A Fork in the Road

 Dorothy and yellow brick road illustr 001

Your children are not your children

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself…

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

 –          Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 1923

Parenting in the year 2013 is a great balancing act. We know that the fear based, authoritarian, punishment oriented, “children should be seen and not heard” style of generations past does not promote a kid with confidence. We also have a sense that later generations with the lassez-faire, allowing and permissive, “be who you want to be without boundaries” is not ideal either. We have read about the helicopter parent, overly involved in the decision making and structuring of a child’s life and recognize that it too does not promote a confident child. The “gift of confidence” as Lev Vygotsky[i], developmental psychologist put it, requires adults to provide caring support for healthy risk taking and exploration. It is the responsive parent, the one who balances input with limits, respect with responsibility, independence with inter-dependence who will support the development of confident kids ready to contribute themselves to the world. So how does choice fit in? When should children have a choice or say-so and when should limits and boundaries be set and enforced by caring parents?

The Importance of Choice

Researchers Edward Ryan and Richard Deci who defined the term intrinsic motivation have found that every human being is internally motivated by three perceptions – autonomy, belonging and competence. Last week, we discussed belonging and the value of inclusion. The need for autonomy or self-determination is also critical to a child’s sense of well-being and engagement in learning. “When self-determined, people experience a sense of freedom to do what is interesting, personally important and vitalizing,” write Ryan and Deci.[ii] Alfie Kohn, author of Choices for Children ; Why and How to Let Students Decide,[iii] sites numerous research studies that show significant learning occurs when teachers involve students in decision making in the classroom and give them choices about the academic curriculum. In the schools with which I worked in Toledo, Ohio, teachers learned through the Responsive Classroom approach to give students a framework in which to make academic choices. [iv]Students were involved in planning, implementation and reflection on a unit of learning. With a responsive teacher facilitating, I witnessed a classroom of students who historically struggled and often failed in other, more traditional classrooms in academic tasks but when given choices were highly engaged, motivated and successful learners. Sue Rowe, a master at this method of teaching says,

Providing students with choices in how they demonstrate their competence in any academic pursuit just makes sense. If the student chooses the how or what, they are motivated to be successful. If they are motivated to be successful, learning takes place. If learning takes place, your teaching goals are achieved.

How Do Rules and Boundaries Fit with Choices?

In order to feel a sense of autonomy, people do not need to have control over everything. They only need to feel that their opinion is valued and taken into consideration. In order for children to learn to respect adults, they themselves need to experience respect. Offering children choices sends the message that a parent trusts their ability to make good decisions even if simple, like what to wear or eat. It offers daily practice in reflecting upon and making choices and participating in the consequences or outcomes of those decisions. Parents maintain the right and need to set limits around issues of safety and in respecting oneself, respecting others and respecting property and the surrounding environment. But parenting rules and boundaries can coexist with the opportunity for the child to make choices about his/her life.

How Do Children’s Choices Fit into Family Life?

A learning family values the development of each member of the family. In this context, each person needs to exercise decision making power about what goals to pursue and ultimately, who they want to be as a person. Responsible decision making and problem solving skills are developed with authentic practice over time. Opportunities like whether or not to include another child in a play group might seem small and insignificant, but lay the foundation for the bigger decisions of life that will arrive on a tween or teen’s doorstep whether the parent likes it or not. Should I do drugs? Should I drink? Have sex? Lie to my parents? Skip school? We are all too well aware of the list of risks. “The integration of these two values, community and choice, define democracy.” and also, help us understand the role for parents. If parents allow for choices, but also guide reflection about those choices – What other ideas can you come up with? What do you think will happen when you do that? Who will be impacted by your choice and how?   – then the child has the opportunity to practice making choices in a responsible manner that considers the impact to himself and others. You might ask: “Is it worth the time and thought required to incorporate opportunities for choice in our child’s life?” Consider that feelings of helplessness and a lack of control over one’s life can lead to depression. Consider that children typically do not have choices or feel much control over many aspects of their lives and are constantly looking for opportunities to exert control. Consider that there are many issues and tasks in life that require your child’s cooperation. Consider that there will be a time when you will not be there when those scarier life risks come knocking. Then, consider the following small and practical ways you can incorporate choice into your parenting routine.


Are there any routines in your day or week that just aren’t working or could be improved upon? Maybe there are regular arguments or frustrations expressed. Maybe you aren’t able to get to school or swimming lessons on time. Identify which routine or transition in the day could be better. Sit down with your family and talk about it when you are not rushed to be somewhere or do something else. How many ideas can you come up with to help make it a better transition? Allow for the children to brainstorm ideas without your judgment. Pick some of the best ideas and think together through how it might work practically so that you are talking through the potential outcomes or consequences.

Daily Tasks

We go about our days with a hum and a rhythm of the familiar so that our busy lives can have some semblance of organization. There are a million decisions you make for your child in a day that could easily be delegated if you give a little thought to it. Toast or cereal for breakfast? Blue or black pants to wear to school? Green or red jacket for going outdoors? And with decision making power comes the responsibility to contribute to the household and family life. How could you as a parent use help in contributing? Might your child participate in loading the dishwasher or folding clean towels? Children may not do household tasks perfectly or exactly in the way you like them done, but you are offering them the opportunity to contribute and training them for future days when they will be able to significantly contribute and feel capable, competent and trusted because you’ve allowed them a role.

Spaces and Places

Allow your child to feel ownership over their own space. Allow them to contribute to decorating their room or arranging it in a way that is appealing to them. Do you have a place where they can post their art or other school productions? Do they have a reading spot in the house that is theirs? They do not need to take over your household with their toys in every room but their own sacred spaces are important. In many families, homework can become a battle as kids would rather watch television, run around outside or play a video game – anything other than doing their homework. Talk about homework time with your child. How can you work together to make it better? How can you create an environment that helps her accomplish homework in a reasonable amount of time so that she can do other things she enjoys? Is there a space that is quiet and conducive to getting the work accomplished and that might be easily accessible to you so that you can help when needed? Are there special tools that could be allocated just for her homework space? Invite your child to help design a desirable space to work in. When you discuss times for homework, figure out together when homework fits into your schedule and how much time is really needed to accomplish all of it. What is slowing her down or does she need extra help? How can you get that help? The more you involve her in working through the problem in advance, the smoother the process will go each evening after school.

Discipline and Consequences

This idea may cause an uncontrollable whince as you think about choice, discipline and consequences. Often we think that the logical consequences of a situation in which a child has made a poor choice need to come from a parent and be well-thought through and “fit the crime.” We fear we will lose control of the situation and lose the obedience of our child if we allow for any discussion or choice when it comes to discipline. However, “Who is being responsible? Obviously it is the adult; so what happens when the adult is not around? Children do not learn to be responsible for their own behavior,” writes Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline.[v] When your child makes a poor choice, talk through ideas for consequences. Throughout childhood and teen years, children are still developing their logical thinking skills. Talk through what consequences they feel would be just and related to their poor choices. A sincere apology? Repairing a broken object? Giving of their time and energy to a project or place where they made the poor choice? Your child could surprise you with their sense of responsibility and follow through on their own ideas of making reparation for their actions.

When Choice is Not an Option

Finally, there are times when choice is just not an option. Julie has to take the medicine the doctor prescribed. Brendan must hold your hand in the parking lot. Marianne cannot run outside without a coat. There are safety or health issues involved or other people are affected adversely and no choice can be offered. These situations can require a lot of patience since often children do not understand the importance of circumstances. Realize that your own emotion in the situation can create and exacerbate a power struggle. The more upset you get trying to convince your child to do something, often times, the stronger their resistance. Try and put yourself in their shoes. Breathe and work on patience. Call upon your partner parent if they are able to remain calm and you are not. Your child is more likely to cooperate if you have patience with them and coach them through the process.

[i] Mahn, H., John-Steiner, V. (2002). The gift of confidence: A Vygotskian view of emotions. In Learning for Life in the Twenty-first Century: Sociocultural Perspectives on the Future of Education. Eds. Wells, G. & Claxton, G., Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

[ii] Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. In Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.

And Self Determination Theory site, home page, Retrieved 4/4/13. http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/

[iii] Kohn, A. (1993). Choices for children; Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan, September.

[iv] Denton, P. (2005). Learning through academic choice. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

[v] Nelsen, J. (2006). Positive discipline. New York: Ballantine Books.

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