What was meant to be an exciting expedition to the toy store with my four-year-old niece turned into an infuriating nightmare for us both! Walking into an over-stacked, overwhelmingly bright and bold toy shop, with many other kids scurrying around, can turn an excited child into a whining, frustrated, crying little terror. “I don’t know what to choose, Aunty,” she was still saying after an hour of wandering the ailes, much to my frustration! And so, what was meant to be a positive, fun experience, ended up causing anxiety for both adult and child.
The importance of teaching your child to make choices
- Although seemingly trivial, allowing your child to make these choices will lay the foundation of important life skills, and can be taught to your children from as young as three years. These small decisions are the platform from which you can teach your child to become a competent, capable, confident and responsible adult one day.
- Children today are faced with having to make many different kinds of decisions. They also need to learn how to cope with difficult life events or circumstances, for example, both parents working, exposure to global information and media, crime, divorce, etc.
- It’s natural to want to decide what’s good for them, what to think, what to do, or even to do things for them. However, this doesn’t allow for the process that helps your child develop the lifelong skill of responsible behaviour. The challenge lies in knowing when to encourage your child to be more responsible, based on her age and stage of development, and how much support to give.
- Learning to let go as a parent; learning when to share the responsibility of decision-making on age-appropriate matters; knowing when and how to adjust to your child’s expanding and constantly changing world; recognising your child’s readiness for independent decision-making and greater responsibility, with the foundation of values that help to build a healthy self-concept, are all part of the developmental process that a family needs to be aware
of and face.
13 benefits of teaching your child to make decisions
The pay-off in helping your child to make her own decisions is colossal. This simple skill facilitates the following:
- It gives children a feeling of being in control: all humans strive to feel in control, and if they’re given opportunities to make their own decisions and choices daily to feel empowered, this need will be satisfied and they won’t need to express it in a destructive way through force over others, or being oppositional at home and at school.
- It builds a healthier self-esteem: being independent and in control will make your child feel good about herself.
- She’ll develop the ability to self-regulate: upon making a poor decision, a child who has
a strong sense of self-worth will be able to evaluate it calmly, rethink the situation, and make a better choice, without falling apart.
- It provides motivation: a child usually commits to following through on a task or activity that she has chosen for herself.
- It develops a sense of pride in making a meaningful and valuable contribution.
- It fosters more cooperation, as your child will feel part of the family team.
- It encourages children to take responsibility for the choices they’ve made as well as the consequences of those choices.
- It stimulates thinking: giving a child choices will develop her mind and create new and unique combinations of ideas and options.
- It helps children to problem-solve: they’ll learn about convergent thinking and finding the right answer, as well as lateral thinking and seeing many possible answers.
- It fuels creativity, as new possibilities and choices are explored.
- It promotes and nurtures healthy relationships that are mutually rewarding.
- It instils morals and values: when your child’s decisions are respected and valued, it makes it easier for her to respect others’ decisions, and take the needs of others into account when making decisions.
- A child who doesn’t master this skill will most likely:
Remain dependent on her caregivers or others, even as an adult
Be overly influenced by friends and peers
Feel resentful towards caregivers or adults who limit her freedom to make choices
Feel doubtful of her abilities
Struggle to take the risks that foster learning
Not challenge herself to achieve greater things and reach her full potential
How to find the balance between taking charge of a situation and allowing your child to decide for herself
It can’t be expected that your child be totally independent and have free reign, as she’s still dependent on you and needs your care, and is unable to master adult skills cognitively, emotionally and physically.
So how do parents find the balance between taking charge of the situation and gaining parental control versus allowing your child to weigh up her options and decide for herself? Dr Garry Landreth, the founder of the Center for Play Therapy in the US, believes in the fundamental rule that parents need to believe deeply in their child’s capacity to act responsibly, and must respect her ability to solve her own problems without minimising her sense of self-worth.
Implement these tips to allow your child to make her own choices:
- Give her choices and assist her when she needs to make solid decisions. However, there are times and circumstances in life when we need to know and understand that there’s only one correct choice, for example, following the law, or there’ll be serious ramifications.
- Recognise when it’s your responsibility to take parental control without the collaboration of your child, for example, when the safety of your child is at stake; to prevent potential danger; or whenever there’s a crisis.
- Your child also needs to learn to recognise these situations, and know that in these particular circumstances, the parent or authority figure must make the decisions. You can help her understand that there can sometimes be serious consequences to poor decision-making, like getting hurt, or going to jail if laws are broken.
- Also, when time becomes a factor in decision-making, such as when it’s time to go to school, or when to go home after a playdate, parents must provide boundaries for their children by making these timeframes known.
- Always keep in mind that whenever you offer a set of choices to your child, or when you allow her to make a decision for herself, these choices must be appropriate for her age and reasoning ability, and acceptable to you.
- The younger your child is, the fewer options she’ll need to be given, as younger children aren’t developmentally able to understand major consequences, nor are they able to reason or make logical, appropriate decisions like an older child would. For example, a young child won’t understand that if she doesn’t put on her jersey, she’ll get cold when she’s outside.
- Start by offering your child two options to choose from, and then suggest more as she gets older and is ready to expand her decision-making. When she’s older, encourage her to think of her own choices, by creating a safe environment in which there’s openness to and acceptance of sharing differences of opinion.
- Place your focus on what your child can do as an alternative, rather than saying ‘No’ most of the time. Start incorporating ‘what if’ scenarios to evoke thinking, for example, ‘What if you get lost while we’re shopping?’, or ‘If you get lost in the store, what could happen?’ This will give your child the understanding that she’s important, that you care about her, and that her safety is paramount.
Remember to teach by example, as your child is your mirror. Model to your child your own effective decision-making skills so that she can observe, internalise and learn from your own skills.
So, the next time your four-year-old insists on wearing her moth-eaten and somewhat dull fairy princess outfit to the party instead of the lovely new one you just bought for her, ask yourself how her freedom to decide could affect her and whether or not it will make her feel like a fairy princess herself.
Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day. Learn more about Xanet Scheepers.