Choices: Too Many Too Early

Choices: Too Many Too Early

There is a popular cry among psychologists and parenting experts today for parents to allow their young children the freedom to make choices.  The assumption is that making choices will help a child feel self confident and be more assertive.  This recommendation often emanates from an assumption that children are naturally wise and will eventually make the correct choices if allowed the freedom to do so.  What is largely ignored is the fact that children are fundamentally self-centered (egocentric) and unwise, and without sufficient guidance will choose to please themselves without consideration for others.

So, a parent following contemporary advice allows 3-year-old Sally to choose the clothes she will wear each morning, the breakfast foods she will eat, the time she desires to spend at the dinner table, the toys she desires to play with, and the screens (iPad, smartphone, TV, etc.) she wants to enjoy.  In the process, Sally is convinced that she is “pretty smart.”  Her mother doesn’t realize it, but by allowing her to make so many choices, Sally is being empowered beyond her cognitive abilities.  In fact, Sally soon believes she should make all the decisions (choices) in her life.  So, every night it is a battle to keep her at the dinner table with the rest of the family, and equally difficult to get her to even take a bite of any food she dislikes at that moment.  Sally’s mom is puzzled at her refusal to cooperate, and yet the real problem is a lack of parental guidance or leadership.  Too many choices, too early, has definitely produced an assertive Sally, however, submission to her parents’ authority has been ignored in the process.

Wise decision-making does not come naturally to a child.  It is developed over time through the discipline process.  If left to his natural tendencies, a child’s choices will be driven by his desire to seek self-gratification.  Wise decision-making is acquired by a child in stages.  As privileges are granted and responsibly handled early on, more are entrusted to the child later on.  If a child chooses to rebel against his parent’s directives in a setting where choices have been offered, the choices are temporarily removed until responsibility is again demonstrated.  Example: Two-year-old Johnny is allowed to choose the color of his shirt: the red one or the blue one.  He has enjoyed this privilege and his mother has enjoyed watching him choose.  One day he pitches a fit because he wants to wear his dirty green shirt for another day instead of the two offered by his mom.  Johnny temporarily feels he has the power to defy his mother’s selection and get his way.  To teach him otherwise, Mom takes away the privilege of choosing shirts for one week.  Johnny now realizes that life is much better if he does it Mom’s way rather than his.

While a parent practicing the “early choices” approach may have pure and sincere motives, correcting the child’s overly autonomous attitude is made even more difficult if the parent chooses to avoid the “conflict” that comes with correction.  Re-training a child to submit to a parents’ guidance is more difficult than teaching submission at an earlier age. Because parents prefer to have harmony with their children, correction (especially if inconvenient) is sometimes avoided and the child is misled to feel empowered over the parent.  Take the situation with Sally:  When she pitches a fit at the table when asked to stay and eat with the family, her dad lets her get down and go play.  He feels this is better than making life miserable for others sitting at the table.  When bedtime arrives, Sally wants to play a bit longer and therefore bellows out ear-piercing screams from her bed until her dad returns to free her from the confines of her room.

What is Dad doing?  He is resorting to short-term solutions which will eventually lead to long-term problems of defiance and selfishness.  He thinks he is doing it all in the name of harmony, alias “conflict avoidance.”

Solution:  Avoid overly empowering your child too early.  Allow a few simple choices early in your child’s life.  As she demonstrates the responsible handling of these choices, then add more.  In other words, choices should be earned, not simply granted.  When defiance arises, don’t avoid the conflict of correcting your child.