Let’s Talk About Boundaries

After a week of toddler classes, my mind is on boundaries. Can’t imagine why… 😉 But in all seriousness, boundaries are big part of RIE. It may not seem like that, when we practice in my ‘yes space’…where I allow children to bang on the walls, toss balls (though sometimes that gets redirected out onto the deck!), and take toys from one another. And it may not seem like boundaries are a big part of RIE when I give second, third, and fourth chances (and sometimes even ​bend my own rules​!) during snack, but boundaries are an important part of RIE…and honestly, an important part of any healthy relationship.

In fact, one of the seven basic principles of RIE is consistency…clearly defined limits and expectations. It is balanced, of course, against allowing children free play and exploration of others, as well as another core principle of making children participants in their own care (and in their own lives). And I think that’s where the line can get blurry: how do we see children as partners in our relationship with them while also, well, being the adult in charge? When do you let them take the lead and when do you assert it?

Side note: I’m not talking about boundaries and limits around safety! The only negotiation that happens when crossing a busy street is “do you want to hold my hand or do you want me to carry you?” and for a child that’s struggling with the impulse to run, that choice may not even be on offer.

Well, there’s an art to it. And the heart of that art depends on you…what are your boundaries and what are your triggers? One moment in a class this week got me thinking hard on this topic.

There was a child who resisted every…single…step… of coming to class this week. Each step from getting ready to leave to getting out the door to getting into the car to getting OUT of the car to coming into class…was a struggle. I went out to help his frazzled and exhausted mother when I heard and saw him giggle and dart away when she asked him to come in. I walked out and said “Michael, it’s time to come in. Let’s go.” And he came immediately.

I’m sure it looked like witchcraft to his mother, but I assured her that a BIG part of his willingness to listen to me was something she could do nothing about: I’m not his mother. It’s cold comfort to parents that it is a sign of social intelligence that their children acquiesce more readily to other adults than they do to their own parents, but it is a fact of life. It just means they trust and love you more…as one Mom said recently: we give our best and our worst to those we love the most. (You do, too…think about the sniping you may do at your partner at the end of a long day. You wouldn’t speak that way to your friend or your yoga teacher. Nope, you save that for your spouse…your relationship has the history, attachment, and the love for you to feel safe being a less than stellar version of yourself sometimes.)

But the other part of his compliance, his cooperation, came from my intent and energy…I was 100% ready to pick him up and bring him inside if he didn’t come in on his own, and I’m sure he felt that. Not (at all) to say that his Mom wasn’t, but she was asking him to come in. I was telling him: the next thing that needed to happen was for all of us to come inside.

And this is where you might pause and say…wait!! Doesn’t RIE ask us to slow down, to get on children’s level, and to invite them to participate? Yes! In fact, I even gave that very advice in an article I wrote in 2020 all about ​Cooperation​. But even in that article, I still advised that there will be times when adults have to firmly…emphatically and kindly, but firmly take charge. The real trick is to do know when to shift from seeking cooperation to taking charge.

In this case, I went straight to direction because Michael had already been invited and his point of view had been considered. And, importantly, his mother was near her wits’ end. I say importantly because it’s so vital to be aware of your own emotional state, your own boundaries and triggers, when it comes to seeking cooperation from your children. When you wait to set the boundary when you are frustrated or furious, that isn’t fair to you and it isn’t fair to your child.

If you find yourself constantly setting boundaries through yelling or using a tone you don’t normally use, look to see if you could have set the boundary sooner. Another Mom in this class was talking about how she feels like the only thing that works with her older child is yelling. For example, at the park she’ll remind her daughter to stop throwing sand several times in several different ways until she explodes: please stop throwing sand…there are people around, I’m going to ask you to keep the sand low…you can move over here to throw the sand…until BOOM “Christina!! Stop throwing sand this instant!!” This particular behavior of sand throwing is something that really bothers this Mom immediately…she’s worried about other children getting sand in their eyes or Christina getting sand in her own eyes…it’s a trigger for her. So rather than give her daughter several ‘chances,’ I recommend that she starts out with “Christina, I’m not comfortable with you throwing sand. If you can’t stop yourself, I will come help to stop you” followed immediately by coming to physically stop her child from tossing the sand the very next time it happens. It may cause a big upset on Christina’s part, but Mom will have more emotional energy because she hasn’t been simmering with frustration as her many requests were being disregarded.

Now, I want to emphasize that I’m not saying you should give a single chance to every single request you make of your child. No, children get a LOT of requests and demands put on them every single day: it’s time to change your diaper, let’s get you dressed, no throwing food on the floor, please eat this, no don’t feed the dog, don’t hit your sister, stop climbing on the coffee table, come put your shoes on, give me back my phone…and that all happens before 8am. We manage so much of their lives, it’s no wonder they push back!! Whenever possible, we should slow down, see things from their point of view and work with them…but if you are finding yourself resentful or angry, and yelling more than you would like, it may be a signal to you that it is time for you to tighten up your boundaries.

Truly, setting boundaries for your children when you are still in a regulated place is the most loving thing you can do. But I don’t want to diminish this…it sounds so easy and simple: just set the boundary before you are triggered. Easy-peasy. Yeah right…in fact, this type of parenting is really hard. ​Downright exhausting​. But as I said in that article, yes, respectful parenting is hard work, but all hard work is easier when we share the load. And I’m glad to share the work with each of you.