Giving Choices Helps Give Kids A Voice
If I had to choose one word I’ve used over and over in parenting and teaching, it would be choice. I learned early on as a parent that simply saying ‘no’ over and over again had no lasting effect; if I really wanted something to happen – especially with any chance that it would happen the way I wanted – I needed to provide choices.
With my daughter, it went something like this: “What do you want to wear today? You can choose either the red leggings and boots, or the red dress with tights.” Or with my son: “I haven’t decided what to make for dinner tonight – would you rather have pasta or chicken?” Now, when my children don’t respond to my texts or block me from some sort of social media, I feel 100% comfortable saying, “Ok, you can keep me blocked and not respond to my texts if you pay the monthly charge for your bill, or you can unblock me, respond to me and I will continue to fund your phone.” That one always works.
Choices like these gave my kids a voice when they were young, and once we had to grapple with the big stuff when they were teens, they were used to the process. They knew what it felt like to make good – and bad – choices. They understood logical consequences, and sometimes even unintended ones.
As parents, we are obligated to teach our children about choice from an early age. Kids need to know that life is full of possibility. They need to know that certain choices will make doors open (or close) and opportunities appear (or disappear). Teenagers are bombarded with choices to make – some are small, but many are huge and can have lasting impact on their futures. Should I post that online? Do my homework or go to bed? Drink and drive? Text and drive? Have sex? The list is endless, really. How can teens know how to trust themselves or how to weigh options and make good choices if they've never had any practice?
Providing my middle school students with choices has really helped me to evolve as a teacher. When I first started teaching, I was insecure about offering too many choices – I was afraid that if I didn’t set the rules, chaos would break loose. In reality, when I started giving kids more choice about what they did and how they did it, management mostly became a breeze. Oftentimes I’ll give choices about what they can do in order to achieve a particular grade, or how they can approach a certain task. As long as they get to the end result that I’m expecting, giving them choices about how they get there allows students to learn how to manage their time, how to push themselves (usually – but not always) and how to take a route for learning that makes most sense to them.
Last year, when my daughter was navigating the stressors of senior year and college applications, I found myself repeating and reminding her that all her hard work paid off in all the choices she had between colleges. I tried to keep mum on my strong feelings about one school or another, and let her not only weigh the merits of each college, but also let her listen to her heart and choose the school that felt right.
Ultimately, I think choice is what makes humans stronger. Choice builds character, empowers people and provides a barometer of how we navigate the world. Having choices teaches us how to be decisive, how to weigh options, but also to listen to ourselves and trust that we can follow our instincts instead of following the crowd. Sometimes, just knowing that we have choice – that every day we choose how we approach the world, how we treat other people, how we spend our time and what we work for – is enough to make the day just a bit brighter, just a bit kinder, just a bit more full of possibility.
A version of this essay originally appeared on Jennifer's blog, mamawolfe.
Jennifer Wolfe, a mom and middle school teacher, loves nothing more than watching kids be brave, courageous and navigate the world. Jennifer’s stories and reflections appear regularly on her blog, mamawolfe, as well as on The Huffington Post, Bonbon Break, Mamapedia, Mamalode, Midlife Boulevard, BlogHer and Project Underblog. Connect with Jennifer on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Goodreads.