Now that we, meaning I, have established that parenting is not molding your child, but rather supporting them as they become who they are, how do we support children? If I had to pick my top three ways, now, realizing that tomorrow might bring a different three to mind, I would say, “Choices, negotiation, and participation.” In some ways, they are inter-related. It is hard to apply one without the other. But if I had to choose one of these, it would be to provide ample opportunity for choices.
If a child is going to become an adult, which we all hope will be the case with our darling little baby, the expectation is that they will be a functioning adult. Most parents do not want their child to stay in the home forever and be a dependent forever, even though they love them dearly. In order for that young adult to thrive in the real world, as distinct from the sheltered world that we have previously been able to provide for them, that emerging adult needs to be able to make decisions, and along with those decisions, bear the responsibility of those choices—face the consequences. This does not need to be the negative, fearful experience that it sounds like; however, if the child has never had any practice, the consequences may indeed be traumatic. For instance, I am amazed at how many children I taught in the high school that did not have any real comprehension of money and how to manage it. If the parent is the only one that fulfills this function in the household, how will the child ever learn this skill?
I propose that the parent provide as many opportunities as possible for the child to manage some money. Manage! Not just spend. Give them some responsibility that allows them to make choices that have consequences. These do not need to be dire, just implicit in the decision making. In other words, if Johnny gets to decide how the family spends this week’s $50 (or $10) on entertainment, let him make the decision and live with it—barring danger, of course. If Johnny has a $2 allowance, let him decide what to spend it on, even within certain parameters that you feel the need to set—no dangerous toys, no sugar food, no drugs, etc. But within the pre-defined parameters, let Johnny decide. Mistakes can be learning opportunities also. If you want Johnny to learn to save, help him set a goal, say a percentage, that he will commit to savings from his income flow, or even decide something that he wants to save for. If he is forced to put all his money into savings, he may only learn that earning money is meaningless as the consequence may be a benefit too far into the future for a child—the immediate consequence being that the money is held prisoner. Perhaps help your child with a visual in order to see the growth of the savings. Perhaps introduce an interest component. Perhaps brainstorm ideas when it would be nice to have a savings account—emergencies, old age, etc. Make sure there is choice; let the consequence be as natural as possible.
Money is not the only area of choice. Often, rather than issuing a demand, a choice can be issued. “You may choose—you can go to bed now, or we could read a story first.” “You can do your job before you go to school, after you get home, or after you take an hour break.” “Would you rather vacuum the living room or clean the bathroom?” “Would you rather have a bath at night before you go to bed, or get up a half hour earlier to have your bath in the morning before you go to school?” “What would you like for a vegetable for dinner?” Incorporating choices into a child’s life can become second nature just by re-thinking your approach. When a child practices making choices, becoming a thinking adult will be a natural step.
I remember back when I was younger, a friend said, “Yes, I have a choice. I can do it or pick myself up off the floor and then do it.” That is not the choice I am talking about. Choices need to be real, and the consequences need to be real. If a child chooses salad for the dinner vegetable, salad should be the outcome. That is a consequence—hopefully a positive one. If a child chooses to spend their flexible money on candy, then later wishes they could afford to go to the movie with their friend, they may have to live with the regret. If a child chooses to study for an extra half hour because of test the next day, the consequence may be a super good grade. Celebrate the positive consequences. Notice the savings growth. Notice that they have no cavities because they have been brushing. Notice that they came home as agreed so they have your confidence on the next consideration. Consequences can be positive or negative. Sometimes it is hard for a parent to allow the negative consequence. We have an innate need to protect our children from harm. Consequences are not harm! If they are, the parent should certainly step in and be protective. But if the outcome is merely sad or uncomfortable, allow the child to experience the result of their choices. You can even be sympathetic. “I am sorry you didn’t have enough money saved to go to the movie with your friends.” Often the consequence is obvious and does not need to be harped upon. That being said, sometimes you may need talk to your child about what could have caused a different outcome (at a different time than the moment of suffering), what could possibly be changed in a future decision, or what might increase the benefits of the outcome. Try to make the experience as positive as possible. Failing should not be seen as a negative, merely a tool for success. But it is more important to notice the positive consequences. It is as important for the child that those, too, are analyzed and reflected upon. “When you chose to put your shoes where they belong, you were able to find them easier.” “Because you did your homework right when you got home, you were free to go bowling with Dad when he got home.” “Even though you only put a quarter in savings every time you earn a dollar, your savings has really grown this year.” “You did a great job planning that meal purchase—you stayed within the budget.” Children that understand the cause/effect relationship of their choices will be more likely to think through the possible outcomes when they are faced with a choice. That very habit of thinking is a life-long skill that will likely increase the chance of smarter choices.
I believe that the opportunity to practice making choices is the most important way of providing support to children. This is a life skill that will affect every facet of their future. If the focus is on the positive consequences, self-confidence will grow. The child is actively involved in molding their own life. To me, no other support is more meaningful.
More about negotiation and participation to come…