Private practice or corporation? Law or medicine? Harvard or Yale? Cheerios or Corn Flakes? Cheerios or Cornflakes??? What are you talking about? What’s the big deal? Well, when you’re 2 years old, it can be a big deal.
Acquiring the skill of learning how to—and being comfortable in—making decisions is a gift parents can and should give to their children. It has been astonishing to me in my experiences as both a speaker and a psychotherapist to discover the number of adults—people even into their 60’s and 70’s—who struggle with making even the simplest decisions. And, whenever I encounter such a person, I feel fairly safe in assuming that, when growing up, they either were never allowed to make decisions for themselves or whatever decisions they did make were second- guessed, questioned and/or criticized by the adults in their lives.
I once was within a group of women in which I was privy to the following scenario: One woman had recently been married to a man with two children. The older of the children, a 14-year-old girl, chose to live with her dad and his new wife. The new mom was giving a discourse on her approach to parenting and said, with much vehemence, “I believe a child needs to be told what to do, how to do it, when to do and where to do it.” She then turned to another woman in the group and commented, with some apparent admiration, “Well, your son is 12 years old and he’s so independent. How do you get a child to be like that?” To which the second woman replied, “by not telling him what to do, how to do it, when to do and where to do it.”
Parents can’t have it both ways—being in complete control over their child’s choices and expecting an independent, self-aware, confident individual in return. When determining which way you want to go, it helps to keep in mind that, while you are not always going to be there to oversee and make decisions for your child, the skills and abilities s/he has had the opportunity to learn, will.
By allowing children to make decisions on their own, a parent is transmitting many unspoken messages. Among them are: “I trust you”; “I think you are capable”; “I believe you can take care of yourself,” and, perhaps most important, “I have respect for you as an individual.” And the child perceives, well, if my mom/dad thinks I can do it—and they really know—it must mean that I can. There is also the idea that if something should go wrong—if, in retrospect, it is deemed that a poor or wrong decision was made—that things will still be okay and that, in fact, there are valuable lessons to be learned.
At what point can decision-making skill be encouraged to develop? Well, as soon as a child begins to show preferences. Take the cereal situation, for example. As soon as your baby prefers one to another, Cheerios to cornflakes, let’s say, let him have Cheerios. If she prefers her pink top to her purple top, let her wear pink. The best guideline is: the younger the child, the narrower the range of choices that should be offered.
For instance, to say to a 2-year-old, “What do you want to eat?” is just too general and too overwhelming. So, as we go down in age, it can go from “What do you want to eat?” to “Would you rather have eggs or cereal?” to “Hot cereal or cold cereal” and, finally, “Cheerios or cornflakes”—or whatever the bottom line happens to be.
The same rule exists for clothing or anything else in which your child can make a choice that won’t be dangerous to him/her- self or anyone else and where s/he won’t be infringing on someone else’s rights. It is so important to remember that the most significant factor is how the child ends up feeling about him/herself. I recall an instance when, as the director of a camp program for very young children, one camper showing up with a black velvet headband. When I commented on how pretty she looked, her mom responded, with some despair, that she couldn’t believe her daughter had chosen to wear velvet in the summer. What was more important? This serious “transgression” in fashion on the part of a 2½ year old, or the fact that this young lady felt glamorous and special all day? (And, to the mom’s credit, although distressed, she did let her wear it). I also recall running into a young mom with her 6-year-old daughter one day while doing some shopping. It was not a special holiday or the child’s birthday, but the little girl was dressed like a princess, in full regalia, including tiara, and it was wonderful. Kudos to this mom for allowing her little girl to do what she felt like—permitting her to choose her attire according to her wishes and supporting her child’s sense of self-expression and independence.
Children feel, and rightfully so, that they have very little say in their lives. They can’t, for instance, generally decide whether or not to go to school, whether or not they can continue to wear diapers for the rest of their lives or what time they will go to bed, etc. Accordingly, for the most part, they feel powerless. By allowing them to choose and then honoring their choices, they do feel they have some say and, consequently, the cause of the many power struggles that tend to arise as they grow older is negated.
Another factor in eliminating or at least alleviating the power struggle dynamic is making decisions together. Instead of a parent declaring how many cookies are allowed, or what time curfew should be—which almost always creates a feeling of defiance within the child—sit down and discuss it. Not only does the child feel respected and honored—which is always a great way for anyone to feel—s/he learns about the decision-making process as pros and cons are considered. Also, later on they can’t protest unfairness, or have much reason to fight the rule, as they have participated in the final decision.
As usual, there is a caveat to all of this. The child must also be aware that, underneath it all, the parent has the final word and there will be issues over which they just, simply, must comply: They do have to go to school, they must wait for a parent before crossing the street, and whatever else is de rigueur within a particular family. I once became familiar with a situation in which a family consulted their children and insisted, almost on every minor issue, that the child make the choice. They were advised at one point that one of the children, a little girl who had a birthmark on her face, had to, for medical reasons, have it removed. When they informed the little girl, she responded, “I don’t want to; it’s my face and I can decide what I want to do with it.” They then had a bit of struggle as it was unfamiliar and uncomfortable to her to realize that there were some decisions that had to be left to her parents.
The goal, as always, should be the defining and guiding force. And that goal is to create the most independent, self-reliant, responsible and happy adult, one who can face both the joys and challenges of life and feel confident enough to make the decisions life insists upon.
And, this is, in fact, a Jewish ideal and objective. If one considers that it is incumbent upon a Jewish parent to teach a child a trade, something that will help them survive and live a full and independent life, then perhaps we can surmise that it is incumbent upon Jewish parents to teach whatever other skills are also necessary for living that kind of life. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the University of Judaism puts it this way: While casting a giant shadow over our children’s perceptions and actions, their maturation entails a retreat of the parents’ ability to impose their own preferences. Ultimately, children learn to become responsible for themselves and their own behavior. Can we, as parents, learn to let our children take charge? My answer is we can—if they believe in themselves enough to make decisions and move forward.
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