Fred Rogers helped us understand that there are many ways to help children develop a sense of confidence – and one of those ways is allowing children to make choices. When young children are given opportunities for thoughtful decision-making they’re better able to make all kinds of choices throughout their lives – from what to wear to which candidate to vote for.
A wise friend of ours once gave us his definition of a good executive: a person who can make decisions — and is sometimes right.
What to eat … what to wear … whether to go or stay … what kind of picture to draw … what shape block building to build … whether to say yes or no … from our earliest years there are decisions to make.Later on, our decisions may seem more important: what to buy, where to live, what career to pursue, whom to marry, how to raise our children. Yet, it’s good to keep in mind that whatever age we are, the choices we have seem important to us, and that the feeling we have no choices, no matter how young or old we are, can be a source of sadness and despair.
Choices in Early Childhood
There’s something else that makes the choices of early childhood especially significant: Like everything else about who we become, the choices we make when we’re older — and our feelings about choice making — grow out of our first experiences with choosing.
Have you ever known someone who just can’t seem to make decisions? One acquaintance of ours comes to mind, a woman who finds it easier to live with bare walls than to choose pictures to hang on them. For her, it’s as though there’s only one right answer, and faced with all the possibilities, she feels sure her choice is likely to be wrong.
Limit Children’s Choices
We didn’t know her when she was little, but choice-making can be particularly hard for very young children when there are too many alternatives to choose from, or when making a choice may result in disapproval or anger from the grown-ups they love. Asking a child, “What do you want to wear today?” is so open-ended a question that it may invite a child to make a choice that is clearly inappropriate and has to be overruled.
Instead, it may be more helpful to offer limited choices such as, “Would you like to wear your red sweater or your blue one, your brown pants or your green ones?” That way, a child is presented with realistic alternatives where there is no question of “right” or “wrong.”
Giving Children Control
But why not avoid all these problems by making our own, grown-up decisions for our children until they’re grown-up enough to make them for themselves? For some parents, that might seem the easier path to take. But I wonder how likely a child is to become a realistic and optimistic choice-making adult without having grown through manageable choices offered by loving caregivers.
There’s something else, too: We all have a deep-seated need to feel we have some control over what happens in our lives. That need was with us as soon as we began feeling our individuality. Most children are well on their way toward that feeling by the time they’re 1 year old, and even then, in some 1-year-olds, they’re probably starting to wonder just how much choice they have in this world.
When parents help their children learn that there are such things as limited, realistic choices, they’re giving them an approach to choice- making that will be valuable throughout life. By avoiding situations that confront a child with right-wrong decision making, they can help their children learn to make choices with confidence and with the knowledge that although some will work out better than others, there will always be new ones to make.