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A few days after starting college, my daughter called to report her distress about her dorm-mates’ apparent immaturity. “They feel uncomfortable making simple decisions about their lives, like choosing their meals every day.” Eighteen is the designated age when we feel young people should be capable of adult decision making. However, most of us aren’t taught decision-making skills growing up. As parents, we also discover that knowing what choices to offer a child at various stages is confusing! A two-year-old asked what he wants for lunch may say cookies, but a four-year-old can make good choices when offered an array of healthy foods. We wouldn’t expect a two-year-old to decide what color to paint her bedroom, but we might consult a nine-year-old on the right shade and even support a teenager in trying to paint her own room.
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Over many years, the pendulum has swung toward getting children’s opinions on everything from what they want for breakfast to what house the family should buy. Years ago, world-renowned child therapist and author Haim Ginott offered a helpful maxim. Dr. Ginott said children need to have a voice and, when appropriate, a choice. In other words, expressing thoughts and feelings is important for children. But as adults, we are still responsible for their welfare. For example, an eight-year-old child is free to tell us he doesn’t like doing homework, participating in P.E., or his tutoring, and we can sympathize, citing our own lack of enthusiasm for doing the things “we had to do” growing up. But none of these are elective activities like playing baseball or taking music.
After acknowledging a child’sfeelings about doingsomething she doesn’t like, we can offer scaled-down choices (“I know you’d rather be playing outside than doing homework. Do you want to work with me on your assignment now or after dinner?”). Many of the power struggles occur because we haven’t providedclarity about what choices a child actually has. For example, we often tack the word “okay” on the end of requests that don’t really involve a choice. “It’s time to go to school, okay?” It’s frustrating to realize after asking “okay?” that there really isn’t anotheroption.It’s even harder to backtrack when we lay down edicts that we can’t enforce —“You need to eat everything on your plate” or “Go to sleep right now.”
Most importantly, we need to reflect on what choices a child is ready to make. We’ve all made silly or poor choices in our lives and learn by living with the consequences. For example, a child who chooses not to clean up after herself in preschool simply can’t play in that area later that day.
As adults we protect children’s well being by setting appropriate limits. Stopping to reflect about the good choices children make is a crucial part of the process. “How did it work out choosing to stay at the birthday party when you were so tired?” “What would you do next time?” Examining little choices helps build the skill to make more important decisions.
Dilemmas about what choices to allow children is often thought of as a tough parenting issue
because we want to get them to comply. However, having the support to make choices boosts responsibility and consciousness of others. Look for books on decision making with children and chat with parents who talk with their children effectively about decisions. Praise your child for struggling with emotional reactions and difficulties with self-control. Think back to choices you made as a young person. What kinds of coaching or limit setting would have helped you? We’re all learners when it comes to making life choices. It’s a topic worthy of fruitful discussion.
Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.