Making good decisions is like any other skill—it has to be learned. Get tips on helping children make good choices and think critically.
Picture the parent whose whole day seems to revolve around monitoring her children’s actions.
She helps right away when she notices her toddler struggling with a toy. She intervenes just as her two kids begin to argue about whose turn it is to use the fire truck. And when her six-year-old refuses to follow directions, she’s prepared with a slew of punishments to teach her a lesson.
It’s like we’re on lookout for anything wrong our kids can do, and we step right in to correct it.
But isn’t our goal to raise them so they can make those decisions all on their own? Because there will come a time when we can’t or shouldn’t monitor their choices. How will they know what to do when we’ve always made those decisions for them?
As Foster Cline and Jim Fay, authors of the book Parenting with Love & Logic, say:
“We must understand that making good choices is like any other activity: It has to be learned.”
Helping children make good choices
We want to raise kids to make good choices even when we’re not there. Even when there’s no reward or praise from a watching audience. Even when it’s hard.
These are skills they need to do on their own. We can guide them, but we can’t do everything for them. And they learn more out of doing things for themselves and making their own decisions. Yep, even if it’s wrong or leads to terrible consequences.
So, how can we stop policing them and instead help them make good decisions on their own? Here are a few tips I learned:
1. Don’t critique your child’s attempts
My eldest liked to set the table, but he didn’t always do it the “right way.” He’d set a cup right on top of a napkin, which, for his toddler twin brothers, could easily mean a spilled drink.
Other times, they’ll help by putting toys away or dusting with a rag. Except it’s all too easy to compare their work with mine. I know just how to stack toys and spray surfaces, and it’s tempting to point out how they fall short.
But a constant barrage of critiques will only make kids less likely to take the initiative next time. They’ll stop trying because they believe they’re incapable of doing these tasks.
Even if she makes a mess or does things in a less efficient way, don’t send your child away or stop her progress. And don’t re-do her work or tell her you’ll just “do it myself.”
Instead, appreciate her effort and initiative. You can still suggest or correct, but do so in a loving and grateful way. Focus less on the end result (a clean counter top) and more on the learning that’s taking place.
She’ll take the initiative because she likes feeling responsible, and it’s this attitude that will help her become a responsible child who will make good decisions. Constant critiques will make her second-guess her choices and even steer her away from making the right ones in the future.
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2. Don’t get angry at your child’s mistakes
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This is one of the hardest things about parenthood. Remaining calm and not losing our cool, all in the face of our kids’ biggest mistakes, is hard.
But no matter how frustrating or disappointing your child’s mistakes may be, let them happen. Otherwise, your anger only tells her that the consequence of making a mistake is making adults mad. From Parenting with Love & Logic:
“…[A]nytime we explode at children for something they do to themselves, we only make the problem worse. We give kids the message that the actual, logical consequence of messing up is making adults mad. The children get swept away in the power of their anger rather than learn a lesson from the consequences of their mistake.”
Forget all the lessons she could’ve learned from the experience—with so much focus on your anger, it becomes more about you than it is about her. You don’t get to use the opportunity for her to experience the downsides of her choices.
If she kept playing roughly with a toy and broke it, let her experience the broken toy as the natural consequence—not your reaction. Next time, she’ll know to take better care of her toys not because she wants to avoid your anger, but so she can continue to play with them.
3. Don’t make your child’s problem yours
We’re so aware of everything our kids are doing that we assume their problems are ours. We don’t allow them to own their problems and, more importantly, the lessons they can learn from it.
Let’s say your child isn’t doing her homework. As frustrating as it is to see her make poor choices and slacking off, in the end, this is her problem, not yours. Instead of nagging her to finish her work, let her face her teacher and the consequences that will happen.
How do you know whether to get involved or not? Only do so when her problem becomes yours. Let’s say she’s not getting herself ready as quickly in the morning as you’d like her to, which means that not only is she late for school, but you’re late for work as well.
Now her morning routine has crossed over and become your problem. In this situation, you should intervene, because her choices affect you. Otherwise, if her choices only affect her, let the consequences do the teaching.
4. Encourage “thinking words”
How often do we use threats, orders and commands to get our kids to do things? If you’re like me, it can be often.
“Come here and brush your teeth now.”
“Eat your breakfast!”
“Stop jumping on the floor—it’s too noisy for the neighbors!”
And it’s normal—these are natural reactions to behaviors that make little sense to us. We know better than to waste time brushing our teeth, so we get frustrated and bark orders to get them to comply. And sometimes it feels like harsh words are the only things that can get through them.
But instead of forcing or threatening, set limits using thinking words. These are questions or statements to get your child to think about her behaviors, and then make the right choices.
For instance, instead of ordering her to eat breakfast, you can say, “Your brother and I are reading a book together. Feel free to join us once you’ve eaten breakfast.”
Or instead of barking orders to clean up, you might offer choices: “Your toys are still all over the floor. Would you like to keep playing another thirty minutes, or would you like to clean up now and start watching your show?”
These statements and questions prompt her to think about how her actions affect results instead of following your orders.
5. Offer choices
Parents are often encouraged to offer choices to kids as a way to handle their children’s temper. After all, choices empower and give them some of the control they sometimes feel they’ve lost.
Another benefit? Choices also forces them to think. You give your child options, and he has to think about them before making a decision. This encourages him to practice making weighing his options instead of following his parents’ orders.
Choices are yet another opportunity to make and learn from mistakes. If you don’t “save” him from every mistake, these choices give him a chance to fail.
As odd as that sounds, it’s actually a good thing! You want him to practice making choices and experiencing the consequences now (even bad ones) when the stakes aren’t so high, compared to the stakes in high school and beyond.
6. Don’t punish
This is perhaps one of the most misunderstood parts of parenthood. We assume handling kids means teaching lessons through punishment… except it doesn’t work.
This doesn’t mean you’ll be permissive—you’re still holding your child accountable for her choices. But rather than punishment, allow the natural consequences to teach the lesson.
If she refuses to hang her clothes in the closet, don’t take away her favorite toy. Instead, leave her clothes in the hamper. When she comes to you wondering where her school shirt is, point to the hamper. Explain how her choice not to hang her clothes has caused her to lose her favorite shirt.
This becomes even clearer when you compare it to the world adults live in:
“The real world operates on consequences. If we do a consistently lousy job at work, our boss doesn’t take away our VCR—he fires us.” – Parenting with Love & Logic
I love that. Our kids learn best from consequences, not punishment.
Relying on punishment makes the punishment the escape from the consequences. All that happens for not hanging clothes is a parent getting angry and having a toy taken away.
Your child won’t learn the value of hanging her clothes to begin with. She isn’t able to think about her actions or choices. She doesn’t know the value of changing her behavior and instead directs her anger toward the punisher (you).
Our biggest job as parents is to raise future adults. And hopefully, these future adults of ours will know how to make good choices, regardless of reward or punishment.
But they can only learn to make those choices if they practice it, starting in childhood. You can help your child by withholding critiques and instead making suggestions in a grateful, loving way. Embrace mistakes as potential lessons to learn, not failures to hide.
Let her own her problems instead of making them yours. Avoid threats and orders and instead use “thinking words” to encourage decision-making. Use choices not only to make her feel more empowered, but to allow her to make them to begin with.
And finally, avoid punishment and rely on real world consequences instead—they’re the best ways to steer us toward the right decisions.
Forget policing her behavior like a hawk and instead give her plenty of opportunities to make decisions. This is, after all, the best stage in life to practice.
P.S. Take a look at one of my kids’ favorite children’s books, What Should Danny Do? by Adir and Ganit Levy. In a “choose your own adventure” style, your child can decide for herself which choices Danny should make, and the consequences each one bears.
Get more tips:
- 12 Ways You’re Already Practicing Montessori Parenting Without Even Realizing It
- 5 Mistakes Parents Make When Giving Kids Choices
- Set Boundaries — Kids Actually Want Them
- Are You Teaching These Life Skills Your Child Needs in Adulthood?
- On Accepting Your Children for Who They Are
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