Helping kids learn to make good choices is a powerful way to foster future success. We beam with parental pride when our toddler chooses to share a toy, or when our teen swaps candy for fruit. But how can we help raise kids who make good choices when we’re not around?
All kids make questionable decisions from time to time, says family therapist Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., president of Westchester Group Works. But parents can help set kids on the path toward making better choices, for life. Read on for age-by-age strategies for supporting strong decision-making skills, from toddlerhood through the teen years.
Toddler/Preschool: Two to Five Years
Beware of constantly warning your tot to be careful or swooping in to hurriedly complete a task they’re trying to accomplish themselves. Parents should tune into subliminal messages they may be sending to their child, says Maidenberg. “By always cautioning against risk or doing things on his behalf, you may be communicating that he isn’t capable or trustworthy and can’t make good decisions independently.” Parents also send important messages through their own actions.
Model effective problem-solving skills and sound decision-making in your own life to impart these skills to kids. If you tend to procrastinate, flip flop between choices or wallow in disorganization, your child may follow suit. Make a habit of sticking to your plans and seeing your choices through, and discuss the impact of daily decisions with your child. When something doesn’t work out the way you’d hoped, talk through what you might have done differently in age-appropriate language; for example, “Mommy decided to sleep in this morning, and now I’m sad because I missed my daily run.”
Elementary Years: Six to 12
During the school years, decision-making prowess starts to show - and sometimes, so do poor choices. But these small failures can actually help build stronger decision-making skills down the road. The key is letting kids experience minor falls, and figure out how to get back up.
Radio personality Julie Gates of the Gene and Julie Show learned that her nine-year-old daughter Sophia’s small mistakes could actually build decision-making power. “When Sophia was six, she accidentally left her lunch in the refrigerator, and my first instinct was to jump in the car and shuttle it to school.” Then Gates remembered Sophia’s teacher telling her that a small mishap like a forgotten lunch can present an opportunity to build decision-making skills, confidence and pride.
Sophia didn’t go hungry; she decided to ask her classmates if they had anything they could share. “One shared his apple slices and another had an extra granola bar. She was so proud she was able to find a solution all by herself,” says Gates. “And she never forgot her lunch again.”
Teen Years: 13 to 18
Juggling post-secondary applications, summer jobs and relationships brings on a boatload of decisions for teens, along with a possible fear of failure. A teen that procrastinates and seems to avoid big decisions may be afraid to fail. If your teen seems to drag their feet with decisions, talk to them about their fears, says Maidenberg. Encourage more independent decision-making by addressing fear-flooded beliefs like: ‘I won’t be able to do it,’ ‘I won’t be good at it’ or ‘They won’t like me.’ Help your teen see past fears by reminding them all that they’re capable of achieving when they set their mind to something.
Don’t feed counterproductive fears by belittling a teen for a poor choice. Saying, “You’re a moron!” or “What’s wrong with you?” communicates shame and hurts self-confidence, while phrases like: “Everyone makes a bad choice now and then. What can you do differently next time?” motivates better choices, both now and in the years to come.
Malia is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.
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