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One of the first things I learnt in my early years as a kindergarten teacher was the importance of providing choices. Children are nothing but little people. They have the same emotions and reactions as us adults. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that when we are dealing with them, and more often than not, we autocratically expect them to do something because we said so. We take away their sense of independence and control over their own lives. The tantrums are nothing but the child discovering a sense of self and trying to assert himself.
The crux of the dilemma that most parents face is where do we draw the line. If we give them too much independence, they will walk all over us, which tends to be the case with most modern day parents. Or we belong completely to the old school thought process that a child must be seen and not heard. He’s a child. He’s not entitled to have an opinion until he’s 18. Neither option works.
The trick is to find the middle ground. To give them enough choices to help them retain their sense of independence and control without taking away yours. When we offer children choices, we are offering them an opportunity to practice responsibility and demonstrate independence. At the same time, we retain enough control to monitor their health and safety.
Making a wise choice is a developed skill. If we expect our teenage children to make healthy choices about alcohol and drugs, we need to provide them with plenty of opportunities to make choices at an earlier stage. By developing a habit of decision making, we teach our children to consider all possible consequences of their choices and to make their decisions accordingly.
As parents, we control almost every aspect of our children’s lives. What food they eat, what clothes they wear, what time they sleep, who they play with… every single day, we make choices for them. And for a lot of us, these choices can lead to conflict. If you have a daily fight with your three-year-old child over what to wear each day, one option is to divide her clothes into everyday home clothes and going out clothes. Let her choose what she wants to wear today from the everyday pile. Another option is to lay out two options and ask your child which she would prefer, assuming that both options are fine by you.
Being in control of your own actions feels good. Self-esteem grows when we are successfully able to do things for ourselves. Think of the look on your toddler’s face as he triumphantly navigates the balancing beam at the playground. Children learn to accept failure and are more prepared to learn from their mistakes when they feel good about themselves. Simple routine tasks for your two-year-old as he starts to assert his independence, like pouring out a glass of water can be a choice. “Would you like to pour it yourself or shall I pour it for you? Oops, a little water spilt. Let’s clean it up.” The child learns that the bottle of water was possibly too heavy for him to carry or that he needs to be more careful while pouring. The parent helps him rectify the situation without blaming him for the same. Thus, allowing the child to also learn the consequences of his actions. Next time, he may choose to do it on his own again or ask for help. Either way, the child learns to make a choice, reflect on the outcome of his choice and deal with the consequences of the same. He also learns that his parent is not going to blame him for the outcome of his choice.
The ability to make choices forms an integral part of problem-solving. To make a choice, one must evaluate the pros and cons of the options available. One learns to think creatively and take all aspects into account, even the not so obvious ones. A choice as simple as would you like to go to your friend’s house for a playdate or go for a movie with your family can be a tough decision-making process for your ten-year-old child. Before he makes his decision, he is forced to consider all possible scenarios of where will he have the most fun, what food will he get to eat, where may he be bored, his opportunity to see the movie again versus his opportunity to have a playdate again.
In some cases, a child may not like the outcome of his choice. R chooses to spend this week’s pocket money on a toy that breaks within five minutes of playing with it. R bursts into uncontrollable tears. As a parent, we have two options. We can pacify him by buying him another toy but that negates the purpose of providing him with a choice. Or we can say, it’s a pity that your toy broke. Next week, let’s look at other toys that you think will last a little longer. While providing choices, we must also ensure that we teach the child to accept responsibility for the choices made.
Provide legitimate choices. All options provided must seem fair to the child. “You can either eat what’s put in front of you or you can go to your room hungry.” From the child’s point of view, it’s not much of a choice. He doesn’t want to be hungry so he has to eat what’s given to him. This results in a cranky, rebellious child who is being forced to accept a decision handed out to him. Every time, we cook some vegetables and dal, the children are given a choice of rice or roti, both being forms of carbohydrates. The vegetables and dal are non-negotiable. As they get older, they can help plan the menu for the week. You will find that they are more willing to eat healthy, nutritious meals if they are allowed an element of choice in the process.
There are certain situations in life where we don’t have a choice whether it’s following the laws of a nation or the rules of an establishment. Similarly, a child must also learn to accept situations where he doesn’t have a choice, especially those involving his safety. While in the kitchen, a child may not play with the kitchen stove but is allowed to choose between pouring the milk or cracking the eggs while making a cake. When children are given enough opportunities to make choices for themselves, they are far more willing to accept the non-negotiables in life.
Your child will make daily choices through his life, with or without you. By providing meaningful opportunities to make and accept choices, you will be teaching him necessary life skills to navigate his world tomorrow.