When we put too much emphasis on telling our children precisely what they should do, we can rob them of important opportunities to learn how to think for themselves.
Think about it: What do we most want to give our children during this important and impressionable time of life? Toys, material things? Protection from all risks? A bottomless supply of our own brilliant advice? Or do we want to give them the ability to think, to observe their own decision-making process and to experience the results?
Do we want to steer their every turn and issue “my way” mandates until they’re either worn down enough to bend to our will or old enough to escape our grasp? Or do we want to support them in discovering their own values, making their own wise choices, and developing their own character — trusting that by the time they are out of our sight, they’ll be capable of making decisions that lead them toward their definitions of satisfaction and success?
I would argue that the latter path is the more fruitful one. Certainly, in a society as complex as the one we live in, we must be there to advise our kids — to help them weigh their options and to equip them with a framework for thinking through the likely outcomes of their choices. But I think we must also give them enough leeway to make an ample supply of their own decisions and mistakes, and to experience the consequences of their actions — for better and for worse.
When things go well, let us be there to celebrate their victories. And when things go badly, let us be there to help them sort through the disappointments and regrets. Not to judge them or say, “I told you so,” but to help them think through what happened, to ask them wise questions and to help them explore what they might do differently next time.
To some extent, it’s only natural for us to want to make all of our kids’ decisions for them, to micromanage their daily choices and even clean up their messes. After all, for the first few years of their lives, that level of oversight was essential for our kids’ safety and well-being.
The problem is, when we continue to treat our kids this way beyond toddlerhood — and embarrassingly often, we wind up doing it well into their adolescence and young adulthood — we create kids who never fully grow up. In the process, we set them up to fail.
Because eventually, ready or not, our kids will be out on their own. And then what? Do you really want to see your kids go out into the wide world or off to college and have that be the very first time they are forced — or even given the opportunity — to make decisions on their own?
Wouldn’t it be better to see them off on their first adult adventures knowing they have what it takes to recognize good choices and to recover from bad ones? Wouldn’t you rest easier knowing they have a rich history of decisions and mistakes under their belt — decisions they got to make while still within the relative security of your parental domain and presence?
Give a kid a directive, and, arguably, you help her operate successfully for a day. Teach a kid to make good decisions on her own, and you equip her for a lifetime of discovery and success. So, yes, by all means, help your kids explore the likely outcomes of decisions they are making. Review their choices with them, but then let them make a choice — and, to the extent feasible, allow them to deal with the outcomes.
There’s no question: This approach takes more time, focus and energy. And it may give you a few more gray hairs. But it will allow you to build a relationship with your kids where they want to come to you and talk about the decisions they’re facing. And that’s what a “together” family is all about.