Children, Choices, and Consequences

Alexandra Delis-Abrams, Ph.D.

The challenge of children and choices is not a mystery.  Every parent must learn when to make the decision for the child and when to let a child suffer the consequences him or herself.  Yes, children usually look to a parent for reassurance that they’re making good choices, but there is a fine line between parents allowing too many choices and parents who don’t allow choices at all.  To learn the fine art of consistently making quality choices is a skill best learned from parents who leave room for their children to make their own choices on a regular basis, while learning  from experience the difference between the benefits and repercussions.

Life is a series of choices.  Good choices bring good consequences.  Bad choices bring bad results.  If a child walks away from home or school with one lesson, it should be with the ability to make choices. Most parents today know the importance of letting their kids make choices.  It empowers a child when he or she is allowed to pick out their own clothes for school, or choose the book at bedtime, or figure out whether to do homework or video games first. A child who consistently makes quality choices can more likely do so in his or her adult life.  However, letting a child have too much of the decision-making power can be detrimental and confusing.

Too many times a child is given the power to make the decision without the information first.  For example, if a child wants to wear her flip-flops in the dead of winter, this choice thing could be problematic.  What if your son wants to read the Halloween book that always gives him nightmares?  Can your daughter to be trusted to be awake enough at 7 PM after an hour of Play Station to get her homework done well?

Children are new to the world.  Whether they acknowledge it or not, they look to adults for guidance in every way.  Limiting the quantity of choices is actually helping your child be successful in the decision-making process.

Imagine going into a grocery store in China and being asked to buy the ingredients for the dinner of your choice.  Assuming you don’t speak Chinese and don’t have too much familiarity with the culture, this could be overwhelming, if not scary.  This is how a child may feel in some situations.  Sure, perhaps you are beginning to speak the language and may even have a good hold on it; and yes, you could wing a stir-fry if you had to, but consider the pressure, not to mention the success rate of the endeavor!

Children and overly complex decisions do not mix.  An example of this unnecessary pressure is in the following anecdote.  One little boy was accustomed to his mother overseeing everything he did, so much that when he was asked a question, he would look to her to figure out the answer he “should” give.  Oddly enough, this mother also expected him to make certain decisions that no child has the tools to make.  One such decision was whether he should stay in preschool or move on to kindergarten as he was slow in social development and his birthday was just before the cut-off date.  She would say, “Now what do you want to do?” certainly thinking in her own mind that she was doing a great justice by giving him this option.  However, the child was at a loss.  While looking to parents for answers is natural, this boy was put in the awkward situation of having to his pick up on what his mother truly wanted for him.  Why should a child have to do such?  This boy had never been to kindergarten before!  He wasn’t schooled in the psychological development of four-year-olds.  Eventually, the mother took him out of preschool and home schooled him, much to the teachers’ dismay.  It was sad to see a mother projecting her own thoughts about the situation onto him and then wanting him to take responsibility for the decision.

Children want to please.  Although many will act out and rebel, it is not out of spite, but more out of a plea for attention and love.  It is up to the adult to make the call in some situations and give the child guidance in other instances where the child has the tools to make a choice.

The best way to encourage a child to make smart choices is by giving them a few things to choose from.  Rather than opening up the closet door and saying, “What do you want to wear this morning?” lay out two or three outfits on the bed and have them choose from that.  Rather than “What do you want to do today?” ask, “Would you like to go to the park or to the ice skating rink this afternoon?”  In fact, choices could be used as a disciplinary measure as well.  When a child is acting out, tell her that she has a choice:  she can choose to cry about not getting the cookie before dinner or she can continue playing with the promise that she can have the cookie after dinner.  Remind the child that every action is a choice and that they have the power to choose wisely or choose poorly.  Also, be sure to carry out the consequences of making a choice (or not making a choice) quickly and firmly.  In this way, they learn the repercussions of choices, which is a lesson to all. 

For example, if a boy continues to pester his sister at the dinner table after many warnings, it is up to the adult to reprimand him.  Give him the choice.  Say:  “You have two choices.  You can keep bothering your sister and go to your bedroom right now without watching your favorite television show, or you can eat your dinner quietly and respectfully and watch TV with the rest of the family.”  If he violates your terms in any way, take action!  Children want discipline.  Remember that he may be acting disagreeably for the sole reason of getting your attention.  This is why it’s important to remove him from the situation immediately, and/or congratulate him when he makes the smarter of the choices.  In this way, he will learn that negative choices have negative consequences and vice versa.  This lesson will carry him throughout his life.  After all, life is merely a series of choices.  Wouldn’t you want the tools to make the good ones?

One sure way to assist our children in making quality choices they can live with is by introducing them to their feelings and teaching them communicate them effectively  from the earliest of ages.  Consider The Feelings Storybook, a heartfelt book that is a user-friendly book your child will love from the beginning.