Helping Your Child Make Decisions

by Dr. Mary Zurn March 22, 2012

Empowering your child to make his own decisions at an early age can foster independence, self-esteem and problem-solving skills that will be very beneficial in later years. As parents, we know that our children have opinions of their own and by giving them decision making opportunities we enable them to demonstrate their preferences and offer a constructive way to channel their natural desire for independence.

However, before you let your little one loose in the closet to pick out an outfit for school, remember there are some key things to consider when offering choices to children. If you are not careful, little Sue might just choose to wear a bathing suit with flip-flops or her favorite tutu in the middle of December!

Here are a few pointers for empowering young children to make their own decisions (within reason, of course).

Simplify the process. As children begin to show their independence, they will want more and more control over everyday decisions that affect them. Offer a limited number of realistic choices. You can simplify the decision-making process and add a little helpful information at the same time. “It’s very cold outside today. Would you rather wear your warm red sweater or your blue jacket?” By offering fewer options along with why those options are the ones to choose from, you and your child can share control of the end result.  

Offer age-appropriate choices. It is important to take your child’s age and developmental level into consideration when asking her to make decisions. By choosing options that are acceptable to you, you can scaffold your child’s ability to make decisions. Young children have difficulty thinking beyond the moment when asked to respond to opened-ended options. For example, if you ask your child what they want to eat for dinner, she may respond “cookies,” because that’s her favorite food. If you offer the choice of pasta or chicken both options are healthy choices.

Validate their choice. Once your child has made a decision, validate that decision with a genuine response. For example, “I’m glad you chose this book. It’s one of my favorites because it has such pretty pictures.” Or “Wow, those pajamas feel so soft.  You are going to be so cozy that you’ll get a good night’s rest.” By reaffirming your child’s decision, you are building his confidence to make future decisions and helping develop his reasoning skills.

Establish expectations. As adults, we know that we can’t always make the best or “right” decision and it is important to share this with your child. Let him know that it is OK to ask for help if he needs it or that it is perfectly all right if things don’t turn out as expected.  You want him to feel comfortable asking for support and not to be worried about failing. 

Guide them through the process.  As your child grows older, walking her through the decision-making process is a great way to actively engage her in what it means to make more complicated or difficult decisions. Start by discussing the options and talk about the pros and cons of each choice. The option that makes the most sense to you might not be the one your child chooses. So much can be learned from making a mistake or wishing you had made a different choice. For example, if your child asks, “Can I play with both of the playground balls,” you could respond with something like “Try it and let me know how it works.  That way you’ll know whether there’s room to play with two balls and whether to get both out next time.”

How do you teach your children to make decisions?

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