Decisive Action

My son has what many people would consider a surprising, and probably inappropriate, amount of decision-making power. He is, as likely as not, the one to pick what we’re going to eat on Friday night. He picks out nearly all of his own toy, and always has. He has some say in where we go for family activities.

It’s not a lot, and we phrase the questions simply when asking for his input, but then he is only 25 months old.

From the very start of his life, I have done my best to involve him in what was going on, rather than simply doing things to him or making him do things. When he was only a few weeks old I would explain the diaper change process to him while putting him up on the changing table. “OK boy, what we’ve got here is a toxic waste spill in your diaper area. We’re going to have to open up your onesie, remove the befouled diaper, and send in a specially trained HAZMAT team to clean up the area. Then we’ll get a fresh diaper on you…oh, and a fresh onesie too, looks like. OK? Good, let’s get started.”

He would stare up at me, giving every indication that he was listening intently. I don’t know if he understood a word I was saying, but it helped him stay calm (he hated laying on the changing table).

When he was about six months old, and we started introducing those little containers of vile mushed vegetables into his diet, he picked out his high-chair. We narrowed our selection down to two possibilities and then asked him which one he liked better. He made his selection by grabbing one of the trays and trying to eat it.

That was about the age when we let him starting picking out his toys, too. Or perhaps he was a month or two younger then. (That first year is a blur, a blur probably familiar to any parent. My mother asked once at that time, “What did you used to do before Nathaniel was born?” I replied, “Sleep.”) At any rate, we would carry him over to the shelves of toys and he would grab at the ones that caught his eye. Some he’d put back down again, some would hold his attention. Those, we bought.

Hardly any of his toys sat idle. He played with them all.

Now that he is talking fairly well — well enough to get his opinions across — he dictates most of the TV viewing during the day and is quick to veto any unfortunate music selections while in the car.

He doesn’t have completely free rein, of course. We will most likely ask him what he wants for breakfast, but his choices are limited. If he asks for ice cream or pizza, we present him with an array of options. “No, I’m sorry, we can’t have ice cream for breakfast. How about some toast? Or cereal? Eggs?” And he’ll — usually — pick something from the approved list. If he picks the place for our Friday night-out dinner, we give him a list of places we’d pick from anyway, so what’s the harm in letting him pick? If nothing else, it serves as a tie-breaker between my wife and me.

In short, he gets to make a lot of decisions that are important to him, but which have very small stakes from my and my wife’s perspective. If we’re going to buy a high-chair or toy anyway, why not let him pick which one we get? If he wants to watch DIEGO or SUPERWHY, why not let him? If we have other plans, well, his decision gets overridden, but there’s generally no harm in letting him have his way on these small matters.

(Not that they are small to him, of course. Which cartoon he watches, or which toy cars he takes upstairs at bedtime, for example, is utterly trivial to us, but of tremendous significance to him.)

The point of all this isn’t just to spoil the boy. Keeping him happy is important, of course, but there is a more important issue at stake, a matter of deliberate policy.

I want him to absorb at the earliest possible age, to have rooted deep in the fabric of his personality, the habit of making decisions, and the idea that he has input and influence over the course of his life. To most people, that probably does not seems like something that would have to be specifically cultivated. Perhaps for most people it isn’t. Perhaps my own background is causing me to overcompensate with my son.

My parents took the opposite approach, you see. Any idea that my opinion mattered, that I had any say at all in what happened in my life, was beaten out of me at an early age. I was simply dragged from one place to another and told what I was to do. I didn’t want to be an astronaut when I grew up, or a fireman, or doctor, or President. None of the usual childhood ambitions. The highest pinnacle of accomplishment that I could imagine was simply to be left alone.

I remember the moment, in 7th Grade, when I realized that at some point in the future no one would be dictating my schedule, requiring me to be in school for X number of hours five days a week. Yes; I was about twelve years old before I realized that I would ever have any say in what happened in my life. It would be years more before I really absorbed and internalized that concept. Even now, thirty years later, I tend to drift, pushed by events rather than taking charge of them, unless I concentrate on taking control.

Parents, involve your children in the decisions that affect them, no matter how small they are. Let them decide. Let them learn from the earliest possible age that they can act on the world around them, and not only be acted on by it. Teach them that they have choices. You may be doing them a tremendous amount of good. Order their lives for them, and you may never know how much harm you have done.

Freedom is choice. Teach your children to be free.

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