Sunday, August 28, 2011

On Letting Kids' Opinions Matter

You know exactly how to order your favorite venti, half-caff, no-whip, iced vanilla soy latte.  And you know that you love your black leather boots better than any other footwear.  There are things about life that you try to maintain in order to keep yourself happy.  You have preferences and plans and ideas. 
What would it be like if someone decided, without your permission or input, to suddenly change your mind for you?  To choose a different favorite drink or shoes for your day and then implement that choice without consulting you?
You’d be irritated to say the least.  You might even throw a little fit in the middle of the coffee shop, shouting your displeasure at having your will taken away so carelessly.
And you’d know exactly what it feels like to be a normal toddler on a daily basis. 
Just as adults have strong opinions about their favorite things and how to go about their business, little ones do, too.  Their early years are so easily planned and executed by adults that we sometimes forget to take their choices – their autonomy – into consideration.  We veto their requests for juice, or old, worn sandals, or where to keep their favorite toy, and we do it without thinking twice.  We are the parents, after all: we know when they’ve had enough juice and when they need to wear nicer shoes.  We know when a toy shouldn’t be perched on the edge of the toilet, even if it is a superhero keeping a close eye on a dangerous volcano.
But just because we’re in charge doesn’t mean that we can’t exert our authority respectfully.  To toss out decisions without at least listening to our kids’ thoughts tells them that their feelings are useless.  How will that affect us later, when we expect them to open up to us about their adolescent lives?  Will they assume we don’t value their needs or opinions?  Will they talk to others about what’s really bothering them, or just do as they please behind our backs?
Instead of putting our foot down so forcefully as to crush our kids’ sense of independence, it can be helpful to go slowly.  To listen before acting.  To explain and soften the blow. 
To make it easier – and less tantrum-inducing – we can give our kids a chance to be involved in decisions that affect them. 
Giving them options we can live with is one way to allow opportunities for decision-making.  If you know they’ve already met their juice limit, for example, let them choose between milk or water as the only options.  If that’s met with resistance, it doesn’t mean an argument has to begin.  Let them express themselves and affirm that it’s okay to love juice.  Remind them of your family’s juice rules, and why they’re in place.  Let them know the next time juice will be available. 
And don’t be angry if they’re still upset: they’re people – with feelings. 
It’s also important to give up control, ourselves.  If we make all of their choices for them, they’re bound to resent it at some point and rebel with tantrums or defiance.  If the decision isn’t harmful or seriously against the rules, let the kids decide.  Giving them daily doses of independent choice goes a long way towards making them feel like they have some say in their own lives.
And that goes a long way towards them being more understanding when we must be the boss.

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