When should you start letting your kids make decisions? Now

Tell your child, “You’re the expert on you.”

When should you start letting your kids make decisions? Now

We love the adage, “Wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from making bad decisions.”

For years, we have counseled parents to encourage their kids to make their own choices. If you let your child solve their own problems (with support) while they are young, their brain will build the circuits that are necessary for resilience. Even a small experience of control will activate the prefrontal cortex and condition it to respond effectively to future challenges.

Parents should see themselves as setting parameters and serving as a sounding board or “consultant,” but they should give their children as much autonomy as possible.

Not only will this make their kids wiser (see adage!), it is the best thing they can do to protect their kids from anxiety. It turns out that not feeling in control of your life is one of the most stressful things in the universe.

As you might guess, our argument raises many questions. Here are some we hear most frequently, and how we respond:

What kind of decisions can I let my child make?

For a preschooler, it’s ideal to give a few choices, whether it’s broccoli or spinach, dress-up or a puzzle, or what to wear to school. But even when it comes to more significant matters, children as young as six have shown they can make decisions that are at least as good as the ones adults might make for them.

If you’re contemplating whether your child should repeat first grade, ask him what he thinks. A kid will often come up with a solution that neither parent has thought of, such as, “I think I can go on to second grade. But can I have a tutor to help me if the work gets too hard?”

What if my child doesn’t want to make her own decisions?

That’s all the more reason to encourage her to practice! You can do so gently so that decision-making is a goal, not a mandate.

Let’s say your child can’t decide what book she wants at the bookstore. She’s twisting herself into anxious knots about it and wants you to pick. What you might say is, “As you get older, I want you to feel confident making decisions for yourself. I know it’s making you anxious now, and so I am happy to decide for you. But before I do, tell me, if you were going to make the decision yourself, what would your best decision be?”

What if my children make really bad decisions?

Again, that’s all the more reason to give them lots of practice while you are still there to help them through the consequences. Help them avoid making a bad decision by telling them that in the end, it’s their call, but you need to see that they’ve gathered the information they need to make an informed decision.

What are the pros and cons? Have they thought it through? Also, what’s their plan B? If their decision doesn’t work out as they’d hoped, what will they do?

What if they won’t gather information?

If they’re not willing to make an informed decision, then it’s not their call—it’s yours.

It sounds like you’re saying I should let them eat chocolate cake for breakfast. Isn’t this just permissive parenting?

Definitely not. Part of letting kids make decisions is setting parameters. You’re not going to let a child drive a car just because he wants to, nor should you let him eat chocolate cake for breakfast.

As a parent, matters of safety and nutrition still reside solidly in your realm. You can always say, “As your mom, I’m just not comfortable letting you do this. I wouldn’t feel like I was being a good mom if I let you have chocolate cake for breakfast.”

Our argument is not to be a laissez-faire parent, but instead that there are a lot of decisions we think we need to make for our kids that we really don’t.

Where do I start?

1. Tell your child, “You’re the expert on you. Nobody knows you better than you know yourself, so once we’ve talked this through it’s your call.”

2. Make a list of things your child would like to be in charge of. Make a plan to shift the responsibility from you to him or her.

3. Tell your child about decisions you’ve made that, looking back, weren’t the best. Explain how you were able to learn from them.

4. Emphasize logical consequences where possible: Say your child weighs the pros and cons and decides not to take her coat on an ice skating outing. If she’s then cold, don’t offer to buy her a coat or give her yours. She can wait inside where it’s warm, or skate faster to warm up. She made her choice and needs to experience its consequences. We guarantee her decision-making will be stronger next time!

5. When you revisit or review bad decisions, do so after, not during, the mishap. If things aren’t going well, you can ask, “What do you think we can do now?” (but not in an alarmed voice “What are you going to do now?!?”) You want to remain calm, avoid blame and help your child honestly examine and learn from mistakes. That will only happen if you approach mistakes as case studies rather than saying “I told you so.”

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