Why We Need To Let Our Kids Make Bad Choices

by Jennifer Reich
Originally Published: 
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When my oldest was four years old, he asked to go see Finding Nemo in the movie theatre. Knowing of the (spoiler alert) quick and violent demise of Nemo’s mother in the first few minutes, I told him that I was worried the movie was too scary and that it might not be good for him to see it.

He paused, thought for a moment, and then recalled his discussion with his preschool friends. Lucas had said it was a little scary at the beginning and Anna said it was not scary. Anna, the braver of his pals, had offered to see it again with him.

That discussion began what would become a pattern between me and my kids. They would tell me something they wanted to do. I would express my concerns. They would consider my position and then decide what to do.

When it came time to pick a middle school in our open enrollment public school district, they visited each school we agreed made sense to check out. They would make their rank list, I would express my concerns or enthusiasm, they would take my position under advisement, and then they would choose what they wanted to do.

Quitting a soccer team. Trying a piano. Applying to college. Piercing ears. The pattern has been pretty much the same.

Now, in each of these scenarios, it is obvious that I can exercise final say. I am the one who gets to enter the rank order in the district computer system. I buy the movie tickets. I consent to ear piercings. I pay the application fees to colleges. But I have almost always deferred to them anyway.

I know my kids really well, but they know themselves better. And in all cases, as they make choices, I remind them that if it doesn’t work, they can almost always choose again. In fact, there are few decisions in life that don’t give you a chance to choose again. Thank goodness.

There are, of course, boundaries. Policy statements, really, that stave off conflict. A friend of my youngest child in first grade would fight incessantly with his mother about wearing shorts to school. One morning at drop-off, the child’s mothers explained, “It was so bad this morning. I took away all his shorts.”

Although I too understand feeling annoyed with kids’ inexplicable desire to wear shorts in a Colorado winter, I was unclear what the endgame was for this kid and his mother who was holding all his shorts hostage.

Rather than battling, I explained that we have a temperature rule. If it is above 55 degrees Fahrenheit, you can choose to wear whatever you want (except never basketball shorts or tank tops—another policy statement on respect for learning environments). If it is below 55F, you can’t wear shorts because it interferes with your ability to be safe and successful (and admittedly, it reflects badly on me).

My kids to this day are astute observers of the weather and can shop for the forecast among myriad stations and websites to find the one that most supports their goals.

When my preschool-aged daughter would throw together impractical, albeit fantastic, outfits, I refused to battle her about the clothes themselves. Instead, I explained that her job at school is to run, jump, and play. If she cannot do that in the outfit she is wearing, she can’t wear it, just like I can’t go to work in clothes that interfere with my ability to succeed (despite a frequent desire to do so too).

Many mornings with her were spent with live demonstrations of running and jumping, sitting and standing as she provided evidence that she could succeed with her self-selected dresses and go-go boots.

Every family should set their own policy statements, their rules for what is generally acceptable and that represent their values. (I know my position on basketball shorts and tank tops place me in the minority among my peers.) And adults should communicate their concerns.

But increasingly, I am becoming worried with how little practice kids get in making their own choices and living with the consequences. Every day, we ask kids to make good choices. Yet we provide so little practice with making bad ones from which they can learn.

I have a lot of practice making choices. I have made some bad ones on the way to adulthood and some pretty good ones. I stayed in some relationships too long or let friendships slip away that I regretted. I tried five college majors before I found the one that would lead me to my dream career. I have made some clothing purchases that had I been drunk I would at least be able to explain. I dated a lot of frogs before finding a prince. Some were fun anyway. Others were painful—and I learned something in each.

My oldest just picked his college. He did not pick the one I would have picked for him. But I told him my fears for him—the distance, the possible loneliness, the real possibility that student loans will delay his post-graduate opportunities by years or decades. And then, with confidence and absolute certainty, he made his choice to head off to where he thinks he most needs to go to get what he needs next.

And although my fear is not gone, I hope he finds ways to take chances, try different majors, and make some bad choices when he gets there. At least he has had some practice.

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