Outdoors, Limits, RIE with Adults, Language – A RIE Chat Summary

(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

What a gorgeous day!! The skies were blue, the air was (mostly) clear, and the temperatures were mild. I hope you all enjoyed getting out into the world!

A recent email reminded me of that classic children’s story, The Secret Garden. I loved that book as a child, and I love the idea that there is healing and nourishment in nature…that trees and flowers, breezes and warm sunshine (or rain and wind!), bugs and creatures…offer engagement for our spirits, especially for children’s spirits. Having regular access to outside spaces to actually live and spend time in, is a big part of RIE. It always made me sad that I didn’t have that in my space at BINI Birth (though I would sometimes prop the door to the balcony open, which let breezes in and toys out…Friday RIE class folks, do you remember the day your children emptied the room of all of the toys through that open door?!) and it kind of excites me to think that when I start classes again, I’ll swing 180 and offer an outdoor only environment.

You all got my email earlier today looking for families who want to make connections for playdates for children or for mental health for single Moms. That bid came out of a lot of conversations I’ve had over the last month or so, including this morning…another theme that is frequently coming up is limit setting.

Children test limits for a lot of reasons. First off, it’s developmental, especially for 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s…and well, let’s face it, it’s children’s job to look for limits and boundaries throughout childhood, though there are definitely periods where it is more intense than others. They’re figuring out how the world works, how much power they (and others) have in it…what the rules are…and if you don’t ask the question, you will never get your answer! So, when your child pushes your boundaries, take a breath and remind yourself that they are doing their job…and then it’s time for you to do yours: set that boundary.

We’ll get to that…there are some other contributing factors to consider when thinking about limit setting, especially during this time. Many of your children are home all the time right now, and while your home is your refuge, and while you may well have a safe ‘yes’ space for your child…your whole home isn’t a yes space in the same way a RIE class, or a good preschool environment is. And as great as your yes space may be, odds are you aren’t spending all day there…you’re going to the kitchen, to the bathroom, to your room, to the living room, outside…all places that can be pretty safe, but not 100% safe. All places where you have to set limits to keep children healthy and safe. That means, you’re setting limits a lot…please don’t climb on the kitchen table…whoops, no, don’t open the dishwasher…yikes, that does NOT go in the toilet…oh, you found the remote again, I’m going to take that…how did you figure out how to turn the sprinklers on?!…that gets old….for both of you!

Compounding this with the fact that the outlets you used to have for children to work out their boundary issues with peers is severely limited, it absolutely makes sense that you feel like your child is testing you more. They probably are! In a world where children don’t have a lot of control, they tend to take more rigid control of things they CAN take control over. And in a world where you constantly have to set limits, you get worn down and your buttons more easily pushed.

What can you do?

Well, there are all types of limits your child may be pushing. This morning’s call included a question about a child that wanted to be firmly and fully in charge of all of the choices about her life, and how to handle it. She no longer liked Choice A or B for her daily outfit (straw, fork, bowl, plate, shoes, activity…you get the gist)…she wanted to make her own choices about what to wear (drink with, eat with, do…). This means that sometimes getting dressed in the morning takes over a half hour…and while I’m all about slowing down with children, this is a bit much! And, yes… I do absolutely counsel you to involve your children in their care by offering them choices (there’s even a whole RIE children’s book devoted to the topic), but there does come a time when children learn about “Choice C: None of the Above” and this type of scenario can play out.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s very important for young children to feel agency and be able to make meaningful choices and feel powerful in their daily lives. And sure, there may be some mornings where you CAN hang out and go through every item in her closet…but not every morning…and not for every choice. RIE is about relationship, give and take…and when your toddler is consistently setting the agenda, and you can’t get things done…when you start feeling routinely impatient or resentful, that’s a clue that maybe this is actually less about what outfit to wear today and more about seeing where the limits are.

It’s absolutely okay to step in here and say “it looks like you’re having some trouble choosing what to wear today. I’m going to make the choice.” Will your child look at you and say, “oh thank you so much; that’s what I need!”? Yeah…not likely! But that IS what they need!

No one likes tantrums: not me, not you, not your children, but they are part of growing up. It’s tempting to try to avoid all tantrums and big emotions, but that’s doing your child (and yourself) a disservice. There are times in all of our lives when we come up against a limit, a boundary…something that we don’t want or like, something that stymies us. And it’s frustrating and we get swamped with emotion and completely fall apart…oh wait, no we don’t (well, rarely). Through repeated experiences with frustration and limits, we’ve learned to manage our emotions, well, our reactions. Hopefully, the message you can send to your children is that life is hard sometimes, but they are still cared for and loved…and those big scary emotions they have do not scare or overwhelm their parents…because their parents know that they are part of life, and they will pass.  

As Janet Lansbury says so eloquently, we need to approach these situations with confidence in our children’s abilities to handle disappointment, frustration, disagreement, and anger. To flourish as we’d like them to, our children need to know that they have unflappable leaders who will keep them safe and accept their feelings, and in order to develop an honest and respectful parent-child relationship, we need to be able to express our personal boundaries with our kids. We’re part of this relationship. That’s very important to remember.

And boundaries are not a bad thing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…we live in a world of boundaries and rules. Typically, the times when others ignore and flout boundaries are times when we get most upset (some of the most contemporary examples I can think of are mask-wearing and social physical distancing…). And for a child, it can be such a relief when a boundary is set. Yes, children enjoy being powerful and mighty…being in control, but all that power can get overwhelming and a little…if not scary…burdensome. Knowing your parent is in control, that they’ve ‘got you,’ is comforting.

Speaking of boundaries, another topic we lighted on was setting boundaries with other families. These days, your pickings for your children’s playmates are slim…and you may find yourself in situations with families that don’t align with your parenting style (enter: my email earlier today soliciting RIE playmates!). You can handle this in a variety of ways: you can use it as an opportunity to let other parents know a little more about RIE by simply stating out front that this is an Approach that you use at home and find helpful, and you’re happy to share some tips to make their lives easier. You might be a little less direct and simply model the Approach in your interactions involving your child. Or, of course, you may choose to let sleeping dogs lie and just go with the flow, telling your child, “yes, I know I usually let you work out how long to swing, but on this playdate, we’re going to use a timer” (for example). It’s really up to you and your comfort level…remember that what your child is getting at home, from you, is the primary force in the development of their personalities. And Covid is not forever, but for now…your children will have opportunities to work conflicts out on their own again.

However, if you feel uncomfortable with a pattern of interaction between your child and another, and you aren’t able to intervene in a way that keeps your child safe, feel comfortable cutting ties. Yes, families and playdates are few and far between these days, but in this case beggars CAN be choosers. This goes back to protecting your child. If he asks why you don’t go on those playdates anymore, you can simply say that: “My job is to keep you safe and I didn’t feel like I was able to do that as well as I wanted to.”

Have any of you been in a situation like that? What happened? How did it resolve?

Lastly, a word on language with children… A parent told me today that she’s noticed that she often asks her child, “Are you okay?”…It’s kind of become a little bit of a verbal tic, and she asked me “Is that okay?” We talked around about it a lot, but it’s one of those questions that I haven’t been asked before so it’s staying with me.

I know RIE can seem like it has its own secret code and patterns for language with children, but ultimately, there shouldn’t be any off-limit words or phrases. Yes, I dislike “you’re okay” because it negates a child’s experience. I prefer to talk about what I’m seeing: “You fell and you’re crying.” I might even go so far as to suggest you say “You’re going to be okay.” Or, as I suggested to this Mom, “How do you feel?” But “you’re okay” CAN come from a loving place (sometimes): yes, you fell, but nothing is bleeding or broken, you are okay…I mean when I was in a car accident when I was a teenager, the cop who cut me out of my seatbelt told me “You’re okay” and it was incredibly comforting!!

All this rambling to say language is a powerful means for connection and relationship. The Educaring Approach is all about connection and relationship, which is why we are so careful and thoughtful with our language. If you’re wondering if what you are saying to your child is ‘okay,’ just ask yourself if you are using your words to make a meaningful connection.

And I know I’ve shared this one before, but my book opened up to it and it fits so well. It bears repeating. This week’s The Parents’ Tao Te Ching reading:

22. Your Greatest Legacy

If you want your children to succeed,
show them how to fail.
If you want them to be happy,
show them how to be sad.
If you want them to be healthy,
show them how to be sick.
If you want them to have much,
show them how to enjoy little.
Parents who hide failure, deny loss,
and berate themselves for weakness,
have nothing to teach their children.
But parents who reveal themselves,
in all their humanness,
become heroes.
For children look to these parents
and learn to love themselves.
Parenting need not be a burden,
one more thing you have to do
and don’t do well enough.
Instead, consider your failures,
your sorrows,
your illnesses,
and your difficulties
as your primary teaching opportunities.