Thursday, June 30, 2011

Helping kids make (good) choices

I took Snuggler and a friend to Target today to pick up some thingsfor sleepaway camp. They're leaving on Sunday for two weeks. Watching the giddiness of two tweens sniff-testing deodorants, it struck me that one's reaction to choice is a function of two things: age, and how much thought goes into the choice.

If you are young and live in hand-me-downs, selecting socks can be a giddy experience. If you are a mother of a certain age who has to decide every day what to cook for supper on a tight budget, decision-making has limited appeal.

One of my favorite reads last year was Sheena Iyengar's The Art of Choosing, a fascinating look at the research that's been done on how people make choices. It's on my (short) worth-buying list. In light of my Target trip today, I was thinking that one thing parents need to consider is how many choices we offer our kids. We also need to ponder whether or not the choices we give our kids teach them how to make wise decisions -- or simply train them to indulge their preferences.

Case in point: letting a child choose which pair of cool socks she wants to buy is very different from giving a her a limited budget and letting her decide how many pairs of cool socks she can afford to buy if she only wants to do laundry once a week. That's because we build decision-making muscle only when we encounter choices that involve tradeoffs.

If you have a well-padded budget (and know your child will always lead a comfortable lifestyle), I suppose it's possible to let your child inhabit the realm of 'which do I like better?' choices. Realistically, it makes more sense to make sure he or she has ample exposure to other kinds of choices, too. For example:

  • good vs. not-as-good choices (which teach us to evaluate which is the better choice)
  • conditionally good vs. conditionally good choices (which help us weigh which is more important: style vs. cost, or quantity vs. quality)
  • what-I-want vs. what's-the-right-thing-to-do choices (because those are vitally important)
  • not-so-good vs. not-so-good choices (because unfortunately at times we only get to decide on the least-worst option)
Honestly, none of us want to give our kids stinky choices to choose between. We'd like life to be pleasant and painless. But what happens if we 'protect' our children from those kinds of situations and choices? We leave them without any resources or experience to draw on when life gives them tough stuff. Better that we help them build strength now, while we're around to guide and help, than to make life comfy today and leave our kids floundering tomorrow.


  1. Not being a parent myself, I am in awe of the challenging tasks involved. This was another excellent post.

  2. July 21: I'm still checking every day or so for another post. I will be on a few month trip in a few weeks, however, and won't have access to a computer. I hope your summer is filled with lots of happy stuff, and that's kept you away from the computer, too.