Knowing when to hold a limit, and when to allow your child to make their own choices, can be challenging, and not always clear, for any parent, but especially if you are new to the responsive parenting approach. Safety is always the most important thing to consider, however risk taking is an important part of supporting holistic development. Also, everyone’s perception of safety will likely be different, making it difficult to gauge when to intervene. If they are in immediate danger, you may need to remove them from the risk, before responding verbally. If it is not about their immediate safety and more about needing their compliance in that moment, societal norms and/or social rules, you have more freedom to be responsive to their needs and hold space for them while they process their emotions. Sometimes though, parenting is a little less-than-perfect, so if your toddler keeps running off and your baby is screaming, and you have to pick-up your partner in an hour from the train station, here is a responsive method to holding a limit.

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Offering a choice can help to leave the child with a sense of autonomy. My son was a runner and he would just bolt down the aisles, knocking things off the shelves, jumping and climbing. No sense of anyone else or anything else around him. He just turned five, and he is just now able to be out of the cart, or not holding someone’s hand, at the grocery store. Most times, I would give him a choice, “you can go in the cart or you can hold my hand.” If he wasn’t holding my hand (which he rarely did but I would usually try to give him a chance), I would say “ok, you are really struggling to hold onto my hand and you are running away from me. That is not safe in the grocery store. It makes me nervous because I don’t know where you are. You can sit in the cart and have a snack or we can go home, it’s your choice.” He usually chose the cart. Recently he started refusing to hold my hand, or get into the cart, and he called my bluff and said “ok, let’s go home.” I thought ‘uh, oh, what do I do now?’ So, I said “ok I’ll give you a chance to stay close to the cart” and to my amazement, he did! He no longer needs to go in the cart or hold my hand. For most children, this will happen earlier but my son has a need to move constantly and he was unable to regulate it until recently. Sometimes you just have to cope until they are ready for more freedom and responsibility.

Purchasing only one item of the child’s choosing can often be a trigger for emotional outbursts and it can be easy to fall into behavioural techniques. Almost all children will ask for another item, either because they forget that they already chose something, or because they just really want two. I wanted to scrap the “choose something special” but my husband really insisted on keeping it and I’m happy he did. We compromised to using the language that I wanted to use around it (incentive versus reward). In my sons eyes we get to pick out like a hundred items, it only seems fair that he gets to pick something out too. He, like many children, often wants to choose something else, and I will say “Oh that does look yummy, but you already picked out the cereal. Which one would you like?” Sometimes he says “I want both” I say “I know, but you have to choose just one.” Then he almost always stays with his original choice. For us this method works smoothly. I think a lot of people miss-word it and that’s where the fight begins. The child may say “Daddy I want crackers” Then Dad may say “No, you already picked out granola bars,” This simple change in wording makes the conversation combative, instead of filled with empathy, choice and boundaries.

It’s okay to be upset. One of the hardest things to do is accept our child(ren)’s raw emotions, especially over things we as adults deem to be not worthy of big emotions. Responsive parenting is not about pacifying your child’s emotions, it is about responding to them in a way that supports their emotional development. Being in public when these moments happen seem to make it difficult to stay calm, present and connected to your child. Even if you do use this strategy, and validate your child’s feelings while maintaining the limit, your child will likely still be upset when they don’t get the toy or snack that they want. If it is common for your child to have emotional outbursts about buying things, then expect the change in your child’s behaviour to happen far after you have changed your own approach. Just keep using incentives and choices instead, and over time, you will likely see a decrease in intensity. Being tired, over stimulated, inconsistencies like trips or visitors at home, can all contribute to an increase in emotional outbursts. They’re just using this moment as an outlet. It’s the same as how we get stressed at work and then yell at our partner about leaving laundry on the floor. When a child is allowing us to see their raw emotions we should try hard not to think they are being difficult and rude, but to see that what they are really saying is ‘I trust you.’

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To continue learning about The Grocery Store example try reading:

Empathy & Incentives vs. Rewards & Punishments: The Grocery Store Part 1,

Responding to Impatience with Empathy: The Grocery Store Part II,

Responding to a Public Meltdown With Empathy and Compassion: The Grocery Store Part IV


Robin Grille: Rewards and Praise: The Poisoned Carrot-

Alfie Kohn: Punitive Damages-

Alfie Kohn: The Risks of Rewards-

mind-body-behaviour: Mind-Body Therapies in Children and Youth-

gracious behaviour: Model Graciousness-

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