The anatomy of choices and mistakes

A little bit of freedom.
A little bit of freedom. 

The other day I was lingering outside the toilets at a department store (as you do), watching my boys walk towards them. Just as they were about to walk into the men’s, a gentleman came along and tried to politely convince them they had the wrong room, and that the ladies was down the other end. At first I thought he was telling them they needed to go into the ladies with their mum, and then it dawned on me that he thought they were girls, and therefore headed for the wrong room.

This is the stage of the story where I point out that both my boys have long, curly blonde hair and big blue eyes. It is not at all unusual for them to be mistaken for girls, but as their dad has long hair as well, I don’t really have a leg to stand on when it comes to convincing them to chop it off. And to be fair, I like it; but more importantly, I believe them feeling some control over their life is part of becoming a well adjusted and happy person. Appearance is an easy, safe stepping stone for me.

Nick Petrovic, Psychologist at the Mind Profile Psychology Clinic says it’s important for children to be given the opportunity to make choices, because it helps them become more independent and responsible, and builds their decision making skills to ultimately help them make better choices in the future.

“Many parents mistakenly equate their child's independence with rebelliousness or disobedience. Children push for independence because it is part of human nature to want to feel in control rather than to feel controlled by someone else,” Petrovic says. 

So what happens if you don’t give your kids the chance to make choices? Petrovic says kids that don’t learn to make decisions become dependent on their parents, or conversely, too much parental control over decisions can lead to rebellion.

Children push for independence because it is part of human nature to want to feel in control rather than to feel controlled by someone else.

“Excessive parental control has been linked to low self-esteem, self-worth, self-confidence, self-reliance, self-expression and psychological maturity. These negative self-perceptions can also lead to depression, suicidal ideation, and eating disorders,” says Petrovic.

Before you hit the panic button and turn the reins over to your kids entirely, Petrovic says there are some basic ways to empower your children, without allowing them to make decisions that they don’t yet have the life experience to handle.

  • Start with simple choices. A one year old can decide if they want an apple or a pear, an older child can choose what they want to wear, and as they get older again, allow them to make bigger choices such as how they decorate their room, or what day they tidy it.
  • Show interest when they are making choices.
  • Make the decision making process explicit – teach them to ask themselves ‘why do I want to do this?’, ‘what are my options?’ and ‘what are the likely consequences of my actions?’.
  • Praise your children when they make great choices.
  • Talk through good and poor decisions.

Petrovic says allowing children to experience the consequences of their decisions can provide useful lessons in responsibility, but you need to be there to support them. “It is easier for kids to accept difficult or disappointing consequences when they feel supported and cared for, as they learn to correct their mistakes.”

In our house, we allow the boys to choose their hair cut, what they wear (even when they choose something inappropriate for the weather, we use it as an opportunity to talk through consequences – ‘I know you like the shirt, but do you think you might get hot?’) and are just starting to let them choose meals. What is not up for discussion is bedtime, how often one needs to brush their teeth and whether we should get another dog.