Children are our future, there is no doubt about that. Teaching them life skills can begin as early as when a child is six months old. Often we perceive making choices as choosing between a good or poor choice. Actually, choices can be encouraged between two different toys, neither necessarily being the better choice. “Would you like to play with the blue ball or the red ball?”; “Please choose an oatmeal cookie or a cookie with raisins”. Your child has to stop, think and then make a choice. At this point they are making a choice about which would please them most. As your child ages, their choices become much broader. As you give your children more options on a daily basis, you are preparing them for some of the biggest challenges in life - making the right choices. As your child grows older and has learned how to make more positive choices, make sure you follow through with whatever choice the child has made. Do not give in and allow your child to take a different option. If you teach your child to make choices and to live with the choices they have made they learn discipline skills, responsibility and sometimes even disappointment. Every choice they, you or I make will not be the right one, after all we are human. Allowing your child to learn disappointment when he or she has made a poor choice is also a very important life skill. It is also a huge challenge to determine what techniques in lesson learning are the most effective for each child.
Begin early helping children see that everyone has the opportunity to make choices and that choices have an impact. A good place to start might be with some popular traditional children’s stories. Stories provide situations where children can both identify and reflect upon good and negative choices and the outcomes that will result from both. The Three Bears: Goldilocks comes to the bears’ house. She has a choice to make. She goes inside. What would have happened if she had waited outside for the bears to come back from their walk? Having made the wrong choice, not all is lost – until she sits in the chair and breaks it. What could she have done then? She could have stopped at any part of her exploration of the house but instead it all keeps going wrong. When the bears came back there was yet another choice to make – perhaps she could have had the courage to explain, apologize and try to make amends. Cinderella: She made a choice at the prince’s ball. When the clock bells started to ring she chose to run. How would the story have ended if she had stayed and talked to the prince, explaining where she came from and why her clothes had turned to rags and how she had come to be at the ball? Does your child think that would have been a good choice? First Choices (2006), A Lucky Duck publication, by Margaret Collins has many stories designed to help children to explore the different choices made by the characters in the stories. Two endings are provided for each story and children are encouraged to discuss these and to undertake other relevant activities before choosing the ending they like best or even thinking up their own.
Don’t be afraid to use personal examples of good or poor choices you may have made, especially if they closely parallel a choice your child is contemplating. Respect their thoughts and rationale. Do not belittle the reasoning their level of maturity affords. I have often recounted a choice I made in my college years in an effort to illustrate that fickle youthful urge for independence. I was working a summer job, my parents were planning our traditional family vacation in which I had been involved in for at least 20 years. They were even choosing a time frame that would give me the most weeks possible to work before returning to college. The trip was to Nova Scotia and somehow I thought the $54.00 I could earn continued on page 15 ‰‰‰ good choices from page 14 for a week’s worth of work was a better choice than a fully paid family vacation that would probably be one of my last ties of sentiment with my immediate family. I felt so wise for choosing to earn a few more dollars and rather responsible for remaining on the “homefront”. Well – history records: my parents respected my thoughts and rationale but not without some unsuccessful logical negotiating. Even as my sister and my parents drove away I somehow knew I would be missing something far more important than those wages, which as the years passed, were indeed peanuts. That experience truly stands out as one of the worst decisions I ever made. There is some solace in the fact that my reflection, one time, actually helped my niece decide on an extended family trip in opposition to staying home.
If you see your child struggling in making choices, give them fewer alternatives. While eating in a restaurant a young child may not be able to handle the choice of everything on the menu. As the parent you know what some best picks would be, so offer two or three that are on the menu. Narrowing down the choices also eliminates the risk of a child naming a preference that isn’t even available or desirable for you.
There is also a world of difference between appropriate and inappropriate choices. If a visit to grandparents was on a particular day’s agenda, a child wouldn’t choose to visit or not visit his grandparent’s home. However, he or she could choose which stuffed animal to bring along on the visit.
To help children make life purposeful they should have some say about their daily lives. When we help children understand the choices they have to make on a day to day basis, they seldom feel trapped in the corner with no choices. Just pepper life with individual and collective decision making, it will help to promote good mental health and nurture your child’s ability to cope with the challenges that life may bring them.
Linda Swanson, retired Southwestern Elementary Principal. She earned her B.A. degree from Houghton College and M.S. in Early Childhood Education from Fredonia State. Mrs. Swanson is a lifelong resident of southwestern New York State. Her early teaching experience was at Randolph Elementary. She currently enjoys substitute teaching and volunteering at Z.E.A.L., an after school tutoring program at Zion Covenant church.