Thursday, January 28, 2010

An Issue of Choice

Are you pro-choice?  No, I don't mean it like that.

Do you let your kids choose - and, if so, how much?

A post at Privilege of Parenting and a comment on a post of mine have me thinking about the choices our kids make and the choices we make for them.

On Sunday, Bruce warned us against scripting career choices for our children.  He eloquently mused about his own professional path and the off-ramps he took and missed along the way, cautioning us to safeguard the realm of possibility for our kids:
So, let’s dedicate today to honoring our own dreams, as well as those of all our collective children—neither chickening out from what we want to do, nor projecting our unrequited fears and desires onto our kids.  In the end, it probably matters much less what we do, and how much we make, than the attitude we bring to it and the love we put into it.
As I read Bruce's post and formulated my comment, I heard the words of Linda echoing in my head.  In my post "Missing the Mouse," I asked whether, through nature or nurture, I had made Big Boy neurotic.  In her comment Linda noted, "I realized I just had to stop having a secret agenda for [my daughter's] childhood...Turns out she had her own little plan for herself that was different than mine."

These wise words from my blogging buddies made me wonder just what choices we should and should not be making for our kids: When should we set the agenda and when should we give them the freedom to set their own?

To me, some choices are not actually choices.  Any "choice" that involves a threat to safety or health falls to the mandate of the parent.  As much as a toddler may like to walk on the glass coffee table (not that Big Boy would ever do such a thing, no, no, no), or a teenager may like to text message while driving, a parent has the right - and even the responsibility - to stop them.

But what about when kids choose friends we don't like?  Or when they want to start dating?  At what point is it our job - or even our right? - to intervene?

After my junior year in high school, a big group of my friends went to Martha's Vineyard for a week to stay at one of the boy's homes.  The boy's parents would be in sporadic attendance.  When I asked my parents if I could join my friends (my boyfriend included), they refused.  At the time, I was furious at them; now that I am a parent - and one who has taught high school for many years - I know they made the right choice for me - or, at least, the same one I would now make - by not allowing me to choose.

And how about when our children make aesthetic choices that irk us or might get them teased?  When your son wants to take up the drums instead of the flute, or your daughter wants to wear a too-short skirt to school?

I remember the story of a friend's four-year-old son who desperately wanted to wear glittery Dora jeans to preschool.  The parents were torn: should they let him express himself by wearing clothes from the girls' department or should they have a teetering talk with him about gender identity and its social construction?  (I wish I could remember what choice they made.)

Ultimately, the answers vary, depending on the parent, the kid, and the circumstance.  But I'm left wishing for a rubric, some sort of scale to indicate when choice is a freedom we must allow and when freedom is a choice we are responsible for limiting.

Did your parents make the right choices for you?  Did they give you a healthy balance of freedom and responsibility?  What choices should we make for our kids?

Image: Ask Answer Choice by FotoRita [Allstar maniac] via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.


  1. I have always tried to let my kids have choices (within reason). For instance, you can wear whatever you want as long as it is clean, fits, is modest, and is weather appropriate. I firmly believe letting them learn to make choices when young makes them better equipped to make them when older. Or you can have whatever hairdo you want, as long as it isn't a too extreme. Or you can listen to whatever type of music interests you but there can be no profanity or obscenity.

    We always try to honor their interests, too. Even if I find baseball boring, if that is what they want to pursue, then we'll support you. I want my children to grow up happy individuals, not little robots I've programmed to be exactly what I want.

    There are some things that we do not allow choices on. Like dating before 16, or watching R movies. This is to protect them until they are mature enough to make informed decisions.

  2. My kids are so strong-willed that I tend not to fight them unless it's a safety issue. Which means that a lot of the time, my kids look like circus clowns. Or homeless.

    My parents didn't allow me much choice at all and voiced their opinions heavily about my career/educational path. It was detrimental and limiting, and I am going to try very hard not to force my own agenda on my kids in that regard.

  3. Responsible parenting includes responsible of which is when to let children make their own decisions. I think it differs in each family as the dynamics and even questions vary. I always tried not to sweat the small stuff, let my children carve their individualites, but made sure they were safe... and some choices I've made they weren't happy with, but now that they're older they understand.

  4. As a former university career counselor, I can attest to parents living their occupational dreams through this children. Nothing broke my heart more than a student who didn't want to be in college -- and often wasn't prepared for it -- and often wanted to go to technical or vocational school. "Then do it!" I encouraged. "I can't," they'd sigh. "My parents will only pay for college if I go to a four-year university."

    I think you're right about choices: where health and safety is concerned, you've got veto power. But ultimately, kids are their own autonomous beings with wishes and desires that may not reflect our own (I say this as a nonparent). My parents were always excellent at letting me make my own choices. The general room of thumb is that as long as it didn't harm myself or someone else, it was probably okay. Did I look like a hobo a lot from making my own wardrobe selection? Yes. But who was it hurting?

  5. I fight this all the time, Kristen. I find that my decision about this depends on the day or on how tired I am. More tired = more freedom for the children.

    A lot of it comes down to the topic of expectations. I've got a post all wrapped up in my mind about it. Several, in fact. Now I need to find the time to unwrap it and spit it out...

  6. What a meticulous and articulate post. So thoughtful.

    My mother called all the shots when I was a child. Some were reasonable (for safety); others were her dreams or obsessions, though of course as a child we do not know these things. She encouraged what she understood (language and art - for which I am most grateful as an adult), and tried to crush everything else (again, which I did not recognize as a child).

    Ironically, my brother was left to full support of whatever he wished to pursue with no interference and no strings. All choices, his.

    If we have any will (and dreams) at all, we find places to stow them for self keeping until we may breathe life into them. And then we do, as best we can.

    I have parented in full awareness of my own childhood, guiding according to natural talents and interests I have observed in my children. Not without my own expectations intervening, but I hope without excessive burden or inflexibility. I hope I've respected the necessary elasticity of of letting children go their own way, and keeping them safe.

    There is no formula. Even after all these years, there is no formula. Listening. Observing. Discussing. Letting go.

  7. Choices? Definitely. But I also have a habit of reminding the outnumber me by five gang that this is not a democracy. It is a momocracy which means I can veto or override bad choices. Do I? Not too frequently.

  8. You pose such important questions here. Ones I don't think I can begin to answer. I think my parents made many good choices for me because my childhood was a positive and safe landscape and I have landed in a great place as an adult. Beyond that, I don't know. I am already thinking about these things with my two tiny girls - how I choose to dress them, what activities I sign them up for, what kids I encourage playdates with... I think maybe the question we should always stop and ask when these dilemmas arise is, "Is this about me (the parent) or about her (the child)?" If it is about us, our own forsaken dreams or bubbling insecurities, I think we ought to hang back. Not that it is easy. As is apparent here, I have no idea what I am talking about. But I thank you for getting to me to think about this. Choice is a big, murky area that deserves many posts from all of us.

  9. This is a fantastic post. You've raised questions here that I think about often. Like TKW, my parents I think made too many decisions, limited me, made me feel like I wasn't capable of making smart choices when actually, I was never ever given the chance. I try to let my kids make choices for themselves but I know when I feel strongly about something I try to sway hannah. She wants to do ballet, I think soccer is a better option. If Luke wants to play football later in life, I know I'll try to persuade him to try other, safer sports. We want what's best for them and we have a hard time letting them find what's best the longer, harder way. I know I'll have to step back but it certainly won't be easy.

    Thanks for this post Kristen!

  10. A rubric for making decisions. That would be handy.

    My boys are 16 and 13. Looking back I can't identify a specific formula for making choices for my children or letting them do it. When they were little I would give them pre-approved options and let them decide. As they got older, we discussed the pros and cons for each possible outcome. For example which high school to attend.

    When my oldest (a junior in HS) was in the 7th grade he announced that he wanted to attend the US Naval Academy. My father and husband were both in the Navy. I told my son that after freshman year if that's what we wanted to do, we would support him and help him as best we could to make it happen. He still wants to go to the Academy and he's on track. If all goes as he plans, he will be a Midshipman in 18 months. As a mother, I'm terrified to have my child in the military. I know my son will excel since he is well-suited to the military lifestyle. This is the best life course for him.

    The the stage of life that my family is at, communication is the key.

  11. Kristen, you've got to listen to one of my very favorite radio pieces which goes along perfectly with this post. It's the one by James Braly called "Pink Bicycle":

  12. Kristen, since you linked to me (and Thank you) and the fact that I DID have a secret agenda for my daughter, obviously I've had some difficulties with this. My kid have never come to me with anything they've really wanted to do that I've had to say "no" to (except a little issue with my son wanting to watch the Sasha Baron Cohen movies...) That being said, it is a little tough watching them pick things for themselves that sometimes seem to be more a desire to be different from me and my husband than where their true talents lay. That's where I have to leave my agenda behind, let them do what they want, and know that, just like me, if they're meant to be something, they'll find it or it'll find them.

  13. I do not have kids of my own (though I am a step-mom) so I cannot say anything on that subject. What I can say is that my parents also didn't let me go to parties like the one you mentioned- at the time I was also angry. But they were smart. And they were right. And given the choice, I wouldn't let my kid. No matter how much I trusted them.

    That said, it has taken me nearly 30 years to realize that my life is my own to live and that I do not need to live it for my parents. I rodeoed in HS and College and while in college I worked for a cow horse trainer and I loved it. I got to ride every day. And realized that I could do what I really wanted to do. After I graduated he offered me a job full-time, my mother told me I had to get a real-job. That I'd gone to college so I should use it.

    I'm where I want to be now- riding horses and training, and I don't regret that I gained a lot of business experience that helps me run our business; but even at 28 when I quit my *real* job to ride full-time I got lectured about it.

    At 32 I now feel like I don't really care if she's happy with my choices or not, because I am happy with them. And that's who counts.

  14. I give my boys lots and lots of choices every day because I think it's important for them to learn how to make them. But it's choices such as do you want 3 carrots or 4? Do you want to go to bed in 5 minutes or 10? Do you want to color or play outside?

    It's the other choices that are tough and they're ones I have not had to make with them or for them because they are too young or have not asked. But I admit: I do not give choices when it comes to their safety and health.

    Parenting is so blurry, isn't it? I had no idea and it makes me appreciate my parents and the hard decisions they made on my behalf - the ones I hated them for at the time when I was a too cool teenager, the same ones that probably kept me out of trouble - so much.

    My boys will have lots of friends in their lives, but only one mom.

  15. Thanks for the comment on my blog!

    What a tangly topic this is! I like to think I give my kids a lot of freedom to choose (to walk in the mud or the slippery spot, to take off their gloves and freeze their hands, to pick out their own clothes--or wear the same ones day after day), but sometimes I can be pretty rigid (I've taken to making my kids sit at the table until they finish their dinner--how 1950s is that??? but it's preferable to being awoken at 3 a.m. by a hungry child)...maybe it's my own personal comfort and convenience where I draw the line. I think I'll try and start paying attention to when I choose and when I let them choose, what makes me uncomfortable and why...thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  16. My parents were pretty strict and didn't give me the choices I would have liked...but looking back, some of the things I was refused are the same things I'd say no to today.
    I'd like to say I try to give my kids a lot of choices, but not sure I do. I WANT to, but sometimes it takes looking back on the day to realize that I could have given them more options than I did.


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