Reading Time: 6 minutes

Jacob, also known as Spider-Man, is a three-year-old who could run the world, so why would anyone give him more power by letting him make his own decisions?

So that he can run his world well.

Empowering children to decide for themselves or to make choices can run headlong into our desire as parents to have our kids do what we say and do it now. But the truth is, giving children choices fuels responsible behavior, cooperation and a strong sense of self.

Children have an innate sense of personal dignity, even as they enter the world. Their brains are wired to receive love, and they innately know they are worthy of nurture, touch and care. They flourish with affection, smiles and conversation, and they cry for help when they are in need or uncomfortable. A child’s job is much more than to simply survive. Children are designed to thrive.

The late Jean Piaget, a psychologist known for his work on child development, asserts that humans develop through trying to understand and adapt to their environment. They do this in order to thrive. This is how they push themselves to the next emotional, mental and physical developmental milestone. It is how they develop a moral and ethical viewpoint. This is how they become secure in their existence, learn if their world is safe, decide if they are okay and discover how much they can do and how well they can do it. And all this experimentation begins to answer the question, “Who am I?”

Exciting…until we look at the creative, exploratory and testing processes of our child’s development. Perhaps the child will ignore their parent to see if their parent will really provide the structure the child needs. Perhaps it’s crying when they know we are looking, anticipating our comfort. They might be wondering to themselves, “How big of a mess can I make, and who will clean it up?” “What happens when I say no or don’t do what you tell me to do?”  “Who is more powerful here? Me—and I’m Spider-Man, remember?” “If I cry this loud, will I get what I want?” These are not fun moments for us as parents.

It’s our job as parents to have limits and structure surrounding behaviors, as well as loving responses that meet our children right where they are in the messy process of figuring out life and figuring out themselves. Really, our children are more like us than they are different—we are each trying to navigate our season of life with the resources and maturity we have in order to grow and experience meaningful days. If this similarity can be imagined, we can embrace the same types of responses that we would like to be given—like choice, understanding and affirmation.

When we just give directives, we lose opportunities to connect and learn. Let’s look at a simple example of how a basic parental directive to stop jumping can be reframed as choice.

Little Jacob wants to climb on the table and chairs, jump from the counter tops and learn the limits of his body, gravity and what in his home can be used as his playground.

A parent might say, “I can see Spider Man wants to climb and jump this morning.” (This acknowledges a normal developmental part of child’s play.) You may need to set a limit, and say, “The table is not for jumping on” and continue with choices. “You can choose to jump and climb on the couch and loveseat cushions, or you can choose to jump on the bed and the beanbag chair.” (This gives him options to consider that are acceptable to the parent, while giving the child the age-appropriate autonomy to be a child in discovery.) “Which do you choose?” (This provides the follow-through that you are not going to just walk away and forget about the need to contain his jumping.)

The choices you give 3-year-old Jacob are much different from the choices you will give an 8-year-old and again much different from the choices you will give a 16-year-old. No matter the age, we want to meet our children where they are with opportunities for growth and learning within their developmental stage. We meet them at their developmental stage with academics or with talks about body, privacy and sexuality. We do this with understanding holidays, and we see them naturally adapt developmentally in the ways they gravitate to and from different toys, activities and hobbies. Allowing them to make age-appropriate choices prepares them for their next developmental journey.

Here are a few more examples: A parent might say to five-year-old Sarah, “You can choose to eat your lunch and choose to get ice cream afterwards or you can choose to not eat or lunch and choose to not get ice cream.”  In real life, our choices have rewards or consequences.

Sometimes, children will stall and just not make a choice. For instance, imagine you are out camping, and you find your child playing with a lighter they found. You explain it is dangerous and give them the choice to place it in your hand or go put it on the table. Because they still want to play with it, they are not very happy about your choices, so they make no choice. Here, you let them know that, if they don’t choose, you will choose for them.

For eight-year-old Tabitha who struggles to take care of the hamster she wanted so badly, a parent might discuss with their daughter the importance of consistent care for other living things and remind her that she agreed to this responsibility. Then the parent might say, “You can choose to feed you hamster twice a day and clean the cage on weekends, and you choose to keep your hamster.  Or you can choose not to feed your hamster twice a day and not to clean the cage on weekends, and you choose for the hamster to be re-homed.” Her choice. Notice how Tabitha not only chooses the initial action (or inaction), but as soon as she makes that choice, she is also choosing the reward or consequence. We want to verbalize that she is the one choosing the outcome as well. This emphasizes the reality that we are all responsible for both our choices and the outcomes for our choices. Neither blame nor entitlement can exist where responsibility is taken for one’s own choices.

Now I get it—if your kid is playing in the street, there is no time for choices. It’s certainly a moment for “Come out of the street, NOW!” Once your child is safe, you can communicate that the road is not for playing in and then provide a choice: “You can choose to play ball in the yard and choose to still play outside, or you can choose to play ball in the street again and choose to come in the house.” Parental responses need to have immediate follow-through so the child understands that consequences of choices are immediate. If this sounds harsh, consider the choice to play in the street: the consequence of getting hit by a car could be immediate and without warning. We want to help children grasp this.

For your 16-year-old who just got their driver’s license, the choice you may want to give them is that, if they choose to drive responsibly, they choose to accept your offer to pay the car insurance. If they choose to drive in a way that earns them a citation from the police, they are choosing to pay their own car insurance. Understanding and even expecting a negative outcome can motivate us all to make productive and healthy choices.

It is especially important that teenagers already have an understanding of the choice-reward and choice-consequence correlations as they enter adolescence. This is because the dopamine system in the brain spikes starting at age 12-13, influencing youth’s impulsivity and risk taking. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps release other hormones, especially those related to reward and pleasure.) This is why it is crucial that teenagers have an understanding of the inherent rewards, risks and potential consequences of the behaviors they engage in. Risky behaviors might include being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, driving too fast, engaging in sexual activity or jumping from high cliffs into the water. By this age, their brain should have had years of learning to make choices associated with the understanding of the reward or consequence that may follow. It’s a package deal.

We cooperate with children’s innate self-exploration journey when we give them age-appropriate choices. Here are other valuable reasons for giving children choices, and maybe you can think of a few more:

  • Choice minimizes power struggles between parent and child.
  • Choice embraces a growth mindset; mistakes are learning platforms.
  • Choice is parenting from love and respect, not fear or power.
  • Choice develops problem-solving skills.
  • Choice creates critical thinking skills that translate to choosing to be responsible.
  • Choice builds responsibility at an age-appropriate level, keeping children from being over-dependent on parents or others.
  • Choice empowers confidence and a positive self-image.
  • Choice honors human dignity.

Cheers! Here’s to all our little (and big) Jacobs running their world well!

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