There’s no perfect way to parent; that’s a certainty. If there are a million ways to parent, all but about three of them are perfectly acceptable. I am a believer though that some parenting principles are more helpful than others, and teaching children to have confidence in their decision-making skills doesn’t have to be difficult.
I am not a parenting expert; not even close (if such a thing even exists). I have far from perfect children. But we can probably all agree that there are some practices that seem to more effectively raise productive and contributing members of society, something I do hope my children become.
Confidence To Make Decisions
Among other things, I hope my children learn to make good decisions for themselves. Teaching them to make the “right” decision involves a lot of work and a little luck. But I have a hunch that teaching them to be capable of making decisions in general isn’t quite as challenging. I want my children to grow up and be comfortable making a choice and not be paralyzed by the process of choosing or the multitude of options (presumably both good and bad).
Low Stakes Decisions for Little Ones
To encourage my boys to learn how to make decisions and trust their choices, we give them lots of opportunities to make decisions for themselves. However, at just 5 and 3 years old, their decisions are generally very low stakes (not a lot riding on them) and we are comfortable with all the options from which they’re choosing.
Even though, in these types of circumstances, it doesn’t really matter which option the boys choose, many of the decisions feel weighty and difficult to them. They practice overcoming the overwhelming feeling of not knowing which path is the best, experiencing the hindsight of living with the outcome of their choice, and building a foundation of decisions and consequences off of which to build for future choices they have to make.
Little Decisions Turn Into Big Decisions
As we get older, a lot more rides on the choices we make. Contemplation over which Hotwheels car to buy turns into deciding which real car to buy. We no longer choose which sports team to join, we choose with which employer to sign on. Instead of deciding who to invite to our birthday party, we choose how many children to invite into our family.
Letting our children have bite-sized moments of independence while practicing how to make decisions helps them prepare for the bigger moments down the road when making their own choices and being more independent have higher stakes. As parents, we have a responsibility to help our children prepare (in age-appropriate ways) for the next hurdles life will throw their way. Offering them opportunities, even if they are created by us and not always necessary, doesn’t have to be hard.
A Kid in a Candy Store
Recently, on Instagram, I shared this photo of T making one of the “hardest decisions of his life” to date. We stopped in a candy shop and he got to choose a dozen pieces of candy, whatever he wanted but no more than twelve. He practiced addition as he added two gummy worms followed by three chocolate covered raisins and so on to his bag of sweets. He compared and contrasted his options. Finally, he made a series of decisions as I sat back and observed his choices without influence.
I loved seeing him develop confidence in his ability to decide what he wanted and learn that he was capable of choosing for himself. I suspect, at times, I’ll regret in the short-term encouraging him to be decisive and assertive. Sometimes, it’s easier to have a passive child who just does what I tell him because that’s all he knows. (Although I’ve never had one of those, so I guess I don’t really know.) But in the long run, I’m confident that teaching our boys to practice and trust their own choices will be valuable as they become adults.
With that, I thought I’d share a few ways we let our boys make their own decisions that are low stakes yet good practice for the important decisions they’ll make later in life. Sometimes, the circumstances are inevitable while other times we create opportunities and offer choices when they aren’t necessarily required. Would any of these work for your family?
10 Easy Ways to Foster Decision Making Confidence for Kids
Picking From Two Dessert Options ~ When dessert is on the menu for your family, offer your children two acceptable dessert options and let them decide. They don’t even have to be fancy.
Selecting One Extra Curricular Activity ~ Our boys haven’t played on too many sports teams or participated in many extra-curricular activities yet, but we’d like to keep commitments limited to a reasonable level. This fall, T has asked to play on a handful of sports teams, so we told him he could pick one. It doesn’t matter to us which he chooses, and he feels like it’s a really hard decision, so he hasn’t finalized his choice yet. But it’s been an easy opportunity to give him the independence and decision-making authority I mentioned earlier within the confines of a safe selection of options.
Choosing Which Book to Read Before Bed (or whenever your family reads together) ~ We read before bed and sometimes during breakfast. I almost always let each of the boys choose one book to read. Sometimes they have such a hard time choosing, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter.
Choosing a Collection of Sweets in a Candy Store ~ Like I mentioned above, offer a limit but give the child freedom to explore their options within that limit.
Selecting a Special Snack From The Grocery Store ~ My boys don’t love going to grocery store, so I try to make it worth their while and let them choose one snack that’s not on the list. Typically, I make them agree on something, which is an exercise in itself. Inevitably, they end up wavering between a handful of options throughout our shopping trip and one or two things are returned to the shelves before they settle on their final choice. This has definitely started to teach them the opportunity cost of selecting one option over another.
Deciding How to Spend Money & Family Economy ~ Set your children up with a family bank account. Maybe they receive an allowance or maybe it’s linked to specific chores they do; that can be your decision based on what works best for your family.
We follow a slightly modified version of the Family Economy that Ralphie from Simply on Purpose shared on Raise The Good. (I also interviewed Ralphie not long ago.) It’s worked really well for our family now that the boys have a set amount of money and they can spend it at their discretion. When their bank account is empty, they’re out of luck until they save up again.
Choosing a Limited Number of Books From the Library ~ We go to the library once a month or so (about as often as the books are due back). The boys would bring home every sports book in the library if I let them. Instead, they each choose a set number of books and return the number over their limit. (And, if I’m being honest, I almost always let them have one or two extra because… it’s books.)
Choosing a Restaurant for a Family Dinner ~ Once in a while, we let the boys choose where they want to go. They don’t know too many restaurants, so this choice isn’t quite as hard as how to spend $5 at Target or what to get in the candy store (so many options!!!), but they still make decisions.
Picking a Game for a Family Game Night ~ Lately, we’ve started playing games at night and sometimes during dinner. The boys aren’t always great about staying calm and sitting at the dinner table. The game helps keep everyone focused on the meal, relaxing, and sitting together to enjoy each other’s company. It was M’s idea and one that has worked out really well for us so far. Fingers crossed I didn’t just jinx us.
Choosing Part or All of Dinner ~ The boys love getting to decide the main dish at dinner. Being less than fans of vegetables, choosing one can sometimes be a taxing exercise. But letting them choose makes them (ever so slightly) more invested in eating it and helps them learn that sometimes you have to choose between two “not so great” options.
These are just a few examples. The same principles applies to any decision they’ll have to make when they forego something they like in exchange for something they want more.
In so many of these situations, it’s really easy to make the choice ourselves and never include the children in the decision-making process. More often than not, we have a preference about which option is easier, healthier, less expensive, more educational, etc… But we’re doing our children a disservice by not letting them gain the confidence to make decisions on their own and experience the joy and pain of relishing in good choices and surviving bad choices, respectively.
What do you think? Do you think it’s an important to skill to start teaching at a young age or will children learn in due time?
Do you have other ideas to help teach children how make decisions for themselves? Hop on over to Instagram and share your thoughts.