Decisionmaking: children need early guidance

As I was getting our two-year-old ready for the baby sitter's one morning, I asked him, ''Shall we get you dressed?'' to which he readily shouted, ''No!'' Decisionmaking is a skill that draws children toward independence, and they begin showing preferences and making decisions sooner than we think. I had asked my son a yes/no type of question, but clearly there was no choice in the matter. We had to leave the house soon, and he had to get dressed. When we ask children yes/no questions we should be prepared to accept either answer. If we can't, we should avoid giving the child a choice by using statements instead.

As children grow, they move from the basic yes/no decisions to more complex decisionmaking. With that transition they need our continued encouragement, support, and perhaps most of all, guidelines or structure.

''Which shoes do you like?'' a mother asked her preschooler one day as they gazed at a wide selection of children's shoes. ''Those!'' the child shouted, pointing to a bright purple, plastic pair of sandals. The sandals were attractive to the child, but the mother's reply indicated they were something quite removed from what she had in mind. ''We're buying these for church, not the beach!'' she exclaimed.

Children and parents don't always see eye to eye. A veteran parent once gave us advice that included three rules of thumb regarding young children and decisionmaking, and we've found them to be helpful with our own children.

1. Make choices yourself when you have a definite notion about what you want.

2. Whenever possible, pick two or three choices that are agreeable to you and then allow the child to make the final decision.

3. When you feel that anything would be acceptable, invite or encourage the child to decide.

In our home, if we are going somewhere special, I choose the clothes the children wear. But when we're buying shoes, I try to select two or three pairs and let the children decide. When getting books from the library, they pick all 10, and I offer my assistance only if the job is overwhelming to them.

But when a child really wants something, how do you fight television ads, enticing packages, and peer pressure - elements so prevalent in our society?

As parents, we can persuade and reason endlessly, ''It's not your type ... they're too flimsy ... it'll fall apart ... that's just an advertising gimmick ... I don't care if everybody else is doing it...,'' and so forth.

Oftentimes, however, the child's mind is set on an issue, and only experience can change it. Genuine lessons are more frequently learned when a child spends his own dollar on a souvenir that falls apart the following day, or when a child defiantly stuffs her jacket in her desk and then shivers through a 40-minute noon hour at school.

Our children, like adults, will experience many situations during their childhood when, for one reason or another, they will be responsible for making their own decisions and then accepting the consequences of those decisions. If we attempt to strengthen and structure that process from an early age, our children will become increasingly mature in their decisionmaking as they gradually approach an age where they'll find the need to be more independent.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.