One thing I believe wholeheartedly is that we ALWAYS have choices. In any given situation there is usually more than one option to choose from. Granted, those options may not be preferable, or even comfortable, but there are always multiple options to choose from. Decision making is a skill and it takes practice to feel more comfortable while you are doing it. Ideally, we want to start when our children are very young so that they can practice early, but it is never too late to start!
Whether you have toddlers, tweens or teens, the tools for creating choices are the same at any developmental level because we are offering some scaffolding and structure to contain the information and keep our kids safe. Here are three things to keep in mind while you are creating choices for your child:
Offer two options to your child that are age-appropriate, realistic, and sound.
Select choices that you, as a parent, can live with.
Give choices that you, as a parent, are willing to allow your child to experience the consequence of that choice.
Let’s start with an example common to all ages: what to wear for the day. A 3-year old is just as capable as a 13-year old when choosing an outfit. We can structure this choice by indicating what is acceptable based on family values. A 3-year old can choose a top and a bottom on a mild spring day, while a teen can choose from clothes that adhere to the school and family dress code. As a parent, you might not like that your toddler paired polka dots and plaid, or that your teen is wearing all black, but you can live with what they have chosen. By denying our kids their power to choose, they can ultimately feel like parents don’t trust their ability to choose.
Teenagers are growing into young adults, and as they struggle toward independence and autonomy, the world suddenly becomes a much more frightening place for parents! I don’t know about you, but I remember what I was doing when I was a teenager. Currently, I have three teens at home and I feel out-of-control often. I falsely believe that if I can regain control, and the three of them would just “fall in line”, then everything would be easier. However, increased control encourages rebellion. The key to control with teens is through choices and relaxing the grip on them.
As a personal example, my husband and I had an internet surfing teen in the recent past. She was surfing Mavericks-sized waves, not Waikiki Beach sets. My knee-jerk response to her troubles with chat rooms and meeting strangers on the internet was to completely eliminate the internet privilege. Forever. Of course, this just wasn’t realistic. Returning to our choices framework, we had to let her experience the consequences of her choices on the internet so that she could learn self-control. No amount of hovering over her was going to teach her to handle herself in dicey situations.
After a one month lockdown from the internet, while we increased the PC monitoring software, we gradually allowed her to get back on to her favorite social media site. Just one. We gave her the choice: she could use the computer for an agreed amount of time, we get all passwords to monitor her activity, or she wasn’t allowed to access the internet. Then, over time, she demonstrated more responsibility. Eventually, we were able to let out the line and watch her surf from the beach. She plunged a few more times before she mastered better judgement on the internet. When once she had secretly created multiple blogging accounts and had given her cell number to a person she met online, now she has started her own online business selling her original artwork, which includes taking orders, receiving payments, and shipping product. Imagine if I had kept her from experiencing the consequences of falling off her internet surfboard, she may not have learned how to productively access and navigate the resources available in the digital age.
Creating choices for your child boosts self-esteem and cultivates a robust self-concept. And, it is hard to let our kids learn the scary lessons. The fact is it's part of your children's "job" to do stupid things. Bad decision making is an essential part of their road to maturity. The key is to give kids the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. By structuring the environment where choices can be made and fostering a safe place for your child to fail will really go a long way to help them be responsible for the disappointments of poor choices and the satisfaction of the better choices. The end result is your child’s ability to internalize that he/she really is the one in control of the quality of his/her life.