Parents Kids Choices

Choice. It's a lovely word. It empowers. It happens to be a very American thing. We love choice. Want fudge or caramel on that sundae? Want fries with that? It is filled with thoughts of harmony and peace. Don't be fooled by this simple little word, no sir, it has a very dark side. That dark side will surface in the most inconvenient times. Parents of small children tend to discover the negative outcome of choice. We all want to decide for ourselves the things we want. It suits our selfish desires to choose what pleases. It gives us control. It also gives away control.

It is that small bit of control that can go terribly wrong when handed over to a small child and especially older children. Children can make choices and they do every day and you just don't notice it. They choose to listen to you, they choose to eat breakfast, they choose to do their homework, they choose to take out the trash, they choose to throw their lunch on the floor, they choose to nap, they choose to clean up toys, they choose to keep their rooms clean, they choose to throw fits, they choose to put on shoes and so on. The day is full of endless choices they make some are pleasing to you and others can make you crazy. The point of choice becomes very clear to them at a young age and they are aware of its power. Parents who fail to notice this are setting themselves up for many frustrating and disappointing days ahead.

I've been thinking about choice and kids for a few weeks now. It began when I took the girls to the movies to see a big deal to them movie. It was a girls' day out and we were looking forward to doing something together outside and away from the house. As a treat we agreed to get some popcorn for munching. We stood in the very long line waiting patiently for our popcorn. The line inched ever so slowly and as the ample time we had became very close to movie time we were getting a little anxious. Up until that point I was oblivious to what was delaying us so much. I began to watch the interactions between parents and children and then it became very clear. Each group of families approached the counter with the same behavior. Each parent asked their children the all too famous deadly choice question: "What do you want?" Take a moment and let that sink in. Parents asking children 4-12 years old this question as they face a wall of junk food: hot dogs, soft pretzels, nachos, pizza, popcorn, soda, ice cream and CANDY. Do you see where this is going? Still not seeing it? Let me help you, perhaps if you replace that wall of junk food with the front door to your child's favorite toy store then it might be more clear. Can you say overwhelming? Yes, overwhelming is what that question is for children. It's a horrible question, even worse it's a terrible way to subject your child to choice. When you say something like that you are opening the door to so much, too much. Unless you are willing and accepting of what will come out of their mouths then you should not give them that broad of a choice.

So what happened to us? We stood in line 20 minutes while parent after parent asked the same question only to argue with their children about the choice the child selected. Frustrated parents and whiny children bickered over ice cream and nachos. Some parents gave in to stop the embarrassment of a temper-tantrum throwing child. It was heartbreaking. They too came to the movies for a fun together day and it was starting off terribly. Grouchy parents and brooding children filed in theaters anger brewing all around. It certainly was a downer witnessing all that disputing. It also made me upset seeing those parents failing to be a parent and setting the rules.

Which brings me back to choice. I want my children to be able to choose things for themselves but not at the price of my parental respect and guidance. And most importantly not at the cost of a good relationship with my children. Think things through. You the parent have to manage the decisions not hand them over. Too often I see parents handing over pieces of their role to their children. A number of people will tell me that they want their children to be happy because they had such a terrible childhood or never had such nice things or blah, blah, blah. Seriously?! Your answer for not being a responsible parent is a load of psychology that scarred you for life? Get over it. (If it's that bad do something good for your child and seek therapy.) For every blah, blah, blah of "I had it so bad" there is another person out there that had it worse yet still manages to not let that affect their judgment. Anyone who was a child of an abusive alcoholic (me) can tell you that not having the newest Barbie was the least of their emotional problems. It's choice. Choice to change and choice to make better. When you fail to choose to be a better more responsible parent then you are heading toward a train wreck of frustration.

Managing the way your child chooses is your job.* You provide the limits and they choose within those acceptable to you. Those snack bar parents themselves may have been overwhelmed and that is a whole other problem. My suggestion for those parents at the snack bar is to pose a question like this: "Would you like popcorn, a pretzel or M&Ms?" Limits. When you narrow the choice it becomes manageable and you have communicated to your child that they can select from a few acceptable items and that you will respect their choice. There is none of the "No pizza you just ate lunch" or "No nachos it's too messy" which tells the child they make BAD choices and that you disapprove of their opinion.

Parenting is the hardest job. You have to make choices for yourself and your children and that can be tiring. Feeling like being the bad guy is part of the job. At work are you always in good favor with your co-workers? Anyone who has been in a management position will tell you that on any given day you will make someone upset. Think of parenting as managing. You are managing your family. Some days everyone will be pleased and it will be a good day. Other days someone is upset. You press on and because as the manager you know that based on your experience your choice in guidance is the best for your children. So stop letting your kids dictate the rules. Stop letting them choose how to manage you. Stop allowing them to guilt you into decisions you didn't want to happen. Get that grip back step into your manager's role and start making limits. Stick to those limits and enforce consequences. If you fail to maintain this ability when your children are young then I can not see how you will be able to deal with a temperamental 16 year old who has had a lifetime of telling you what to do.

*Parents of several (4+) children have this mastered. They can't please everyone and they can only do so much. Watch a large family and see what happens when they go out. Often the choice for all has been made prior to stepping up to that snack bar, etc. My favorite phrase said by mothers of many children is: "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit" I find it suits many situations and it reminds your children to be thankful for the extras in life and that often is reminder enough to silence the complainers.


Judith said…
We never got in the popcorn line. No drinks= no need to go to the bathroom. We went to the dollar movies on the other side of town. If we were going to need food she brought fish sandwiches...from home. If we each wanted a different movie we'd need to accept sitting alone. At the grocery store we could choose between the cans of peas. The only time Mom didn't limit choices was at the library. I think limiting the selection to a few options is a smart move.

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