Our kids have too many choices. They are confronted with critical decisions like, "What do you want to eat for dinner tonight?" and "Which shirt do you want to wear today?" on a daily basis. As parents we comfort ourselves by saying that we are respecting our kid's wishes and showing them that we care about their opinions by asking them. Most of the time what is really happening is that we are passing on the hassle of having to make a decision to our kids. A bit selfish actually and I will be the first to admit that I am guilty of this. And why not? It is easier making the kids choose rather than having to resort to bribes and threats when they refuse to eat whatever is put in front of them on the table.
Some child psychologists recommend an approach to raising young children that limits the choices parents give them. In the morning at the breakfast table, rather than asking if they want Fruit Loops or Lucky Charms, we are supposed to say, "Here you go, Lucky Charms for breakfast today". When the child reaches the appropriate level of maturity and no longer wants to eat Lucky Charms, the theory says that the child will say, "No, I want Fruit Loops!" at which time the parent says sure, here you go. This tells our child that we respect their wishes and allows them to exert their own control when they feel ready. The added benefit to this approach is that the child tells us when they are mature enough to take on more responsibility.
Choices are generally viewed in our society as a good thing. Isn't it great that we can "choose" to do anything we want in this life? We can be anyone we want to be as long as we put our hearts into it. But what if we choose the wrong path? What if what we want to do now turns out to be horribly wrong a year from now! This fear of making the wrong choice can be paralyzing and is a leading cause of procrastination. Even in every day situations when we sit down at our desk Monday morning. What do we start working on first? We have a 101 things to do but which one will lead to that promotion? Which one will help close that sale? The worry about choosing the wrong (less productive) task causes most of us to open up our email which is probably the least productive choice we could make.
So, even as adults we know we do not handle choices and decisions well. Kids are no different and we need to provide a stable and secure environment for them to grow up so that they will be confident to take the risk of making a choice when they are ready.
Great, I am sure most parents would agree with and apply this practice to raising their 4 year olds. What happens (inevitably) is that 4 year old turns 5 and then 6 and then before we know it they are 15 years old and we start to think to ourselves, "My son is 15 years old and it is high time he made a decision on his own." We assume that since our 15 year old child can pick out his or her own clothes in the morning before school that they can also decide on what their major should be in college and what their career should be after graduation. The simple truth is that they cannot. It is a truly rare 15 year old who knows enough about the world and careers to be able to pick from the myriad choices available in a college catalogue. We (parents) need to be involved.
Let's use the breakfast cereal example again but this time with college/careers and a teenage daughter. Sit down with her and say, "Janet, your mother and I have been discussing your future (it is important to show a united front) and we think that a degree in biology would be the right choice for you. You have always been interested in nature and the outdoors and you did well in your AP Biology class this year." If your daughter agrees then you are finished. Either your choice for her hit the mark (which is possible) or she is not ready to make a choice for herself. Of course, the other alternative is that your daughter says, "Dad, I don't think I could stand biology, the site of blood makes me squeamish. I did enjoy the math class I took this year though..." Success! She has indicated something of interest and we can now talk through her options with her. She showed that she has an opinion and is mature enough to voice it. As with the cereal and a younger child, our goal is not to force them to eat what we tell them to eat. By narrowing the choices (to one in this case) we are helping them to focus and together we can then discover a choice that makes sense.