To teach a child decisionmaking, you've got to live with his choices

``Are you certain this is how you want to spend your money?'' The girl's mother appeared uncertain. ``I'm sure, Mom. I've decided. This is what I really want most.'' The 10-year-old's eyes glowed; she had saved for months.

``But what if you have to play in the outfield?'' Her mother gave the girl one last opportunity to reconsider.

``I won't.'' It was spoken with the confidence of the young.

The happy child plunked down her $25, and the new first baseman's mitt was hers.

Two weeks later the not-so-happy lass was assigned to right field and had to learn to live with her decision.

In this instance, a trade was arranged, and the new mitt was swapped for a used mitt and an ice cream cone.

She was philosophical. ``It could have been worse.''

Her enlightened parents had done everything correctly. They had pointed out the hazards of spending her money before landing a spot on the team. Then, since the decision was within her realm, one she could make without doing real harm to herself or others, they left it to her. When time for the trade came, they again allowed her to make the final decision. Thus, she learned to live with her own decision.

It's difficult for parents to allow their children to make decisions and then live with the consequences. The only approach that seems to work is to start early with choices within the child's maturity level and gradually broaden the scope.

And when there are limits to be placed on a child's decisionmaking, they should be imposed before, not after, the decision is made. This was brought home to me one day at a shopping center.

``You promised!'' The boy's voice was clearly audible throughout the shoe department. My sons and I saw he was near tears.

His mother was equally frustrated. ``I know I said you could choose. I did not mean cowboy boots.''

She presented him with two pairs of footwear and demanded, ``Here. Choose. Which one do you like?''

``He will never wear either pair,'' my son remarked to me. I suspect he was correct.

I recall telling my young sons that their mother and I would pay half the cost of 10-speed bicycles. ``But,'' I hastened to add, ``our limit is $40. You pay everything over a total of $80.''

The bikes the boys eventually chose were not the greatest in the world, but they rode them to pieces. Each cost a bit less than $80.

Often we parents do not realize the ability of children to make and abide by decisions. A fourth-grade girl decided in September to save her school lunch money by not eating lunch in order to have funds with which to buy Christmas gifts for her parents and sister. She lived with her decision for four hungry months that year and each of the two following years.

It was not a decision I would advise or condone, but it was hers. The only reason I learned about this girl's determination is because she eventually became my daughter-in-law.

It always grates to hear parents grant decisionmaking power and then rescind it while pretending not to. Not long ago I overheard a mother ask her son where he wanted to eat lunch.

``McDonald's.'' His response was immediate.

``Or should we go to the cafeteria? We can get a nice salad there,'' she countered.

``I'd rather go to McDonald's.''

``You know I like a salad for lunch in hot weather.''

There was more to the exchange, but the point was made. ``Or shall we . . .'' is all too often the refuge of parents unwilling to live with a child's decision. With those three words the child realizes the choice was never truly his or hers to make.

Eventually the time comes when years of expanded decisionmaking pay off. Just last night my 19-year-old son was home after working a 12-hour day. Over his late meal we discussed his plans for next summer. He wants to get them settled before the first of the year.

Should he apply for the exchange trip to Mexico or go for summer hire with the chemical company?

``Mexico would be a great experience,'' he said. ``But then I'd have to reschedule my engineering classes around Spanish this year.''

``The summer hire would give you a great opportunity for exposure to chemical engineering,'' I offered.

This was our long-established routine. I presented the pros and cons and he countered or agreed with each.

Finally he looked me in the eye. ``Dad.'' There was real anguish in his tone. ``Tell me what to do.''

I made the only reply possible. ``It has to be your decision.''

``I've decided for years, Dad. Just this once -- tell me what to do.''

Hmmm. As I said, years of practice in making decisions pays off for children. Right. I suspect he will try for the summer hire, but then again a semester in Mexico has great appeal.

After all, it is his decision.

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