In my attempt to prepare my children for adulthood, I've tried to figure out what it means to be an adult. Obviously responsibility is a big factor, but what is it we're responsible for? We're responsible for the choices we make. We're responsible for how our choices affect ourselves, and the people and world around us. If you think about it, any given day is filled with one choice after another - how many times to push the snooze button on the alarm clock, whether to make lunch for your kids or let them buy it at school, whether or not to break the speed limit law to get somewhere on time, to decide where you stand on political issues, whether or not to make a large purchase, and on and on throughout each day.
If our major task as adults is to make choices, then why don't we give our children more freedom to practice and fine tune that skill? From the beginning, children usually have their choices made for them - what school to go to, religious beliefs, what activities to be involved in, which drugs are okay to take, when to have sex, which political group is the right one, and so on. If they're lucky, they may get to choose what to wear and can suggest which activities they prefer, but too often children are told what to do and what to not do until they're 18 years old. Then they're expected to magically be able to make responsible choices from then on. No wonder college students tend to get a bit crazy. They finally have the freedom they've been longing for, but very few decision making skills. So their choices aren't always responsible or beneficial, for themselves or anyone else.
Whenever possible, we try to give our three children the freedom to make their own choices; not just on what flavor ice cream they want, but on important issues like whether they feel homeschool or public school would best meet their needs. Each year we let them decide for themselves what schooling environment they would like for the following year. They are given guidelines about their choices in advance. Whichever they choose, they have to do their best and stick with it for the whole year.
For next year, our oldest daughter has chosen to continue homeschooling and our son will be going to first grade at our local public school (although he recently informed me he plans to homeschool for second grade). Our middle daughter agonized over the choices for several months, weighing the pros and cons of each option. She has homeschooled for a year and a half, and would like to go back to our local public school for third grade, but the one year commitment had her stuck. She was afraid she might get a bad teacher and then not like school. We came to the agreement that if she had any serious problems that we couldn't resolve with the teacher or principal, we would pull her out and she could homeschool for the rest of the year. With that, she made her choice to go to public school for third grade.
By allowing our children to make important choices for themselves, they learn how to make decisions by weighing the pros and cons of each option. By giving them guidelines to which they must adhere, they learn to take responsibility for their choices. By respecting their choices, they learn that their opinion has value and that they have some control over their lives. All this gives a boost to both their self-worth and their self-esteem.
Another way to help our children learn how to make choices is to invite them to help with our adult decisions. Show them how you go about researching each side of an issue. Once you've gathered the information, write down the pros and cons of each option. Explain to them how you decide which choice is best for you. Show them how you choose between political candidates, whether to vote for or against a proposition, whether or not to take out a loan to buy a new car or house, why you choose to support local stores rather than large chains, how you decide when it's necessary to see a doctor, and so on.
Open up the communication. Talk about things that are largely considered taboo - like death and funerals, sex and sex-related issues, and even finances. In a Human Sexuality class I took a few years ago, our instructor asked us to guess what people are most reluctant to talk about. Rape, incest, child molestation, homosexuality, sexual fantasies - these were all thrown out and to each the instructor replied, "Nope. They'll talk about all that. What they won't talk about," he finally told us, "is their finances." How can we expect our children to make sound financial decisions if no one is even talking about it, let alone showing them how to do it? Show your kids how much money you make, what your rent or mortgage payments are, and what all your other expenses are. Work together on making up a budget and sticking to it. Save up for a vacation together or plan a family purchase that can be enjoyed by all.
In addition to improving your child's decision making skills and giving him some control over his life, the fact that the activity is your child's choice allows him to do it willingly. Since going to school is my son's choice, he realizes that based on that choice, he needs to go to bed earlier and get up earlier than his sisters. He's going to school because he wants to, so he enjoys it more and learns more.
As adults we know how good it feels to have control over the direction of our lives and to have our choices respected. Children are no different. Let them practice the decision making skills they will need as adults. While giving them as much freedom as possible, establish some guidelines so their choices are within the boundaries of the law and respectful of your needs and limitations. Then respect their choices. Some choices will be better than others, but they will appreciate the good and learn from the bad, just like we all do. Then, just maybe, when they get to be college age and one of their freedom-crazy friends says, "Let's go get some cheap wine, drive around, and T.P. someone's house," your child (who has learned to think for herself) might say, "Why? I don't see the value in it, and that wouldn't be respectful of myself or the people and world around me." Well, who knows. It could happen.
This article was originally published July 1995 in Parent Guide, a SLO County newspaper.