How to Set Appropriate Boundaries for Children

September 6, 2018

Parenting is like a dance. It requires some give and take in terms of the control and freedom we give to our children.

How do we set appropriate boundaries so they can stay safe and yet exercise their independence and express their personality? And how do we adjust these boundaries as they grow?

The ‘V of Love’ 

The ‘V of Love’ by psychologist Dr Sylvia Rimm is a basic principle that we can come back to again and again in our parenting journey. When applied consistently, it can help us find the balance between parental limits and a child’s growing need for independence.

It is based on the developmental needs of the child. When children are young, they need little freedom, few choices, and have few responsibilities. Parents need to have a high level of control and enforce strict boundaries to ensure that they have a safe space to learn and grow.

As they demonstrate their ability to manage greater freedom, we gradually move those limits out (the divergent lines of the ‘V’) so that our children have more choices. The space within the ‘V’ represents the space children have to make decisions. When they are 3 or 4, they may enjoy some form of control, for example in the clothes they wear and their choice of food at the food court.

At ages 7 to 9, children need to have more choices than when they were 2 or 4 years old. We may leave them to handle their homework, and only help when called upon. We may give them room to plan their holidays, for example when to tackle their homework and when to have a playdate.

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During teenhood, our children will desire greater independence. The greater the scope we give them for independent choices and action, the more cooperative and responsible they are likely to be. Instead of making decisions for them, it may be more effective to coach them through major decisions.

Here are some guidelines on how to apply the ‘V of love’ in our lives.

Set clear limits

Help our kids understand that limits are for their safety and welfare. Communicate the limits clearly, whether it is about the amount of screen time or expected behaviour during a playdate. If necessary, pull the child aside and remind them of the limit.

Think age-appropriate

When exploring new responsibilities, choices, limits or rules, always think about whether it is age-appropriate.

The pace at which the ‘V’ widens out is totally up to our discretion as parents, based on our assessment of our children’s maturity and the risks we’re willing to take or manage. Some children mature faster and display responsibility earlier than others. Never compare because what works for one child may not work for another child, even if they are of the same age.

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Take it slow and steady

Widening the ‘V’ should be a slow and intentional process. We need to ensure that the child learns to handle freedom and choice in a responsible manner.

Ultimately, our aim is not to get our children to do what we want them to do, but to give them the skills and training so that they will choose to do the right things even when we are not there.

Allow risk-taking and failure

Some risk-taking is necessary for children to learn how to handle life. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility.

If their choices result in uncomfortable circumstances for them, as long as it is safe to do so, let them experience that consequence. Avoid bailing them out from every non-desirable situation. Rather, work with them to reflect on that experience, and equip them with tools on how to make better decisions in future.

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Every parent and family has their own set of values and expectations. What’s important is to identify our values and expectations, and the limits that our children need to abide by.

Remember that we may change our rules and limits, but standards such as honesty, respect and kindness are non-negotiable.

Written by June Yong

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