Self-Reliance is a hot topic in the world of parenting these days. My Self-Reliance seminars fill right up, standing room only. Actually cultivating self-reliance and its myriad component parts is not so easy. In fact, I believe it is harder for parents than it is for children. And I think it’s parents who undermine a child’s development of self-reliance in so many ways. High on the How-To list is allowing kids to make their own decisions.
The ability to make decisions for yourself is a big contributor to the growth of self-reliance. Just think of all the times throughout a young child’s day that require him to make a decision and act on it: what to wear, what to eat, what to play, what to do when, with whom to play, etc… Every time a child makes a decision for himself, he is growing his self-reliance and his self-confidence. And it is no different for older children whose decisions often have more to do with compliance or defiance than choice making, like having to decide to get out of bed (or not), to do his homework (or not), to take a particular class (or not), etc… In fact, the older the child, the more decisions he should be making for himself with regard to behavior and choice.
There are decisions of all sizes for all size children. Some are more about choice making and some are acts of assertiveness as the child’s autonomy and individual identity grow. Regardless of the type of decision, experiencing the consequence of that decision is where the learning resides. It is the seedling of self-reliance.
When parents do not allow or even require a child to make his own decision (where it is reasonable), it is a clear message to the child: You shouldn’t or you can’t. And isn’t that a comment about his efficacy?
How many times have I heard a parent implore his child to wear a jacket, claiming, “You’ll catch a cold!” How many stories do I hear about parents forcing a child to eat something (usually green) or he “won’t grow big and strong.” This list goes on and on—from the 5-year-old deciding with whom to have a playdate to whether the child wants to go to a birthday party to choosing not to eat his dinner.
Of course, there are areas about which a parent knows best for her child. For example, the child who never wants to try a new activity, will try it when coaxed, and then loves it. Then there is the child who wants to do it all, but regularly changes his mind after one or two tries. I am not talking about these situations and decisions.
There is the child who is unable to decide which flavor ice cream to get or what souvenir to bring home. Out of frustration, the parent makes the decision for him. As I said, our kids’ lives are filled with the need for a decision.
Too often a parent undermines the child’s decision making. Sometimes it is just expedient. He may be dilly-dallying; you are tired of waiting for his decision; you are going to be late. So you make the decision.
Sometimes the parent doesn’t trust the child’s decision. The child might end up unhappy, or Mom fears that in the long run it will be a mistake, no good will come of it.
And sometimes the parent simply doesn’t want to go with the child’s decision. “I know it’s your turn to decide on the restaurant, but do you really want to go to MacDonald’s?”
Little decisions might have little impact. But then there are those big decisions. What about the parent who makes the decision about where his child goes to middle school, high school, or even college? The potential problems with those kinds of decisions can be much more momentous. “I hate this school and it’s your fault.” “Why should I work hard? It wasn’t even my choice to go here.”
I met a firefighter at my local fire station. Through our conversation I learned that his parents had led him down a path toward medicine. They were sure he should be a doctor, and directed his educational decisions. After his first year of college, he did an about face, and he dropped out to pursue his dream of being a fireman. He loves his life and has never been happier!
Allowing and insisting that your child makes his own decisions wherever it is possible, is an easy way to build his self-reliance. Allowing and insisting that he experience the consequence of those same decisions is not so easy, but it will enhance and cement his growth immeasurably. When you let your little bird fly out of the nest, he may fall flat on his face the first time. But on the second or third try, he will surely fly.