We may not even realize how much of our lives are made up of basic choices. We can choose to put gas in the car, or run out on the freeway. We can choose to pay the electric bill, or use a flashlight. When our children are young we can offer many opportunities for choices. Additionally, we can offer many opportunities for consequences for sad choices, along with lots of loving empathy.
The hallmarks of raising responsible adults include giving kids a chance to make mistakes, suffer small consequences, figure out how to solve their own problems, and learn from the process. The most important part is meeting them with compassion and empathy. Sometimes we get caught up in the consequences and forget to show them unconditional love to foster our relationship.
I feel the need to stress that I am talking about small mistakes and consequences. Little things like missing out on dessert or a trip to the park, not playing on the freeway. These are referred to as significant learning opportunities, or SLOs (read more at loveandlogic.com). Making decisions for themselves at a young age allows kids to learn the decision making process and what happens when the less than desirable choice is made. Children who are not allowed to make sad choices and mistakes are not able to learn to make wise choices. Not only will this improve their decision making, but kids will learn through practice that the quality of their life depends on how well they make decisions.
In order for kids to develop and sharpen their decision making skills, they need to have lots of practice, just as we need practice allowing them to make choices.
- Do you think a teenager or young adult who has been allowed to make lots of decisions and has experienced consequences and SLOs will be a better decision maker than one who has had all his or her decisions made or has not had to deal with the logical consequences of his or her choices?
- Who do you think will make wiser decisions when they are on their own and making life and death choices?
The importance of making wise decisions increases significantly as children grow. As a toddler, missing out on a trip to the park may seem like the end of the world, but as a teenager choosing to drink and drive really would be.
Watching our children make sad choices and experience consequences is hard for parents. Often I will want to swoop in as the helicopter parent and rescue them (read more on parenting styles here). But I know allowing them to practice decision making is a much better option for all of us. When our children are given choices, which life is full of, and they choose to make the sad choice rather than the wise choice, we must meet them with empathy and love instead of I-told-you-so or anger. When they make a wise choice we get to see them learn, grow, and feel proud about themselves and improve their self-esteem.
Additionally, providing choices when things are going well gives our children a sense of control and importance. We all have a need to feel like we have some control over our lives, and allowing children to make choices gives them an understanding of how to work through making decisions and have control. As parents, we give away some of our control in order to get some back. We allow our children to make lots of small choices when things are going well, that way, when we need to get some control back, we can utilize phrases like, “I usually give you lots of choices during the day, but it is my turn to make this choice.” No one wins control battles between a parent and child. Sure, we may feel like we won, but at what cost? Giving children choices and control when we don’t need it, allows us to get some control back when we do need it. We don’t need to have control over what plate they get at dinner (let them choose blue or orange). We don’t need to have control over if they brush their teeth before or after they put on PJs. With these kinds of choices, there is no “wrong” choice and we shouldn’t judge whatever the child chooses.
The choices we give children may seem small and unimportant to us. But even small choices give kids the practice they need to understand the decision making process and gives them feeling of importance and control. We want our kids to have practice long before they hit the real world. Choices begin with simple, “Do you choose to take a bath or a shower?” and move to, “Do you choose to pay for your car insurance by getting a job or doing extra chores around the house?” Allowing young children to choose simple things like what color shirt to wear or whether to have water or milk won’t ensure they make wise choices when they are adults. This is a continual process as they get older.
When they are finally on their own, the choices become much more life and death and not nearly as black and white. Giving our kids and teenagers the ability to have some control over their lives can prevent them from going overboard when they are finally in total control. Allowing them some control and choices over spending money, dealing with cars and insurance, bills, social interactions, and school while they are still at home will give them the practice to be prepared for these when they are on their own.
How often do we hear about “good” kids who make bad choices as soon as they are on their own? As much as we may want to, we cannot protect our children from everything, especially as they get older. Wouldn’t you feel better when your teenager or young adult moves out knowing he or she had lots of practice making decisions and made lots of small mistakes while they were home?
When a child makes a choice that doesn’t work out for them and we meet them with loving empathy, they learn to understand that their choices influence their lives. When we make decisions for them, and things don’t go as the child wanted, the blame of that decision making falls on the parent. When we make a decision and things go well, the blame of that falls on us as well. We want the child to take the “blame” of things going well so they can see what happens when they make a wise choice.
Additionally, meeting our kids with love, compassion, and empathy is important so they know we are there for them and love them regardless of their choices. If a child thinks Mom or Dad will meet them with anger or frustration, do you think that child or teenager will be willing to come forward to tell of their sad choices? If a teenager expects his parents to fly off the handle when he messes up, he likely won’t want to share with his parents. But if he thinks Mom and Dad will be empathic (and firm in logical consequences), he is more likely to be open.
Being a consultant parent will help set your child up for success. Asking them questions will set their mind up to think for itself. We should walk next to our kids, not between them and the world. We can be there to help with suggestions if the kid is open to that. We can also be there to ask two very important questions:
- How do you think that will work out for you?
- What do you think you can do differently next time?
Do you give your kids lots of choices when things are going well?
Do you give your child some control so you are able to get it back when you really need it?
What are some more important choices you can give as your children get older that will help them prepare for being on their own?
By Emily Scott, PhD
Sharing Control Handout from Love and Logic®
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