When Choices Can Be a Very Bad Idea for Kids

I am part of a generation of adults who have evolved over the last three decades. We have changed the way we discipline students. We’ve changed the way we reward our kids. We’ve even changed the way we talk to our children. I see it in classrooms, as faculty members are forced to handle their students differently, for fear of parental backlash. I see it in coaches, who guide young athletes. I definitely see it in parents. I am one of them. Today—I’d like to offer a thought that is counterintuitive.

One shift in today’s culture has transformed kids’ attitudes and actions for the worse. It has harmed students emotionally, fostering both depression and entitlement.

It’s all about the choices we give them at an early age.

Parenting went awry when we decided to offer kids choices on almost everything. For example, at meal-time, millions of moms ask their children if they want this entrée or that one. While this seems like an innocent decision, two realities occur:

  • Children expect to experience only what they want.
  • Children become overwhelmed at the options they face.

For example, when I was growing up, my mom cooked most of our meals—and they were good meals—but there was no choice. We ate what she prepared. If we didn’t eat it, she’d wrap it up and put it in the refrigerator, knowing we’d be hungry eventually. If we went hungry, it was our own doing. Can you guess what happened? I learned to eat lots of different kinds of foods. My wife and I did the same thing in our home. Certainly, we learned the preferences of our kids’ taste buds along the way, but we tried to feed them well-rounded menus. They were too young to make a wise decision on their own.

For some reason, we’ve lost sight of the fact that children mature at different paces— cognitively and emotionally.  This means they may be smart enough to comprehend the options in front of them, but are not emotionally prepared to make a good choice because their frontal lobe is still immature. We somehow believe that if they’re smart, they are mature. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Raising Kids as if They’re Adults

Some parenting experts have actually suggested adults should offer their children choices instead of telling them what to do. And parents believed them. I will be the first to acknowledge, by a certain age, students do need to learn to make good choices and own those decisions. However, if they are too young those choices have the potential to harm them.

In short, we harm them when we raise our children as if they’re adults.

Family physician, psychologist and author Leonard Sax has written about this in his latest book. He shares with parents that we’re “raising kids wrong.” The author of Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge has written a new book, The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups.

“The hierarchy of parent over child no longer exists, he said. Instead of parents exercising their authority because they know what’s best, they are focusing on making children happy and boosting their self-esteem. They now see their job as facilitating whatever a kid wants to do,” Dr. Sax says.

Not long ago, I spoke to an audience of parents. In the Q and A time afterward, one dad raised his hand, and asked me, “So, Dr. Elmore—are you saying I should not give my daughter everything she asks for?”

Uh . . . yeah. That’s exactly what I am saying.

Our goal is to foster growth in our young people, whether you’re a parent, teacher, coach, employer or youth worker.  This means we distribute AUTONOMY and RESPONSIBILITY evenly, as they age. They are not ready for the autonomy of dozens of daily choices in elementary school.

So, what’s gone wrong?

Parents have deficits and needs just like children do. Hurting people hurt people. Unhealthy parents often either choose to acquiesce to their child, or they choose to control the child, trying to mold him to be like them. Either way, the child loses.

A 2013 American Psychological Association survey found one in three young adults reported symptoms of depression. These young Americans spend an average of $1,000 a person on prescription drugs every year—double the average of other developed countries.  Sadly, more United States troops have died from suicide than have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. This is not healthy.

Insights on Offering Appropriate Choices

  1. Remember, becoming an adult is not only about making good decisions, but it’s about learning how to live with scenarios where there are no choices.
  1. Choices should start small and few. Adults should watch how well a kid manages these opportunities and options before they give more responsibilities.
  1. Adults must model wise decisions if we have any hope of equipping our emerging generation do the same. We can’t expect what we don’t exemplify.
  1. Each year, look for opportunities to extend the options for your students, moving from simple, transactional decisions (like food, clothes, sports to play) to choices where the stakes are higher (programs to watch, friends, how late to stay out, etc.)
  1. Adults must always allow students to see that every choice carries benefits and consequences. If we remove either one, we fail to teach them how life works.

What would you add to this list above?

One psychologist explained adults who fail to model maturity for children this way: “So many children living in grown-up bodies mimicking adult lives.”

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When Choices Can Be a Very Bad Idea for Kids