By Ben Barer, LCSW-C
“Would you like to read a book before bedtime or would you rather just go straight to bed without a book?” This question appears to be unnecessary because nine times out of ten, your child will always pick the “book” option. But the implications behind giving a choice for the simplest decisions can have a significant impact throughout a child’s development. Children need to feel in control as much as adults do and being able to make decisions at a young age can promote healthy decision making in the future.
It’s especially important because children often hear all about what they can’t do:
- “No, you cannot read at the dinner table.”
- “Don’t carry more than one china plate at a time.”
- “You are not allowed to go outside by yourself.”
Setting boundaries for your children is crucial for their safety and growth. The line can become blurred when parents make too many everyday life decisions for the younger set. At that point, it becomes more about parents making choices for their children instead of allowing children to make decisions for themselves.
One thing to keep in mind is follow through. Consider this scenario: A parent or adult offers two different choices, the child chooses Option A, yet the parent or adult might still go with Option B. This is not a good idea because it can discourage growth and autonomy, and can also become a violation of trust. If you are genuinely offering a choice, make sure to respect what your child has chosen.
Here are some suggestions for introducing choices:
- Pick the right situation. A great and healthy option for promoting decision making skills is during playtime. The choices you can present during this time will most likely be safe and innocent. Offering the option of playing with a fire engine or a stuffed animal will be good practice for you and your child to start getting used to making decisions together. This is also an opportunity to gain further insight into your child’s personality, and that can lead to building a stronger relationship and better understanding of one another.
- Be age appropriate. Keeping choices simple and concise will yield better results. Asking a three year old to choose between living in two different cities probably wouldn’t work out so well.
- Control the situation. Use a technique called “stacking the deck,” which means offering two options that have outcomes you can live with. For example, when it comes to selecting an outfit for the day, let your child pick between two outfits that already have your approval. This is a win-win because you’re fine with either choice and your child feels like the decision maker.
Offering choices to children can help them develop the confidence to make decisions even when they are outside the home. You won’t always be around to help, so teaching them to develop those skills at home will pay dividends for your child’s future development.
Ben Barer, LCSW-C, is a Therapist at Jewish Community Services.
Because children don’t come with an instruction manual, Jewish Community Services offers a variety of programs, services, and supports for parents and families with children of all ages. Learn more at jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.