Raising a Responsible child: Too young to decide?

By Joanna Kleovoulou, Clinical Psychologist and Director of PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre

What was meant to be an exciting expedition to the toy store with my four-year-old niece, turned that intended delightful treat in to an infuriating nightmare for us both!

In the eyes of your pre-schooler, walking in to an over-stacked, overwhelmingly bright and bold toy shop with many other kids flurrying around, can change excitement to a whining, frustrated and even overwhelmed crying little horror, “I don’t know what to choose mommy” – one hour later! What was meant to be an affirming experience for your child can change in to a sense of anxiety and powerlessness for both parent and child.

So what has, choosing a truck versus Spiderman at the toy store, have any importance on your child? This life skill, taught from as young as three-years, allows for a breeding ground to cultivate in your child the seeds to become a competent, capable, confident and responsible adult one day. You are your child’s best teacher and the family set-up is the foundation to learn future life skills.

Also, our children today are faced with having to make different kinds of decisions and needing to cope with life events – both parents working, exposure to global information and media exposure, parental divorce, and any unusual circumstances that come their way.

As parents, wanting the best for your child, wanting to protect your child from getting hurt, and to show them the right path, and to succeed, is natural, and deciding what is good for them, what to think, what to do or doing things for them, are a part of that. However, this does not allow for a process to help your child develop a lifelong skill that will foster responsible behaviour. The challenge lies in knowing when to encourage your child to be more responsible, based on their age and stage, and how much support to give.

Learning to let go as a parent; learning to know 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 bigger responsibility, with the foundation of teaching them your family values in order to build a healthy self-concept, are all part of the developmental tasks a family needs to be aware of and face.

The pay-off in helping your child to make their own decisions is colossal. This simple skill:

  • gives them a feeling of control

o all humans strive to feel in control and if they are given opportunities to make their own decisions and choices to feel powerful daily, that need will be satisfied without expressing the need to feel powerful in a destructive way through power or force over others, or being oppositional at home and at school

• gives them a sense of greater esteem
o as being independent and in control makes your child feel good;
• ability to self-regulate
o a child who has a sense of worth, when making a poor decision, is able to evaluate it calmly, rethink the situation, and make a better choice without falling apart
• spurs on motivation
o a child usually commits to following a task or an activity through which they have chosen for themselves
• gives them the sense of pride in making a meaningful and empowering contribution;
• fosters more co-operation
o as your child feels a part of the family team
• encourages your child to take responsibility for the choices they have made and the consequences of those choices;
• stimulates thinking
o (when giving your child choices, it stretches their minds, creates new and unique combinations of ideas and options
• helps them problem-solve
o they learn about convergent thinking, knowing the right answer as well as lateral thinking, seeing many possible answers
• fuels creativity as new, expansive possibilities and choices are explored;
• promotes and nurtures healthy relationships which are mutually rewarding;
• instils morals and values
o When your child’s decisions are respected and valued, it makes it easier for them to respect others’ decisions and to take the needs of others into account when choosing.

A child who does not master this skill will most likely:

  • remain dependent on their caregivers or others, even as adults;
  • be overly influenced by friends and peers;
  • feel resentful towards caregivers or adults who limit their freedom to make choices;
  • feel doubtful of their abilities;
  • struggle to take the risks that fosters learning; and
  • not challenge themselves to achieve greater things and reach their full potential;

So how do you help your child to decide?

It cannot be expected that your child be totally independent and have free reign, as they are still dependent and needing your care, and are unable to master adult skills cognitively, emotionally and physically. So how do you find the balance between taking charge and gaining parental control versus allowing your child to decide for themselves?

Dr. Gary Landreth, the founder of the non-directive Play Therapy Institute in the US, believes in the fundamental rule that a parent needs to believe deeply in their child’s capacity to act responsibly and to respect their child’s ability to solve their own problems without minimising their child.

Helping your child make healthy choices is essential in little and big decision-making, which will have profound effect on their lives. Giving your child choices is one of the life-skills needed to assist your child in making solid decisions.

However, there are times and circumstances in life when it is required of us to know and understand that there is only one choice, for example following the law, or else there are serious ramifications, (which in fact is another choice – to choose the consequences of one’s poor decision-making). The basic rule to remember as a parent is recognise when is it your responsibility to take parental control without the collaboration of your child – when the safety of your child is at stake; preventing potential danger or when there is a crisis. Thus your child too needs to learn that there the parent or authority figure makes the decision, , and to help them understand that there are serious consequences like getting hurt, or going to jail if laws are broken.

Also, when time becomes a factor in the decision-making, such as time to go to school or home-time after a play date, parents give their child a boundary by stating it is time to complete what they are doing for example.

Always keep in mind that choices given to your child need to be must be valid for your child and acceptable to you as the adult. Also, the younger the child, the fewer the options need to be given as they are not developmentally able to understand major consequences, not able to reason, or make logical decisions as an eight-year-old may be, for example, “If I don’t put on my jersey, I will get cold.”

Start by offering young children two choices, then suggest more choices as your child is older and ready to expand his or her decision-making, and when they are older to encourage them to think of their own choices, through creating a safe atmosphere where there is openness to share differences of opinion and a space of acceptance.

Also, 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, such as ‘What if you get lost whilst we go shopping?’ If you get lost in the store, what could happen? This gives your child the experience that they matter, are cared for, and that their safety is paramount. With all this in mind, remember to teach by example as your child is your mirror. Model to your child your on effective decision-making skills where they can observe, learn and internalise.

So the next time your four-year-old insists on wearing his outworn Superman outfit instead of the new one you bought for him, to the party, this freedom to decide could be the hallmark of allowing him to feel like a “super-young-man.”

Resources:

  • Positive Parenting for a Peaceful World: Ruth Todd (2005), Gaia Books
  • Parenting Wisely Manual, Joanna Kleovoulou Clinical Psychologist (2011).
  • Dr. Gary Landreth, Centre for Filial Play
  • Systematic Training for Effective Parenting, D. Dinkmeyer Sr., G.D McKay, D. Dinkmeyer Jr.
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