The Four Keys to Limit Setting

In a recent post about limit setting, I argued that, for our passionate little movers, limits are like the railings on a beautiful yet precarious dance floor.  We need them to provide safety and security as our kids explore the world and their place in it.


In this post I want to explore in greater detail how limit setting can look, through the lens of a beautiful path for living and relating to others called The Four-Fold Way®.

The Four-Fold Way was a core teaching of one of my early teachers, Angeles Arrien, Ph.D. Dr. Arrien died in 2014, but her wisdom about how to live a connected life will continue to influence individuals, businesses, and—I hope—families, forever. In my opinion, the Four-Fold Way is beautifully synergistic with respectful parenting. It is:

1.     Show up.

2.     Pay attention.

3.     Tell the truth.

4.     Be open to outcome.

Here’s how I see these four principles in relation to the way we set limits.

1.     Show up.

I believe that we are all challenged with showing up, not just in limit setting, but in our parenting in general and in our daily lives. To me this principle speaks to authenticity—to bringing our true selves to what we do, and being “all in” when we do it. With the multi-tasking that is so inherent in parenting, and the added distractions of our phones and other electronic devices, we are more challenged than ever to truly “show up” with our kids.

Sometimes we end up needing to set a limit because our naturally present little beings have noticed that we’re not fully present, and they decide (consciously or not) to do something about it. There is no way to be fully present all the time, so let’s take that off the Parent job description. But this is one of the reasons that RIE® founder Magda Gerber used to say that 100% attention some of the time is better than partial attention all of the time (Dear Parent, p. 7). 

This is a great practice to remember, and to implement especially when it’s time to set a limit.

One way we can help ourselves show up for our kids is to have a simple mantra that we use in moments where it feels hard to align our body and mind so that we can truly show up.

You might try saying to yourself simply, “I’m here” when you arrive home at the end of the day, or very quickly before you move in to set a limit. Another favorite of mine is “Be here now.” Or, since the mind loves things in threes, you might try something like “My body is here, my mind is here, my heart is here.” This last one can be especially helpful for remaining present for the feelings your child may show in response to the limit you set.

If you prefer a physical anchor to help you show up, you can bring your attention to your feet on the ground, and imagine roots growing down out of them, grounding you to the earth. Take a deep breath and feel your belly expand. This will bring you into your body and back to the present moment.

2.     Pay attention.

Showing up opens the door to this second principle, Pay Attention. In RIE® we talk a lot about the power of observation. When we observe our children, we naturally slow down. Slowing down helps us make better choices in how we respond to our kids—to say or do things that are aligned with how we want to be as parents.

We also learn a great deal about our children when we get curious about what they are doing and why they are doing it. If you see your child doing something that you don’t appreciate or feel is safe, the first question you can ask yourself is “Why?” Why is she doing this? If you think you've found an answer, you can ask again, “Why would she need to_______?” or “Why would that be important to her?” until you think you’ve gotten to the heart of what is going on. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, authors of No-Drama Discipline, call this practice “chasing the why.”

When we understand the “why” of our child’s behavior, we can often respond to it with much more compassion and patience.

For example, I recently spent the weekend in a meditation retreat and was away from my son for two full days. I looked forward to spending the evening with him when I returned, and imagined cozy bedtime stories and extra hugs. When I got home on Sunday evening, my son kicked me repeatedly when I tried to help him into his PJs and ran around the house laughing maniacally when I asked him to brush his teeth. When I finally got a hold of him, he screamed in my face.  After my initial frustration, I realized that his behavior likely had nothing to do with PJs or teeth—it had simply been hard for him to have so little time with me that weekend. I suggested this to him, and after shouting “NO!,” he dissolved into tears in my arms. He needed this release, and setting the limit—stopping him from kicking and running all over—was what allowed it to come.

Observation also takes us out of judgment. This can be especially useful when we communicate with our children during limit setting. If we simply say what we noticed, rather than listing our conclusions or beliefs about what we saw, we open the door to a dialogue with our kids and to more openness in response.

3.     Tell the truth.

I have yet to meet a parent who says they don’t value honesty, but I’ve noticed that one of the more interesting things that happens with parenting is that we sometimes feel compelled to tell our kids things that aren’t true.

This often happens when we want to set a limit. We get into the habit of saying things like “No, the ice cream store is out of ice cream, sorry!” (I don’t want you to eat ice cream right now) or “Let's give your pacis to the Paci Fairy, and she’ll take them to the babies who need them!” (It’s time to stop using your pacifier).

Sometimes we do this to spare our child what we imagine will be the more-painful truth or experience. And sometimes we do it to spare ourselves what we imagine will be the more-painful response from our child.

I want to challenge you to tell the truth. We don’t need to do it in a harsh, unloving, or too-much-detail way. We can still bring our loving, protective parenting ways to this practice. But our children get more attuned and aware as they grow (and they start out pretty darn attuned to begin with), so modeling truth-telling for them is a great practice. It also simplifies our already complicated job.

Here’s how this can sound:

“Ah, you see the ice cream shop. I know, you love ice cream—I do too. It’s almost dinner time, so we won’t be getting ice cream today. Let’s plan to have some this weekend.”

“You’re learning to do so many new things as you get older—you can sleep in your own bed now, and even put on your own shoes. It’s time to learn how to do all the things you love to do without your paci. I know it has brought you a lot of comfort, and I’ll be there to help you as you let it go. In a few days, we’re going to say goodbye to your pacis.” (This is obviously a longer process, so get in touch with me if you need help navigating it!)

4.     Be open to outcome.

I find in my own parenting that one of the things that drives me most crazy is when I have an idea about how something will go—a trip to the park, a dinner I spent time cooking—and then it goes differently than I hoped or prefer.

I have also seen in the families I work with that this can be particularly acute with limit setting. When we consider ourselves attuned, respectful, loving parents, this incongruity can feel doubly hard. We think, but I did everything right! I listened, I connected, I slowed down. . . and she STILL had a fit! WTF?

Many of my hardest parenting moments have been accompanied by—or a result of—this kind of thinking. My husband has listened to me process a lot of moments like this, especially the part about how I have “lost it” and done or said things that I later regretted after things didn’t go according to my internal plan.

During one of these discussions, he said, “It occurs to me that so much of this way of parenting is about surrendering.”

Bingo. This doesn’t mean that we wave the white flag, lie down, and let our kids run all over us. Definitely not! But it does mean that even when we do it all “right,” we don’t get to control the outcome of our limit setting, or of any of how our parenting lands with our kids.

Here’s a story that relates to outcomes and feelings.

My son’s lovely daycare provider recently asked me about feelings and limit setting. She had noticed that my son, at age 4, still cried or got upset sometimes when she set a limit with him. She had tried saying, “there’s no need to cry,” and his response was, “my mommy says I can cry whenever I want!” She was curious about this and asked me if it was true.

I said it was. As I explained to her, she gets to decide what the limits are. But our son gets to decide how he feels about them. If he cries, it doesn’t mean that the limit changes. But his feelings belong to him, and there’s nothing to be gained by telling him not to have them—quite the opposite, I’d argue.

My son, and the friends and partners he will have as he grows, only stand to lose if he does not find a way to have and relate to his feelings. We all know people who struggle with this as adults, and I hope to raise a child who understands that feelings come and go, and do not define who we are.

Sometimes we feel compelled to stop or mitigate these responses, usually because we feel that it’s our job to help our kids manage their emotions and figure out how to “pull it together” when something upsetting happens.

This is another one we can remove from our parenting job description. As our children grow (and their brains mature), they will naturally become better able to manage their own feelings and responses to disappointment and upset. This is especially true if we allow the feelings without judgment, and model calm acceptance of this very human experience.

So, the next time you set a limit, you might pause to repeat to yourself, “I decide on the limit. He decides how to respond.” And again, his response might mean that you need to set another limit—“I can see you’re upset. I understand. I won’t let you hit me”—and then can work toward continuing to do this without judgment of the response.


How does the Four-Fold Way sit with you? Do you have other tools or frameworks that you try to follow in your limit setting or in your parenting? Please share!

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