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

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with FREEDOM come RESPONSIBILITIES and I dare not linger for my long walk is not ended.” Dr. Nelson Mandela (From Long Walk to Freedom, 1994)

What has, allowing your child the freedom to choose a truck versus Spiderman at the toy store, have any importance on your child in correlation to the words of our Great Madiba? 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 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.

As parents, wanting the best for your child, wanting to protect your child from getting hurt, showing them the right path, and the need to succeed, is natural, and deciding what is good for them, how 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. 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;

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
  • gives them a sense of greater esteem
  • ability to self-regulate
  • spurs on motivation
  • gives them the sense of pride in making a meaningful and empowering contribution;
  • fosters more co-operation
  • encourages your child to take responsibility for the choices they have made and the consequences of those choices;
  • stimulates thinking
  • helps them problem-solve
  • fuels creativity as new, expansive possibilities and choices are explored;
  • promotes and nurtures healthy relationships which are mutually rewarding;
  • instils morals and values

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 needing your care, and are unable to master adult skills cognitively, emotionally and physically. So how do you find the balance between gaining parental control versus allowing your child to decide for themselves?

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

Yet, there are circumstances when it is required of us to know that there is only one choice, for example, following the law, or else there are serious ramifications. The basic rule to remember as a parent is to recognise when it is 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. Your child too needs to learn that 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, parents give their child a boundary by stating it is time to complete what they are doing for example. 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 tatty Superman suit instead of the new outfit you bought him to a party, this freedom to decide could be the hallmark of allowing him to be a “super-young-man” one day.

To book a spot on the Parenting Wisely Workshop contact us at PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre  on 011-4503576 or info@psychmatters.co.za should you need to build skills to empower yourself and your child.

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