Raising Smart Kids by Fostering Decision-Making Skills

Smart older kids know how to make wise choices. Their everyday decisions influence how they learn, behave, and get along with others. In this way, the ability to make choices becomes one of the most important abilities your child can acquire.

But choices bring consequences, both good and bad. Sometimes the choice between two desired options means losing one or the other. Being able to make difficult choices early provides roots for future decision-making and provides your child with the following:

  • The confidence to hang up the telephone when she has to study for a test
  • The gumption to say "no" to riding in a car driven by a friend who's drunk
  • The confidence not to smoke when all her friends do
  • The strength to avoid the pressure of sexual intercourse

Begin the training early

Choices are part of life. The right choices separate those who succeed and those who find hardship later in life. But the skill to make choices doesn't come easily. Your child needs years and years of practice from babyhood on. The simple choices you orchestrate for your child now allow her to practice, and maybe falter, while still surrounded by the safety net of home and family.

Your baby chooses between one toy or another all the time. Now it's time for you to expand the options for your toddler/preschooler. Whenever possible, give your toddler a choice. Allow her to choose clothes, foods, and which activity to do first. She'll feel grown up, respected, and important.

The biggest trick at this age is to allow choices that don't offend your adult sensibilities in some way. To do this, make the choice yours or yours: Offer a choice between two options you prefer but ones that also interest your child.

  • Do you want to take a bath or brush your teeth first? You know full well your preschooler prefers to stay up until midnight.
  • Do you want juice or milk for breakfast? You understand that your preschooler really wants the out-of-bounds coffee Daddy is drinking.
  • Should we go to the post office or supermarket first? You know errands aren't favorites, but they have to be done.
    Be sure to save bonus places, such as the library or toy store, for last, or your agreeable kid won't want to leave these places and definitely won't be agreeable any more, if she does go.
  • Would you rather wear the red shirt with blue pants or green-striped shirt with green pants. This avoids seeing your toddler in mismatched clothes when going to a dressy wedding or restaurant.

Allowing choices shows respect for your child's opinions without giving up your responsibility as parent. As a smart parent, you relinquish small decisions while keeping control of the big-ticket items that can affect your child's health and safety. Your preschooler assumes control over her life, practicing making simple choices. Unless you allow your child to make decisions now, she may not be able to later, when the stakes are higher.

Making the most of "I can do it myself"

Welcome to the I-can-do-it-myself (or me-do-it) stage. This is the age of the:

  • Quick-change artist, or if you're really lucky, outdoor stripper
  • Mechanical wizard who unfastens the car seat belt while you're zooming along the expressway
  • Self-help queen who pours her own juice, spilling enough to wash the table and create a wading pool on the floor for the dog
  • Helper shopper who drops scores of unwanted but colorful items into your shopping cart
  • Fashion plate who goes to restaurants only if she's wearing her tutu, red boots, and 10-gallon hat

Kids this age naturally want to do everything for themselves, even when they aren't always successful. And they want to do what you do because they think being an adult has more perks than being a kid.

The I-can-do-it-myself stage is the beginning of the drive, willingness to work, and optimism characteristic of smarter kids. Properly managed, this stage helps her budding self-image turn into a can-do approach later in life.

So what's a parent to do when you're out of time and/or your child dawdles over tasks you'd rather finish yourself quickly. Do you have a choice when your child insists on performing an activity that's far too difficult for her? Here are some not-so-foolproof options to try:

  • Allow your child to tackle a difficult job, but stay close by. If you see frustration building, ask whether she wants help. If the stars line up, she may permit your intervention, the task will be completed, and all will be well in Toddlerland.
  • Distract your child with a more pleasant assignment, so that you can handle the task at hand. For example, offer your tot a chance to read a favorite book or hold her prized teddy while you tie her shoes.
  • Break down the tasks involved in what your child wants to accomplish. Assign an appropriate task to her, and you do the hard stuff. Make sure your child knows that her part of the job is very important. For example, "Let's pour the juice together. You hold the cup very still, the hard part. I'll pour from the container."
  • Take the offending article along with you, if you're in a rush. This gives you some extra time to work out a plan, one where you can complete the job without a violent response. There's no law that says your child has to wear shoes into the car or have a buttoned sweater before leaving the house. But do expect a few stares.
  • Arrange small jobs your child can do to work alongside you before a struggle develops. Kids just want to play grownup. Give your youngster a dust rag. Buy her a pretend rug sweeper or small snow shovel or rake. Ask for her assistance making beds and setting the table. If you're brave and available for close supervision, give your child a few minutes of pushing the real vacuum, spraying the windows with cleaner, or smushing the polish on the table.
    Don't expect perfection. And whatever you do, never redo anything your child has just done. Nothing deflates your child more than seeing someone adjust, pick at, or otherwise change something she worked so hard on. And that goes for children of any age and spouses, for that matter. If the job has to be done a certain way, don't give it to anyone else to do. Keep it to yourself, and assign a more workable but similar task for your child to do by your side. "Daddy slices the roast. But you can arrange the parsley on the serving platter.
  • Assign responsibilities your child can handle, such as watching the baby on the rug or picking up toys. These seemingly little jobs give your child a chance to try out what being grownup is like.
  • Celebrate minor and major accomplishments. Whoop and holler over staying dry at night, riding a tricycle for the first time, or putting on a coat like a big kid.
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