Guide to Preparing Your Child to Make Their Own Decisions
What school will your teen choose to go to? What friends will they make and what company will they choose to keep?
Our job as parents is to help our children grow up to become responsible adults who can make wise life decisions and contribute meaningfully to society. So how can we safely take a step back and let our children have more autonomy to make their own decisions?
Wise Decisions Begin with a Virtue
Behind every decision is a virtue (or several virtues). For example, if your child is offered a cigarette by a friend, they will have to choose between fitting in with their friends and taking the cigarette or risking losing their friends by rejecting it. Their decision will be guided by their virtues of courage, honesty, social intelligence and self-regulation.
So to help your child make wise decisions, they must first form a firm foundation of their own virtues. You can teach your child virtues by modelling and explaining them in everyday life.
Coaching Using the Decision-Making Model
As your child learns these virtues, you can coach your child by gradually involving them in decision-making using the following model: See → Think → Do → Think Again.
Kids need to know how to gather information to make informed decisions. Teach your child to observe their surroundings. For example, if your child is making a decision on which school to attend, you don’t have to do all the googling yourself. Guide your child through searching up the schools’ websites (official websites end with .edu.sg) or social media handles to see their school culture and finding out when their open house dates are. This is called Insightful Decision-Making.
To help your child come to a final decision, you can guide them through listing out their possible options and weighing the pros and cons. For older kids, you could go a step further and assign weightages for each criteria according to its priority. This is called Rational Decision-Making.
Beyond your child’s preference, think about the different “stakeholders” or people who may be involved in or affected by the decision— is there a sibling going to the same school? Do Mum and Dad have a say in this? This helps your child develop a sense of responsibility for their actions and consideration for others.
After your child has made their decision, let them carry out the actions and face the consequences themselves. They may change their minds as they go along, and that’s alright because sometimes we learn better by doing. This is also known as Experiential Decision-Making.
If your child has made a wise decision, you can point out that they are now reaping the benefits and praise them for the careful thought that they put into it. However, if your child regrets their decision, rather than using blaming language like, “I told you so”, you can use calming and positive language like, “Okay, that’s alright. Let’s see what we can do now. What do you think?”
This can help to teach your child that it’s okay to make mistakes because we learn from them. Better it is to be able to get back up from a fall than to never take a step out at all. Show your child that you’re on their side and will help mentor them through their decision-making despite the outcome.
Levels of Decision-Making by Age
No two decisions are the same. You can coach your child using different levels of decision-making depending on your child’s age. Here’s a rough guide:
- Toddlers 2 – 6 years old: Parent decides and child may express their opinion
- Children 7 – 17 years old: Parent or child decides and the other may accept or reject
- Teens 18 years and above: Child decides and parent may express their opinion
It’s worth noting that every child is different and, as a parent, you would know your child best.
Toddlers 2 – 6 Years Old
At this age, kids are typically still too young to make their own decisions independently. So to help them build up their decision-making skills, you can offer simple options; keeping it to two options would be ideal.
Especially when your toddler begins to express likes and dislikes, you can start offering A/B choices on small decisions. (This is also a useful tool for helping your toddler move from one activity to the next)
“Would you like peanut butter or jam on your bread for breakfast?”
“Do you want to read this book or that one before going to bed?”
“You and your brother want the same toy. Would you prefer to share the toy now or wait for your turn later?”
The only caveat is that you’d want to stay away from including options that are not really options. Saying, “Do you want to go for your piano lesson or are you just going to play on the iPad all day?” when they don’t actually have a choice may negatively reinforce that they don’t really have a say in decision-making or that their opinion didn’t matter in the first place.
Children 7-17 Years Old
The primary and secondary school age is when you can let your child slowly take on responsibilities for their own schedules and belongings. You can take time to discuss with your child and come up with a list of things that you would like your child or that your child would like to be in charge of. Agree to slowly hand over each responsibility to your child.
It can look like teaching your child to make their bed every morning, then when they’ve gotten the hang of that, supervising as they pack their own schoolbag, then as they prove to be responsible with that, letting them fold and keep away their own laundry. This way, your child can progressively learn to make decisions on things like time management, keeping their room clean and caring for a pet.
Especially for younger children, it’s important to role model empathy and to help your child understand that actions have consequences. Talk to them about respecting the environment and others around them and show them how you do that in everyday life.
Older Teens 18 Years and Above
At 18 years old, children are generally considered “legal adults” who can hold full responsibility for their actions. However, while they are capable of making their own decisions, it would still be good to stay as their mentor.
At this age, their major decisions would likely revolve around a path of tertiary study, romantic relationships and preserving friendships. Your child may still think that getting the latest branded bag or hair colour is what keeps their social status afloat, and you may not have as much say in that department, but you can counsel them with your own past experiences.
You can share with your child about how you’ve realised certain decisions that you made in the past weren’t the best and how you eventually learned and grew from them. Let your child know that, ultimately, you trust their decision-making and will always love and support them even if a decision they’re making isn’t something you approve of right now.
Helping Your Child to Grow
It’s good to note that giving your child autonomy to make their own decisions is not the same as permissive or laissez-faire parenting. On the contrary, it’s giving your child enough room to grow into responsible, respectful and compassionate young adults.
We can safely cross a bridge in the dark when we can hold on to the handrails. Kids learn best when they are supported. Use the teachable moments you can find every day and provide guidance to scaffold their growth. As your child gets older, their decisions will get bigger and more significant and you may have to talk it out to come to a compromise. But the most important of all is that your child knows you are there for them no matter what happens.
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Seeking professional counselling for your child? Approach one of our child or youth counsellors at TherapySG