know that a core feeling of safety is crucial to a child’s ability to freely explore his or her world, and that we cannot feel safe unless we know where the boundaries are.
Imagine this for a moment: You get invited to go to the Grand Canyon for the first time for an epic dance party.
The party is being held on the rim, above the canyon, at dusk. When you arrive, the scene is beautiful. The music is surging, and the energy is palpable. You feel swept up in the music, and it calls to you to get out there and move.
The only problem is, the edge of the dance floor is shrouded in fog. How do you know how much you can get lost in the music? How can you trust that if you spin into the foggy perimeter, there will be a railing to hold you back from falling?
For young children, all of life is a little bit like this epic dance party. There is so much to experience, so much to see, so much dancing to do.
But unlike adults, young children do not possess the cognitive functioning skills to know that the perimeter should be avoided—or at least carefully investigated first. In fact, the fog is enticing! They launch themselves headfirst into it, pitching toward the railing or sometimes, right over the edge.
It is our job as parents to be the railing at the edge, or—if we miss this opportunity for whatever reason—to catch them when they topple over the edge, and set them back on the rim again.
We have a choice about how to do this. We can do it with anger, frustration, and shame—“what were you thinking?!”—and sometimes, despite our best intentions, we will.
We can also choose to do it with understanding and connection. We can remind ourselves that our child’s brain is not yet developed enough to make sound decisions all the time (or even some of the time), and that they need our guidance when they go astray.
We can remember that our child is not “bad” when he makes a choice that doesn’t align with our preference—that in fact he was born inherently good and that no testing behavior can change that.
We can make space for our child’s emotions that follow our limit setting—allowing the tears, frustration, or anger that arise—without trying to change them or make them stop. We can remind ourselves that feelings come and go, and that in allowing them we are helping our child develop a healthy relationship with emotion.
So, let them go to the dance party. In fact, have it at your place! It’s the most beautiful spot anyway. Don’t tell them how to dance. You don’t even have to pick the music. Come as an observer, and watch it unfold. Delight in your child’s moves, the way he shakes his little booty to the beat or how she opens her arms wide to the upswell.
And when you see them careening toward the edge, come closer. Be there to be the barrier, or to catch if needed. And do it with love, tenderness, and as much connection as you can muster.