On their second year, kids start their journey towards independence and they need their parents to help them “write their declaration of independence” before they can sign it and go their own way. The longer they work on this, the more opportunities they have to receive guidance, try different things, make mistakes in a safe environment and become skilled at making choices.
Independence is all about making our own choices. The choices children make are small at first, but we all know that one day they will need to make big choices and our job as parents is to help them enjoy the process and trust their own judgment.
How to give your kids choices
- Start early. When your kids are very young, it is much easier to give them choices, because they are not sophisticated enough to notice that your choices have boundaries around them. For example, if you want them to drink their milk, you can say, “Do you want your milk in the blue cup or the green cup?” It may take more than one time to get them to realize they have a choice, but you get them to drink the milk and give them a choice at the same time.
- Suggest instead of forcing. When Eden was only 1 year old and wanted to get her bottle from the kitchen counter, she would bring a chair and climb on it to grab it. Instead of bringing her the bottle to “save” her the trouble or freaking out she was “risking” herself, we watched her carefully to make sure the chair was stable and congratulated her on this creative way of meeting her challenge. When she struggled to each while cooking with me in the kitchen, instead of telling her to bring a chair and stand on it, I would suggest, “Maybe you can bring something to make you taller”. Although I always thought she would bring a chair, she sometimes brought a big strong box or some other thing instead. Eden is 22 years old now and an excellent problem solver, which I think is a very important skill on the road to independence.
- Do not impose your choice. Making something sound like a choice does not make it one. For example, “You have to drink the milk now. Would you please drink it?” is not a choice! It sends a message that you have no respect for your child’s preferences and you are abusing your parental power. Real choice carries no artificial consequences, only natural ones, and the only one making it is the child.
- Always give your kids choices within your boundaries. Never give choices you cannot live with, because this will start a war. For example, if it is freezing outside and you want to strengthen your kids’ choice muscle regarding their clothes, do not offer them a short-sleeved shirt as an option, only two warm options. Instead of saying, “There is no way on Earth you are going to wear a dress today”, which shows how powerful you are, say, “It’s a cold day today. What do you think? What will be most suitable for you today, the long shirt with the bunny or the shirt with the truck? I trust your judgment”. Yes, it requires you to think about what is important to you and what the boundary is. Once you figure that out, it is much simpler to find choices to suit.
- Never give prizes for preferred choices. It is very important to present the choices as equally as possible and let the child make a real choice. When you give incentives for choosing one option, you are not really giving an options, you are bribing. When you bribe your child to choose what you prefer, that is similar to forcing. You make it hard to choose! To notice when you are doing this, pay attention to your statements. If they contain any conditions, as in, “It’s your choice, you can get an A in math and I get you an iPod or you can be slack in your math and have to buy the iPod from our own money”, be careful! Bribing always has a hidden threat and that hinders good decision-making, not to mention your child’s trust in your.
- Never, ever, ever criticize your kids’ choices. We all make choices we think are good and none of us are fortunetellers. Choosing badly is how kids develop perspective. If they experience criticism, they learn not to trust their own judgment and when you are not there, they criticize themselves and develop a fear of failure, which is the exact opposite of independence.
- Never say, “I told you so”. When you give your kids a choice and things do not come out the way you or they expected, saying “I told you so” is another form of criticism and a sign that when you gave your child the options, you were not ready to live with consequences of their choice. This way, instead of teaching your kids to be responsible, you are teaching them to avoid responsibility. When you present the choices to your child, lose the attachment to the outcome. Let it go. Whatever happens, there is at least a lesson in it.
- Limit the number of options. Research has found that people (grownups and kids) gets confused when the have too many choices. Giving lots of options does not make you a better parent. Instead of taking out half the things in the refrigerator and asking your kids to choose what they want to eat, take out 2 things for young children and 3-4 things for older ones. The older they are, the better they get at choosing.
- You can give options even to a 22-year-old. When I tell people that I give my teens and even young-adult Eden choices, they find it strange. I think mainly because they think of it as a form of manipulation, while I see it as a form of respect and a way to help them learn to make choices and grow their independence. What I do is involve them in decisions that affect the entire family. Some of the decisions we make as parents affect their life greatly and I believe they should have a say. Gal and I give them the choices out of the ones we think are appropriate and let them choose the one that seems good for them. Usually it gives us a chance to talk to them about limitations, about compromise, about regrets and about how to consider different options, skills that are much better experienced than lectured.
- Show genuine interest in your kids’ opinion. It is easy. Just ask their opinion. Do not say you will do what they suggest, only that you would like to know what they think and take it into consideration. We have always asked our kids’ opinion on important topics that concern all of us – moving house, the new dining room wall color, holiday destinations and activities and even how to use our money best. Sometimes, if we find that we have very different ideas about what to do, we even vote! This always gave them the feeling they are respected. We have strategies for allowing each member of the family to contribute to the decision making (even Noff who is 10 years old) and to sum up the ideas and thoughts to one choice. I believe this contributes greatly to not having conflicts between parents and kids. If you are wondering whether I like everything they do, well, no, I do not agree with all their choices and sometimes, I say, “No TV”, but I always suggest (better) alternatives.
Join me next week for the third chapter of Kids’ Declaration of Independence and I will share with you some ways of giving kids opportunities to choose.
This post is part of the series Kids' Declaration of Independence:
- Kids’ Declaration of Independence: The Choice Muscle
- Kids’ Declaration of Independence: How to Give Choices
- Kids’ Declaration of Independence: Opportunities
- Kids’ Declaration of Independence: Teaching about Choice
- Kids’ Declaration of Independence: Decision Techniques