I Won't Let You
“I won’t let you” sets a firm and confident boundary without raising stress levels. It can be paired with gentle physical intervention and is especially important in situations where you need to stop a behaviour to protect your child or others from getting hurt.
A young child of two or three can seem so grown up at times. But, in a flash, they can disintegrate, and lash out at another child at the playground over a toy. At that point, they can’t think clearly. It’s up to you to quickly, yet calmly step in to keep both children safe. “I won’t let you hit. Hitting hurts.” You are there to keep them safe, with swift calm action, arms to hold, words to soothe.
“I won’t let you hit your brother,” says my daughter as she deftly blocks one of her son’s arms from hitting his twin. “It would hurt him.”
“I won’t let you run into the road,” says my son as he races to sweep up his two-year-old before he makes it to the roadway. “Roads are dangerous. I’m here to help keep you safe.”
Hearing “I won’t let you…” is actually one of my earliest memories. I can still feel the feeling of wanting to kick, then kicking my mum’s legs, as we both stood by the new washing machine in our big new house. I must have been about 2 and a half. My fury was absolute. I had no idea where this feeling came from or how to stop it. Mum picked me up and held me out so my legs couldn’t reach hers. “I won’t let you kick me,” she said firmly. She never hit us kids, she just talked and talked things through. But this was firm and direct — a clear message.
I remember feeling that this was my safe time to stop kicking. I stopped. Mum doesn’t remember the episode. But I remember it, and her response, as clear as day.
Why do young children seem to completely lose control at home? How can they be angels for their grandparents, but completely fall apart at home, especially with their mother? Whether it’s true or not, I choose to believe what my mum says her great gran Sarah told her. “Where can a child safely fall apart? Who can they safely fall apart with? At home, with the people they love and trust most in the world. You are their anchor in a stormy sea, then the safe harbour.”
So, I tried to remember those words when I was feeling particularly vulnerable as a new mum with two children who regularly tried to whack each other. As parents, we are the anchor for our small children, whose emotions can be stormy and unpredictable. Children’s developing brains are not wired like adult brains. Why should we expect them to “behave maturely” when the part of their brain that controls emotions isn’t fully developed until years after they’ve left high school? How can they be responsible for controlling their emotions when they are just two? Or three?
The big emotions are going to come, especially after you’ve set a boundary, and especially when your child is hungry or tired. You can’t always be one step ahead, or anticipate every emotional outburst. So, let’s say your child is angry and things are escalating. Get down to his level, calm yourself, make eye contact, and ask him what’s wrong. “Why are you shouting at your brother?” If you catch him early, he may be able to answer. But, if he’s too deep into the emotion and unable to think, and you see that he’s winding up to throw a block, kick a friend, or do any number of things that could put him (or the friend, or you!) in danger, take a breath, stay calm, and be ready with a move (blocking, holding, lifting) to keep everyone safe.
Say, “I won’t let you (…)” (…hurt me / hurt your friend / hurt yourself). “That could hurt.” These words set limits with empathy.
Say “I won’t let you…” rather than “we don’t hit” or “mummy doesn’t want Jamie to hit.” Talking in the third person seems to remove the clarity and immediacy of the message, and can make you feel more detached. Referring to yourself as “I” and the child as “you” is direct and respectful. It helps you see your child as a whole person right from birth. You might even want to place your hand on your chest (if it’s free) when you say “I” and a hand on your child when you say “you”. The words and gestures connect you both.
Make your message clear and simple. “I won’t let you hit your friend. You’re really mad, but that hurts him.” Be confident but calm. You might even need to block or gently hold the child’s legs and arms safely to help them to stop, or say, “I’m going to lift you up now” to prevent further hitting. Your job is to help keep everyone safe. You might even want to say that. “I will help you stay safe.”
Don’t let yourself get emotional. Don’t say “stop that! NO no no no! We don’t do that!”
Be specific. Be calm. Be firm. “I won’t let you throw rocks onto the slide. There’s a boy on the slide. The rock will hurt him. You can climb up the ladder then slide down after him or play somewhere else.” Try to reserve “No!” and “Stop!” for true emergencies.
Later, after the moment is over, and your child is asleep or quietly devouring a meal. You might think, “Yay! I did it!” But, then you will usually follow up with a question to yourself…”Why did that happen?” Think about the root cause. This is a quick personal debriefing. Don’t judge yourself. There’s usually a basic need that wasn’t being met. Was it the need for food? Sleep? Space? Was there a need to be running outside? Think it through without guilt, then move on. The challenge is for you to let it go — for yourself and for your child. Try not to add this to your list of things that didn’t go well today. Each outburst is an opportunity for learning. Your little ones aren’t planning this outburst. It’s not personal. They are tiny humans with developing brains. They live in the moment. Expect meltdowns. Then let it go, as easily as they do. A child needs to release emotions in a safe space. You are that safe space, the anchor.
Just when I thought I’d seen it all. Must dash! He’s crayoning on great grandma! “I won’t let you crayon on grandma.”