Decisions, decisions…

You can help your child become a good problem solver

by Irene Daria, MA

Most kids have been opinionated since toddlerhood—asserting what they want to eat, play and wear. Once they reach elementary school age, they become even more determined to make their own decisions. No longer just declaring their desires, they proclaim the right to choose such things as which afterschool activities to sign up for and whom to invite to their birthday parties.

“At the age of five or six, kids become very aware of the fact that they are making decisions,” says school psychologist Charles Fay, Ph.D., co-author of Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood: Practical Parenting from Birth to Six Years. “Their thought processes are more developed than before, so they’re able to start weighing the positive and negative consequences of their actions and they become excited about the fact that they can have some control over lives.” And that desire to have control over their lives increases as they progress through elementary school.

 Allowing your child to make as many decisions as possible—which clothes to wear, what to order from a menu, which story to read at bedtime—makes it more likely that he’ll be agreeable when you do need to lay down the law. "If we take away a sense of control from children and overpower them with our opinions or demands they're going to regain that control in some other way, usually by being obstinate with us, or bossy with other kids," says Myrna Shure, Ph.D., author of Raising a Thinking Child, who has conducted 20 years of research on children and decision making. “Our research shows that children who can think in ways that help them make good decisions are less easily frustrated, less aggressive, better able to make friends and more successful in school. What’s more, kids who learn to make decisions when they’re young are also better able to be confident about much more serious decisions--such as refusing to try drugs or get involved with a gang--when they are older.”

Many parents unintentionally stymie their child’s decisiveness. "Asking kids to make a decision and then trying to talk them out of it is one of the most common ways parents impede their children's decision making ability," says Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave so Your Children Will Too. "That happened in my own family the other day. My wife asked our five-year-old daughter what song she wanted to play in her piano recital and, after my daughter answered, my wife tried to talk her into playing another song. And she's a psychologist!"

I’ve done something similar. When my son Jamie was five, I asked him what he wanted to make his father for Father's Day. His response was instantaneous: "A flower made out of tissue paper." Without thinking, I said, “Wouldn't you rather make a bookmark?"

Of course, there will be times when you need to overrule your child’s choices. But if you do it too often, she may become resentful," says Dr. Severe. Or she may start doubting her judgement and think other people's opinions matter more than her own.

It’s important to let your child bear the consequences of his decisions, Dr. Severe adds. As I’ve learned, however, that’s often easier said than done. One summer when Jamie was little, we went to the beach. Jamie insisted that he wanted to leave his beach toys in the car. Not surprisingly, once we got settled on the sand, he said, "I wish I’d brought my toys." My husband and I didn’t have the heart to leave his toys where they were, so we retrieved them saying, “We'll get your toys this time, but the next time you decide to leave them behind they're staying there."

In fact, by getting him his toys, we missed an important opportunity to teach a valuable lesson. “Kids won’t be able to learn about making good decisions until they’ve experienced the consequences of making a bad one,” says Dr. Fay. “Once they do, the concept of cause and effect will sink in. And that will make them think more carefully next time.”

As eager as kids are to make their own decisions, they often find some decisions—such as whether to go to a birthday party or visit their favorite cousins—overwhelming. At those times, they’ll need guidance from you.

The following five-step process will assist your child and will also help him hone his decision-making skills:

1. Express empathy. Say something like, "Oh wow. What a bummer" if, say, he calls from school to say he has forgotten his lunch, or tells you he has broken a neighbor's window. Your empathy will soothe your child because he now knows you won't yell at him or give him a lecture about being irresponsible. "Being calm and not worrying about getting in trouble will open his mind to the suggestions you're about to give," says Dr. Fay.

2. Ask "What are you going to do?" By asking this question you're communicating two things to your child. First, you're saying, "You're a powerful kid who can figure this out." You're also saying, "This is your problem and not mine and I'm not going to solve it for you." Keep in mind, that your child won't be able to answer your question. "Every single kid I know will come back and say, `I don't know,'" says Dr. Fay.

3. Ask, "Would you like some ideas?" By asking whether your child wants suggestions instead of just offering them, you’re reinforcing the notion that she needs to think for herself and come to her own conclusion. But you're also letting her know that you're there to help him. Few kids will turn down your offer.

4. Suggest three solutions but let your child choose. After each idea, ask, "How does that work for you?" This will encourage your child to think about the consequences of each action. “Sometimes your child won’t pick any of your suggestions and that's okay," says Dr. Fay. Your suggestions probably got him to think about other alternatives. "It’s great if he can come up with his own solution,” says Dr. Fay. “Of course, sometimes the kid blows it royally and that's fine too."

In fact, many child-rearing experts would say that's wonderful. "We as parents need to always remember that our kids won't be able to learn about making good decisions until they've experienced the consequences of a bad one," says Dr. Severe. “That will cause them to think more carefully about the next decision they make."

5. Know when to cast the deciding vote. If your child is finding it impossible to decide, you need to step in and say, "This is what you're going to do," says Dr. Severe.

You'll also need to do this any time your child starts waffling between two equally appealing options, such as whether to eat at Burger King or McDonald's or whether to go to Sally's party or Mary's. "If you spend too much time going over every pro and con with your child, you'll actually encourage  indecisiveness. As soon as you feel the child is getting wishy washy, step in and say, `I'm going to help you. We'll go to Mary's.' If your child then says, `No, I want to go to Sally's' say, `That's fine. But we're not changing our minds.' Once the decision has been made, don’t back out." You'll be demonstrating the importance of decisiveness, a skill that will benefit your child now and for the rest of his life.

Choices your child should be making:

Starting at age 5 or 6, children should be allowed to make certain decisions on a regular basis. According to Myrna Shure, Ph.D., author of Raising a Thinking Child, they should be allowed to choose:

* The clothes they wear to school. To avoid fashion faux pas, separate school clothes from play clothes, place the school clothes in designated drawers and then let your child pick what he wants to wear from those drawers. 

* What they will eat from a menu.

* What story to read at bedtime.

* Which video tape to watch (from a pre-approved collection).

* Which TV show to watch--again, working within your pre-approved choices.

* When to do his homework. Some kids prefer to do it right away when they get home from school and others need some time to unwind or burn off energy. Let your child decide what works best for him.

* Which library book to take home.

Choices kids shouldn’t make:

Parents should always call the shots if the issues involves:

Safety. There’s no debating, for example, the necessity of wearing a helmet when your child rides a bike, in-ine skates, or uses a scooter.

Age appropriateness. If you know your child will be disturbed by attending a funeral, then don't give him the option of going. If a PG movie is frightening or graphic, don’t let your child rent it even if other parents are allowing their kids to.

Inconvenience to you. If your child is trying to decide between two parties and one is very inconvenient to get to, then you choose which one he'll attend. If your child begs for pasta for dinner and you’ve made meat loaf, serve meat loaf.

If your child argues about it, simply let him know that the option he wants is too inconvenient for you. This may seem harsh but "children need to know that the world doesn't revolve around them and that other people have needs and feelings too," says Dr. Fay. "They need to learn to take other people's needs and feelings into consideration when making decisions."

The cardinal rule of parenting, says Dr. Fay, is that "parents have to take good care of themselves" so that they'll have the energy to take good care of their children. The good news is that if you do allow your child to make as many decisions as possible on things that don't negatively affect you, you'll have a much more agreeable child on your hands during those times when his preferences would have a negative affect on you.