A young male adult gets frustrated when he goes to Trader Joe's with his former-college-buddy-now-turned-housemate — and his housemate can't make any decision on what to buy or which brand to choose without calling his mother.
"It drives me nuts," the young male adult says. "He has to call his mom about everything. Which cheese to buy. Which brand is best, just everything," he says.
Back at the house they share, both of them are trying hard to "adult" in the real world on their own, but the dependency the college-buddy-turned-housemate has on his parents continues. While the two housemates have managed to return from Trader Joe's with food supplies, now the college buddy needs help with the next decision: "What should we make for dinner?" It's a normal enough dilemma, but it's part of a pattern that the young male adult says is really starting to bother him. So what's going on?
Succinctly, the college buddy can't make his own decisions. And yet decision making is one of the most important skills a person needs to become a healthy, mature adult.
When we are little, our parents choose everything for us from toys to clothes to activities. But at some point during the growing up years, parents need to allow their kids to have a voice in decision-making so they can develop the confidence to make their own decisions.
"In order to become a responsible decision maker, you need a whole lot of rehearsal with smaller choices,” says Jennifer Miller, author of Confident Parents, Confident Kids (Fair Winds Press; 2019). "And those smaller choices need to be authentic. If mom gives you two choices, but she’s really wanting you to pick one, that’s not an authentic choice,” she adds.
Miller offers a strong strategy to help you boost your child's abilities to make decisions starting from an early age.
GIVE OPTIONS, BE PATIENT
Crayons or markers? Bike ride or swingset? This friend or that friend? Instead of mapping out your child's day for him, give your child some control in the process.
“Choices do not need to be big, dramatic and monumental to have an impact on a child’s confidence,” Miller says, so as much as possible, include your young child in his life decisions rather than planning every single thing out for him and/or swooping in when he's slow to decide.
Kids learn how to make decisions by making lots of them. You can keep the choices manageable by limiting the options, but don't just try to get your child to do what YOU want, because that's not really teaching decision making. Remember, making decisions does need to match the maturity level of your child or choices can turn into lengthy, exhausting conversations.
In purchasing a new top available in an array of colors, ask your child his preference. Say something like, "Look at this cute top — do you like it?" If your child says "Yes," then move on to the colors. "It comes in green, blue, red and white. Which would you like best?" If your child can't decide, help him out by pointing out the obvious. "Well, you say your favorite color is blue, so how about that?" This sort of conversation gives your child a voice.
Life is full of negotiations, so enjoy the process as much as you can with each of your children and take your time. Whatever you do, avoid being the only one to make all of your children's calls or they may end up struggling when it's their turn to decide.
“It’s so easy for parents to step in and do it, and we don’t even think twice about it because it’s a mundane everyday issue. Big whoop,” Miller says. “But to a child it is a big whoop. They need the practice. So sometimes it takes our patience and our wait time to let them struggle through it with us by their side."
With practice and over time it won't take so long. Meanwhile, two big tips can help:
DON'T RESCUE YOUR KIDS
Be careful not to rescue your child through situations even though you may feel frustrated, Miller says. For instance, when ordering food at a restaurant, your child may take forever to decide. So talk it through before the waiter comes to your table for your order. You may need to help your child select what he wants, but if he's old enough in your mind, have him take responsibility and articulate what he chooses to the waiter.
For kids, being able to assert themselves from an early age is key, and they need that opportunity to grow in confidence in all sorts of real life scenarios. You can be there by their side, encouraging them onward, but refrain from doing things for them that they can do themselves.
LET KIDS FAIL
Part of learning to make good decisions is allowing kids to make poor ones, Miller says. Bad decisions can play a powerful role in your kids becoming good decision makers. We all learn from our mistakes — at least we should — so when your child is empowered to make his own decision and makes a poor one, be sure to use that opportunity to talk it through to discover how better to handle a similar situation next time.
Becoming a good decision maker takes time. Work it through with your kids so once they are grown and on their own they aren't struggling like the college buddy at Trader Joe's.