Thursday, February 24, 2011

Parenting Kids Through Difficult Choices

(orginally published by Kelly at Reepicheep's Coracle)

Not long ago on OGrownups, there was a discussion about a blog post that Katie Granju wrote about making a choice for her son when he asked her to. Little did I know that Livy apparently reads OGrownups and gets ideas for new ways to behave. :) In no time flat, we faced the same kind of situation in my house, twice in a 24 hour period.

The first incident was about whether we should go to the Fernbank Museum of Natural History on Saturday or have a friend come over to do a sewing lesson with Livy. I was completely neutral about my part in these things. As neither were better or worse for me, I told her that she could choose which one she would rather do.

"Which one do you think I should do, Mom?"

"I think you should do the one that you want to do the most."

"Yeah, but which one is that?"

"Only you can know that, sweetie."

Skip ahead to tears, rolling about on the bad in apparent agony, and much pleading. Finally, she asked, "Why won't you decide for me?"

"I don't make decisions for you because I don't want to boss you. I want you to control your own life and make your own choices, so that you will grow up to be a really good decider."

"But it's not bossing me, if I tell you to boss me."

"It's not just about you, Livy. It's about me. I don't think it's okay to boss people, and so I don't want to do a wrong thing. I can help you think about your choice, but I will not make it for you."

The second please-boss-me event was the next day when she had to choose which princess dress to wear to a friend's birthday party. She pulled out the choices, tried them all on for me, and then asked me to pick. I reminded her that I wasn't going to make choices for her, and I helped her think through the dress choice: Which is prettiest? Which color do you like the most? Which is most comfortable? Which will the birthday girl like the most at her party? Etc. Etc. for a long time.

She wasn't any happier this time when I refused to make up her mind for her than she was the first time. Again tears and gnashing of teeth. Why would I not just tell her, you may be wondering. Is it really so important a principle to make me endure all this crying? Yes, I think it is.

Choices between two good things are the toughest kind of choices. We want them both; both would have good results. How on earth do we pick? We examine our values hierarchies and try to tease out which choice fits best with our long term best interests. This is a hard skill, and I want Livy to learn it.

The other reason I didn't give concerns what I do not want her to learn in this situation. I don't want her to learn that when we are faced with hard choices, we look to others for a final decisions. We may look to them for advice, for help with problem-solving, or for a sounding board, but we do not relinquish our independence. Each person must accept responsibility for that moment of final choice.

I also don't want her to learn that it is okay to accept responsibility for someone else's decisions. I strive to be a model of virtuous behavior for her, and I, by refusing to stand in for her independent judgment, show her the proper role of an advisor, friend, parent, or spouse. I don't want her to grow up to be the kind of person who accepts the responsibility for other people's decisions.

Lest someone think that I would never enforce my authority in Livy's decision-making, I'll add this. I do make final choices for Livy very occasionally. I hold final say on decisions that endanger life, limb (in a serious way), or other people's rights. But those kinds of decisions are very, very rare. Other than those cases, I advise, counsel, help, and then stay out of the way of Livy's independent judgment. Even when she asks.

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