Making Choices: A Critical Skill for Kids

A toddler boy is walking on a path that splits in front of him

Our children’s long term happiness depends on them being able to make good choices, not just obey.

A Crucial Decision

When my girls were teenagers, we had very few “rules” in the house. They could hang out with whomever they wanted, go out with whatever guys they chose, wear the clothes they liked, and come and go pretty much as they pleased. Many times, people have been shocked to learn we had no curfew!

Even with all this freedom, I never worried about who they were with or what they were doing. And never once did I stay up past about midnight waiting for a kid to come home. They earned good grades at school, helped around the house, and were, for the most part, respectful of others.

How was that possible?!

The answer lies in a decision I made very early on about my children’s behavior. I didn’t want them to just be obedient—to me, or anyone else. Instead, I wanted them to make good choices. This came partially from my own struggle with decision-making.

My Experience with Choice

As a kid and young adult, I was terrible at making decisions. I would typically just do what I thought my parents or friends wanted me to do. It was so hard for me, I couldn’t even choose a meal from a menu! I would typically just “have what she’s having.” Luckily, I had really good friends, or I might have done some really stupid things.

I recognized this as a big problem for me when I got out on my own, and I also realized it wasn’t making me very happy to just go along with what everyone else wanted me to do. And as I began to study Child Development, I learned about how we develop morally.

Learning to Make Choices

What I learned is that even though I was what most adults would call a “good kid”, I hadn’t fully developed morally. I was just avoiding trouble and doing what was expected of me. I hadn’t really developed my own moral compass and learned make choices based on what I wanted for my life.

As I started figuring out what I was about and learning to make choices on my own, I knew I really wanted this ability for my kids. I didn’t want them to just do what I wanted them to do or just “obey”. I wanted them to be happy long term, and that meant being able to make good choices on their own.

They Learned to Choose

I found ways to teach this to my kids, and over time they learned to make choices that make them happy. This includes choices about their behavior. For example, they learned they didn’t like the stuff that went on at late night parties or the feeling of being tired the next day when it came time to get up for family chores, so they naturally wanted to come home at a decent hour.

(Note: I didn’t just send my kids out without guidance as they became teenagers and hope for the best. They had developed trust with me over years of making other smaller choices and building up to the level of freedom they had as teens.)

How To Teach Kids to Make Choices

Choices are unavoidable. We have to make them every day, hundreds of times a day. Even NOT making a choice is actually making one—because we are letting things go to the default or going with what someone else chooses. We MUST prepare children for this critical skill!

So, how do you teach kids to make good choices? Here are 4 steps you can try with your child:

Begin Now, Start Small

It’s never too early to start helping your child learn to make choices. A very young child can choose between two or three outfits you lay out or between two vegetables at dinner. Start with simple choices that you approve.

Give the child as many opportunities as possible to make a choice. Almost every situation gives the opportunity for a choice, even if it’s as simple as whether they want to do something themself or have your help.

Making choices doesn’t have to mean a free-for-all. You can have things you require of the child and still give them options. For example, you don’t have to give them the choice to put away their toys or not. But you can say, “Do you want to put the toys away in 2 minutes or 5 minutes?” Or “Are you going to put away the blocks or the cars first?”

It’s also never too late! Be sure to let your older child make choices. Again, start simple, but work up to bigger decisions when you feel like they are capable and have built trust.

Don’t Demand Obedience

Children should never be told to do something “because I said so.” This forces them into a submissive mindset, where they just do what they’re told, even if they don’t know why.  They learn to act without thinking. It will most likely ensure that they can only function in life by being controlled by other people, such as parents, a spouse, their boss, or law enforcement. It will also make them much more susceptible to peer pressure, because they only feel comfortable when following others.

Obedience without question hinders a child’s ability to make decisions throughout life. Because they will be afraid of disapproval from their parent, children may procrastinate big decisions or simply choose what they think their parent wants, even if it wouldn’t be what makes them happy or fulfilled.

Another reason to avoid forcing your child to comply is that you cannot be with them 24/7 for their entire life. There will be times that your child is away from you when they need to make small, major, and even critical decisions on their own. Without practice, this could bring disastrous results.

If a situation requires a child to obey for their own safety, remember they still have the option to listen or not. In this case, it’s important to discuss with them the reasons why. Let them know that they might get hurt or lost and that you need them to stay safe. This will get them thinking about what could happen if they make a wrong choice, and they are more likely to follow directions.

Talk About Choices

Take the opportunity to talk about choices with your child so that they come to recognize them. Point out situations when they are in charge of choosing. You could say something like, “Which one are you going to pick?” Or “I’m eager to see what you decide about that.” Maybe discuss the options your child has, as well as the possible outcomes for each choice. Try not to persuade them one way or the other, and be supportive of their right to choose.

Take Advantage of Natural Consequences

Natural consequences allow children to see the actual result of their choices. They begin thinking about where their choices might lead and are better able to make good decisions.

Let children make mistakes early on. The older they get, mistakes become more and more expensive. Resist the urge to rescue them from their consequence. This would rob them of a valuable learning experience! Most importantly, be empathetic about the outcome if it doesn’t turn out how they wanted. Don’t lecture about what they should have done. This takes the focus off the lesson and makes you the bad guy.

Give It a Try!

What are some choices you could let your child begin making on their own? Try to incorporate more opportunities throughout the day, and watch your child’s behavior change!

What’s Your Experience?

How has choice made a difference in your life? What have you seen your kids choose that you were proud of? What brought them a valuable life lesson? Write a comment and share your experience!

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