I received a GREAT question from a reader in response to my “OK Phenomena” post. As I was responding, I realized that I should actually turn it into a post. This lovely reader wanted to know “What sort of choices/preferences are you referring to?”
First, I do not want to suggest that you should NEVER give children a choice. You can and there are appropriate types of choices. However, for the most part, offering choices to children under the age of 10 but especially under the age of 7 can be detrimental to their long term development.
In our society today, we tend to think that offering choices to children is what prepares them best for later decision-making. Based on research done by Rudolph Steiner (founder of the Waldorf school system), I’ve learned that children under 7 can handle small choices. The physiology behind the small choices offered to a small child has to do with Steiner’s view of the seven year cycles. A small child functions in the will, in the body, in the limbs and not in the head. Developmentally, decision making is overwhelming if not impossible. Negotiating comes in around the age of 10 and true decision-making comes in around the age of 14.
Let me focus on the under seven crowd. When I suggest that offering small choices is acceptable, I am talking about choices such as do you want your water in the purple cup or the pink one? The key here is that it really does not matter which cup your child chooses. The important aspect is that you are only offering WATER because water is what you feel the child should be drinking. If you want your child to drink water but believe you need to empower them by offering both water and juice and then explaining why they should choose water, you are not going to get very far. You will have a confused, frustrated child, especially when you, the parent, take the juice option off the table should your child choose that. Keep the choices simple and focus them on things that do not really matter in the long run.
Another example of the types of choices you should NOT offer are things like “Would you put your shoes on please?” or “Would you put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket?” Would implies that the child has the option to choose to do something or not choose to do it. If you are asking your child to do something, my guess is that it probably is not an option as to whether or not to do it. We have been programmed to believe that asking is a polite gesture. However, when it comes to young children, asking them in this manner implies that they have a choice and if they choose NOT to comply, there is a lot of confusion about our (the parents’) reaction. Parents need to give direction in the form of a statement, preferably using the word MAY, which warms up the tone of the direction. (Example…”You may put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket. Thank you.”)
I am not suggesting that you limit choices in an affect to “set limits” and control your children to the extent that they are robots. Not at all. Children do need to learn to think for themselves. Preferences will manifest themselves and we need to allow children to have their preferences. As your child gets older, acknowledge and respect their preferences. Create a dialogue that allows your child to express his or her wants but also allows you the opportunity to respectfully decline to do/purchase/go to whatever or wherever the child wants. For example, if you are planning on taking your four year old to the park, you might try this tactic: Parent – “We are going to the park around the corner today. It is sunny weather and we will have some fun.” Child – “I like the park by Timmy’s house better. Can we go there?” (This is the perfect time to either elect to go where your child would like or respectfully decline. If declining, the conversation might continue like this…) “We are not able to go to the park by Timmy’s today but we will try to go later this week. Thank you for telling me that you like that park better. I will remember that for next time.” So, instead of offering your child a choice that he or she may be developmentally ready to make, you have opened the lines of communication and afforded yourself the opportunity to learn about your child’s preferences, while still being clear in your role as the decision maker.
There is a FABULOUS article by Eugene Schwartz on his website entitled, “Discover Waldorf Education: ADHD, The Challenge of Our Times.”
The article is very long, but it will make you think…about WAY more than just Waldorf principals and philosophies. The ending part of the article is what I think gives food for thought to ALL parents specifically regarding choices.
Here is the link to the full article:
Here is the information that is especially relevant to this post:
“A basic tenet in Steiner’s developmental picture is the understanding that whatever in our childhood acts upon us from “outside” will in adulthood be transformed into forces that work from within. A child who lacks the living example of a self-assured and guiding adult will have to struggle, in later life, to attain inner assurance and inner guidance. A youngster who is not exposed to the kind but clear precepts of outer discipline will find it difficult to attain true inner discipline as an adult. If we cannot steel ourselves so that we meet the children with certainty in our will and clarity in our intentions, we are depriving them of one of childhood’s most valuable experiences.
In the United States, which, after all, is a nation founded on the Divine right of freedom of choice, it is a mighty task indeed to overcome this dogged tendency to ask children questions! Our whole culture summons forth the interrogative voice:
“Are you ready to wake up? Do you want to stay in bed awhile? Should we decide what to wear today? Would you like the Chanel sweater or the Polo sweatshirt? The Tommy Hilfinger pullover? Do you want to wear your Guess shorts or your Calvin Klein jeans? How about the DKNY pair? Gap? The relaxed fit with the button fly or the zipper fly? Ready for breakfast? What would you like — Cheerios, Corn Flakes, Wheaties, Granola? Granola with almond chunks? Granola with raisin bits?…How about strawberries? No? Blueberries? Bananas? Do you want to sweeten it with honey? Maple syrup? Sugar? White or brown?…Do you want milk? One percent? Two percent? Skim? Organic? Eden Soy with minerals or Rice Dream with calcium?…”
And these are just the first two minutes of the day! — a day that moves from question to question, with nary a word of declarative guidance on the part of parents or other adults. When a question is asked of a child, she assumes that you expect an answer, and I have heard many children answer questions like the above with witty or even downright rude answers!
Such domestic scenes are part of the dilemma of raising children in a country that rightfully calls itself “The Land of the Free,” but has lost the capacity to distinguish between the potentially independent, “free” adult and the highly dependent and “unfree” child. It may be asked, of course, how can we train our children to be free later in life if we don’t give them choices in childhood? Yet, even for adults, real freedom is a capacity which can unfold only on occasion, for life is filled with necessities that impinge upon our freedom. When we ask a child to make a choice, several things occur. First of all, we ask the child to draw upon capacities for judgment that he does not yet have. On what basis will a seven year-old make a choice? Invariably, on the basis of sympathy and antipathy. And whence does he get this sympathy and antipathy? From his astral body, that is, from a member of his being that should not be “activated” until adolescence. An analogy might prove helpful here:
The entire thrust of the childrearing methods developed by the leading lights of Generations One and Two has led to the soul bankruptcy of today’s children just as inexorably as the financial and banking policies of the first two-thirds of the century have led to the specter of the National Debt and the collapse of scores of savings and loan associations in the past decade. ADHD is not merely a phenomenon that has arisen alongside modern education and child psychology; it is the logical end product of those erroneous pictures of the human being and the methods arising from them. Children do not need choices; they need guidance.
When an adult asks a young child to make a choice, the adult relinquishes the majesty and power that should be hers by dint of experience and acquired wisdom. In that moment, child and adult become equal; over the course of many such moments of choice, this equality becomes habitual, and the sweetest children gradually turn into little tyrants who wield the power to determine the restaurants in which the family will eat, the movies that they will see, the malls in which they will shop. We don’t have to watch situation comedies on TV to experience the ubiquity of such children in modern life! The children so chillingly documented in the diaries of Thomas Gordon’s epigones (see Chapter One) were but harbingers of things to come.
Most importantly, we should realize that a child who is given too many choices will become an adult who has difficulty making decisions. While choice, according to definition, “implies broadly the freedom of choosing from a set of persons or things,” decision is defined as “the act of reaching a conclusion or making up one’s mind,” and also, interestingly, as “firmness of character or action; determination.” This is not merely a semantic matter; there is a real difference between these two acts. The power to decide, I would claim, is built upon the ability to accept the decisions of adults in one’s youth. (This assumes, of course, that one encounters adults who are themselves capable of making decisions.) Childish choosing draws on those very forces of soul and spirit that are meant to mature and become adult decisiveness. In an article on children’s rights, Federal Judge Mary Kohler emphasized “the right to be a child during childhood” and emphasized that one of the impediments to the achievement of this “inalienable” right is the “too early forcing of choices upon children.”
It is instructive to look at the generation that now leads America, the postwar “baby boomers,” who were encouraged to become “a generation of choosers.” How many among them are truly decisive people? And how many of them are notorious for their difficulties in deciding even the smallest matters, not to speak of making such major life decisions as, whom should I marry (or unmarry)? what should my vocation be? what am I going to do with the rest of my life? Or take the case of “Dr. Laura”:
In person, the woman who has tapped into America’s confused superego so successfully is an intense 49-year-old [with] the unmistakable air of someone who is sure she’s always right. When asked if she has ever given anyone the wrong advice, she does not hesitate: No, never. Which may be what makes her such an irresistible figure for these ambivalent times when, given a choice, many of us would prefer to have no choice [italics mine]. Tell me what to do, her callers ask, and I’ll do it. I’d do the right thing if I knew what the right thing was. And if the authority figure is a little mean and a little harsh, if she calls your behavior “stupid” instead of “self-defeating,” isn’t that what we all think anyway?
Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s callers and her millions of listeners are people who very likely had doting, progressive parents who wanted them to be happy and gave them as many choices as possible! The effect of such indecisiveness can be amusing, but it has its serious consequences as well. With disturbing frequency, one guru or Master after another passes through our country and charismatically draws a host of followers to his community or ashram. Some of those drawn are simple, easily-influenced souls who can barely manage their own lives. However, the media and other arbiters of conventional wisdom are inevitably surprised at how many disciples are intelligent, highly-educated “professionals,” who willingly relinquish their right to make any decisions about the rest of their lives, believing that their Master is far better able to do so. Members of the crème de la crème of the Generation of Choosers, having arrived at mature adulthood, now search for the decisive teacher that they lacked in their childhood!
The simplicity of life in earlier days was accompanied by a lack of choices — which we would today find boring — but this in turn led to a consistency of life which we today might find healing. This is no turning back from the “freedom of choice” that we as adults expect, but we must recognize that a pre-determined and expectable course of events strengthens the etheric body of the child, and it is this which provides a healthy foundation for behavioral stability and predictability in childhood, as well as for the capacity to make important decisions in later life.
We can encompass the child with our own certainty by creating a form into which the child enters every day. For parents, this means establishing a regular rhythm of bedtimes and mealtimes, a secure and serene “time-environment” in which the child’s etheric body is free to do its work. A young child who “decides for herself” when she is ready for bedtime, or who refuses to go to sleep until her parents have turned in, as well, begins to weaken her etheric forces in early childhood. Toddlers who are free to “eat when they’re hungry,” to help themselves at the refrigerator or, on their own, “nuke their food” at the microwave oven may be nourishing their physical nature, but are not providing the rhythmical and social nurture that their etheric body requires.
Parents may contend that they give their children free reign in these two matters because “the child’s body knows best.” “I can’t crawl under her skin and know when she’s hungry or tired – she has to tell me! And she knows a lot better than I do which foods she needs,” etc. In spite of the parents’ protestations that they are leaving their children free in their interest of their psychological and physical health, a sensitive observer can usually judge by their “waif-like” appearance which children have been allowed to decide their own bedtimes and left to fend for themselves in the kitchen. Invariably, children who are “free” to make choices about these fundamental matters look unhealthy, have less physical stamina and a shorter attention span than their peers and are not much inclined to cooperate in any activity that they find antipathetic or laborious. That is to say, even at the nursery school level, we find such children manifesting behavior that fits the general description of ADHD. It is no wonder that Ritalin is now being prescribed for children at an ever-younger age.
If sleeping and eating are not guided by the certainty and clarity of their parents, even those children who come from well-to-do households and have been “given everything” nonetheless appear to be as neglected as a child raised by a dysfunctional inner city family. In my own work with New York City public school children, I’ve met youngsters who came from tragic backgrounds (a father killed or unknown, a mother heavily addicted or in jail) who despite all of this sorrow appeared healthy and lively. In every such situation, the child was being raised by the grandmother, who, untouched by the theories of contemporary child psychology, insisted on a consistent bedtime and prepared meals with care and regularity. As the psychoanalyst Peter Neubauer has observed of his young patients, “Children who are pushed into adult experience do not become precociously mature. On the contrary, they cling to childhood longer, perhaps all of their lives.”
I hope that this information gives a better perspective on my view of choices. If you do offer a lot of choices to your children, I do not at all think you are parenting poorly. Offering choices and “empowering” our children before they are developmentally ready is something that we have been programmed into doing. It’s a tough habit to break. Perhaps you can strive to reduce the number of choices and the types of choices by even a few per day and see how that feels for you as a parent. You might be surprised at the change you see in your children, especially if they have developed a sense of entitlement…i.e. the “I Want” syndrome.
Good luck! This is definitely a fine line to walk with your children.
Photo Credit: Gerwin Sturm