I would like to share a concept developed by Dr Sylvia Rimm, a noted psychologist, author and educator. Rimm explains that children require leadership and limits from their parents to feel secure. Effective parents use what she calls the "V" of love.
Envision the letter V. The space in the center of the V represents the amount of choice, freedom and responsibility that a child can be given. When children are very young, they're at the base of the V with few choices, little freedom and small responsibilities that match their small size. As children mature, parents can provide them with more choices — freedom with responsibility. Although limits remain, more freedom is provided. The top of the V represents the time when children are ready to leave the nest.
Obviously, a newborn has few choices. However, by the second year of life, a toddler can choose between water or milk or which of two books he or she wants Dad to read. By the preschool years, a young child can decide between two different shirts, which board game he or she would like to play and whether the bath should be filled with bubbles or not. The type and amount of responsibility we assign to our children also changes over time. Infants are dependent on us to take responsibility for all of their needs. But toddlers can help put toys away, learn to buckle themselves into their car seats and throw something in the trash for Mom. Children ages 3 and 4 can help set the table, gather laundry and help prepare simple meals. Responsibility allows a child to gain competence and confidence — both important characteristics of kindergarten readiness.
Unfortunately, if parents invert the V and give children too many choices and freedoms in the earliest years, children will have difficulty when not given a choice. These are the same children who cannot accept limits imposed on them by others. They will resent rules and responsibilities. These children are often the ones we see who seem to be in charge of the household. They hold their parents hostage through temper tantrums, whining and pouting. They demand power that shouldn't be theirs before they are developmentally ready to handle that kind of responsibility. Remember how important the V in love can be for you and your child.
Use ‘The V of Love’ to set limits, build your child’s responsibility
Parenting is always a balancing act between letting go and setting limits. Here’s a great way to think about how to set limits. It’s called “The V of Love.”
Draw a large letter V on a piece of paper. The sides of the V represent the parent’s firm limits. Outside those lines, the child has no choices—the parent’s rule goes. But inside the lines, the child can make decisions and live with the consequences.
As your child gets older, you can give her more freedom. For example, when she was a toddler, she could choose between the red or yellow shirt. As a preschooler, she could choose to eat a banana or an apple.
Now that she’s in elementary school, her choices should expand. She should decide if she joins the swim team or soccer team. And she needs to live with the choice she makes. She can decide whether to do her math homework first or her reading (but she has to finish both).
The older your child gets, the more control she should have. Gradually, she’ll be ready for adult life—ready to make responsible choices and live with the consequences.
Some parents work the other way. They give young children too many choices. They treat their kids like little adults. These parents soon have a child who’s out of control. Then the parent clamps down. The child is unhappy and rebels, so the parent clamps down even more.
So, think about “The V of Love” when you’re setting limits.
The V of Love – Setting Age-appropriate Boundaries
I was driving back to my mum’s place with my kids in the backseat when my older boy, just 9 years old then, asked me, “Mum, when will I be able to do that?”
“Do what, Darling?” I asked.
He pointed to a group of junior college students walking along the pavement leading to a mall nearby. My son wanted to know when he can go out with his friends, on his own, after school.
On another occasion my son asked, “When will you allow me to have my iPhone? I will only use it after I finish my work, Mum. We can discuss the rules. Can I have it please?”
My husband and I had our reservations about giving my son a smartphone, let alone an expensive iPhone. It is true that we have to set boundaries when we decide he is ready, but the policing seems like a constant battle for many parents I have spoken with. There seems to be a constant negotiation between parent and child. So for a long time, the easier option was the status quo – no smartphone, no iPhone. Just use the phone in the school office if you need to reach us. But I knew we couldn’t continue to hide in our cave much longer, the boy was a pre-teen, we had to deal with this situation soon enough.
The First Step on a Wider Path of Decisions (us) and Choices (them)
We finally did, out of necessity. I was travelling for three weeks and wanted to be able to keep in touch with my sons daily, and for them to still “chat” with me like they do when I’m around. It’s been six months since both boys were given their smartphones. (Yes, the younger one got it when he was just 9 years old. Is there really a right age to give them a mobile phone? I am often asked this by friends)
He is already telling me about the complete freedom his friends have -- they are allowed to use the phone late into the night, they can play games on it anytime, they can download games or any applications without needing to ask for permission! But he cleverly adds, “But I am not comparing. I am just saying.”
I may have crossed a small “milestone” in the life of every Singaporean parent -- the giving of mobile phones to my sons, but I have yet to cross another. That is, when do I allow them to go out on their own with their friends? Or when will I allow them to play computer games at home. For now, we have not bought them an Xbox, PlayStation or a fancy laptop for gaming.
We take it a step at a time though I do admit we have had it easy so far. The boys have been raised to reason, and have not asked or pestered us for any of these, for now. They have, however, asked about going out with friends or hanging out in their homes. When do we let go? How much freedom should I give to my boys? These are questions every parent will ask, many times over as our children grow up. How do we navigate this? How do we negotiate with our children or should we even negotiate? Thankfully, I have had resources that help me make informed decisions (not perfect because every child is different) and I can learn from the experiences of other parents and experts who have spent time studying and working with children and teens.