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Still playing good cop, bad cop? Have you considered teaching self-discipline through good decision-making skills?


One day, I was rushing to get somewhere and I had to take the boys with me. While I was hurrying along, my younger son suddenly started crying. I knew that if we stalled, we would have been pressed for time and as if that wasn’t bad enough, I could sense the tension rising in the room. At times like these, my mom would have reached out to us with a tight slap across the face. crying children drove my mom nuts; she had zero tolerance for it.

I decided to make a different call and to take a gamble. I stopped everything and invested 3 minutes of my time to try to salvage the situation or at least to make the best of it.

So I pulled out a chair, sat down, took a deep breath and said this to my son….

“I’m not exactly sure what’s bothering you but this is not the time to deal with it because we are pressed for time. From what I see here, YOU have two choices. YOU can either choose to make everything go away, do what you are supposed to do and we can get out of here at lightning speed, then figure out what is bugging you later on; OR, YOU can choose to make it get really, REALLY bad. If you don’t hustle along and do what you were supposed to do, we will not be able to get out of the house and we will not be able to get dinner and we will be hungry and your dad will have absolutely nothing to eat for dinner and you will have to answer to him for all this. The choice is YOURS. YOU get to choose how this goes.”

After this little chat, my son continued to sit down for another minute or two and I could see his mind working hard to decide what he needed to do. Then, having made up his mind, he immediately got up and did what he was supposed to and we got out of the house just in time.

I think young children often feel like they are victims of our plans and schedules because we often don’t talk to them about it or we fail to make them part of our plans. But what I did in this instance was to put them in charge of the plan and how it would unfold and this helps empower them to take ownership of the situation rather than make them feel like they are victims of circumstance.

Now, I have to say that this didn’t happen overnight. I’ve shared many instances like these (where I offer options to my boys and allow them to take ownership of their choices) and it has horrified many parents who cannot fathom what it would be like if their children made the decisions, and I can totally understand. I won’t let anyone with poor decision-making skills or risk-taking skills or problem-solving skills make any decisions for me.

But as for my boys, I am totally ok with giving them options and choices. Though they are only 7 and 10 years old now, I did start them on this path at a very early age (I think it was since they were 2 years old).

Here are the three things that I’ve done with them that I believe, truly contributed to their ability to make good decisions.

1) Opportunities to make decisions no matter how small 
In my book, Cool Stuff Your Parents Never Told You About Parenting, I discussed how important it is to present choices to our children so that they can practice their decision-making skills from as early as possible. So whether they are trying to wash their own hands or put on their own shoes or pick out their own clothes, these are all great opportunities for them to make decisions about how best to go about doing things. As simplistic as it may sound, many of these tasks are a lot harder for young children than we can understand it to be. They are constantly trying to figure out how things work, to experiment, to practice their coordination and to understand the laws of cause and effect. These skills form the foundation of learning independence (and with that comes empowerment), developing self-confidence (in their ability to solve problems or fix problems), problem-solving skills (this is where they find different ways to use their creativity to move around difficulties), decision-making skills (which is often a complex task of weighing pros and cons and taking circumstances into consideration) and risk-taking skills (or in other words, weighing what’s at stake versus what reward is to be had).

2) Opportunities to learn from mistakes
This is a huge mindset issue. When I was young, it was all about obedience, about obeying my parents and following exactly what they tell me to do. Obedience on it’s own is not bad thing, but an over emphasis on obedience to the point of excluding learning to make good decisions, or developing risk-taking skills and creativity is NOT BENEFICIAL to either party. We should never let our fear of making mistakes deter us from trying new things and looking for ways to do things differently. Likewise, we should also help our children understand that making mistakes is all part of our learning journey…….and that they are opportunities for us to develop new skills, recalibrate our strategy and refine our technique. As such, when my children spill things or break something, we try to go straight into diagnostics and problem-solving mode and try to think of ways to fix things and with each opportunity, their confidence grows and so does their problem-solving skills; and their attitude towards making mistakes improves.

3) Opportunities to learn from a structured environment
Many people often ask me how I could just sit back and watch my children experiment and trial and error with their decisions and choices without the fear of them hurting themselves or making irreversible mistakes. Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t just let them run loose doing whatever they want. We have a structured environment here at home, which comes with certain rules that we all have to work with. Based on these ground rules, my boys have a framework with which to work  so that they can freely explore and safely experiment within the boundaries of the rules that govern our environment. Take for example, our ‘balls outside’ rule (where we can only play with balls when we are outdoors) or the ‘indoor and outdoor voice’ rule (where we speak softly indoors but are allowed to speak loudly outdoors), ‘line the table’ rule (for all craft activities and painting), ‘tv on weekends only’ rule (no tv on weekdays), ‘fruits before desert’ rule (so they learn to eat healthy stuff before indulging in the not so healthy stuff), and so much more. Having rules like these, especially if they have been put together collaboratively with the children, makes the boundaries clear and as such, they are free to move around within those boundaries. More importantly, it teaches them that there is a time and place for everything. So we do give them a freedom of choice but we also give them boundaries to work within so that nobody gets hurt and nothing gets damaged (hopefully).

Just remember that decision making skills, risk taking skills and problem solving skills are all like muscles, that need to be developed, flexed and exercised through years of practice and trial and error.

Tell me what you think about this article. do you teach decision making skills, risk taking skills and problem solving skills in your home? If you do, what are some of the things that you like best about this approach? And if you don’t, what’s your biggest obstacle?

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