It is possible to teach your child to think for themselves. It is a similar proposition to teaching creativity. The first mental shift is to throw out the word “teach” and insert the word “facilitate.” If you are significantly patient, you can even move to “inspire.” And, that is the single most important requirement: patience.
Patience instead of Time Pressure
Consider how much of your parenting revolves around convenient and time-bound activity. You are on a schedule from your first waking moment. None of this is bad. The trick is not to settle into time pressure as your parenting sensibility.
If you are honest, you will admit that your fears, anxiety, and anger center around impatience. You think it should happen now. It is embarrassing if they don’t immediately respond to your directive. You don’t have time to sit and help them figure it out. It’s just quicker for you to do it for them. I’m writing to tell you that this is the first mistake. It’s not only the indoctrination that robs the child of autonomy. It is also the denial of their opportunity to wrestle with the task and their own reasoning.
Consider if a teacher asked the class a question, then immediately answered it. Over time, the class would no longer seek to answer, knowing that the teacher will immediately answer.How often has life presented a question to your child, and you rush to answer? How often have you “helped” with homework while holding the pencil?
For example, someone gives your child a place setting at a restaurant. Do you say, “Say thank you.” Or, do you ask, “What do you say?” The second is better. I would argue that the more sustainable approach would be to observe until the transaction is complete, and the giver has left. Ask your child, “Did you feel that saying thank you was an appropriate response to receiving the place setting? Why or why not?” Listen to guide their logic, not just to correct immediate behavior.
Start at age 3 with a focus on articulating thoughts (logic/reason) and feelings (motivation/emotion). Model this articulation as a habit and expect this articulation habit. Ask and listen. Age 3 is around the time that the child is able to connect actions with consequences. They are just beginning to comprehend the basics of authenticity, empathy, and respect.
Following are more examples. Reflect on the amount of patience required in each. Consider how these set up your child’s ability to make their own decisions sustainably, even when you are not around.
- Remove the words “right” and “wrong,” from discussions of decision making. In decision making, you decide whether choices are sustainable or unsustainable. Sustainable means that the decision will, with fewer negative impacts, get you to your goal. Unsustainable means that the decision will cause harm that threatens the ability to reach your goal. Having a clearly stated goal is primary always.
- Elevate your conversation beyond simply “leader” to request “captain” status–willingness to go down with the ship. The analogy is that of a ship’s captain that charts a course, navigates, and arrives where she intended. The point is recognition of decision points, ownership of your decisions, AND satisfaction with the consequences.
- Require and Allow your child to answer when you ask why they did something, no matter how long the explanation. Engage with them in analysis of their logic. Ask them to consider who is impacted by their decision. Ask them to predict how others will feel. Seek a balance between their own needs and their concern for the needs of others.
- Require proposals for things that they request. Adding to emotion and desire, seek to insert a habit of reason and thought. Cause them to support their desire with facts and inform themselves of the pros and cons of the request. Require them to review alternatives, and articulate the wisdom of their final choice.
- Never force empathy or contrition. Refuse the directive, “Say you’re sorry.” Ask your child to explain whether they feel/understand how the other person was hurt. The point is to build empathy that extends from a concern for the other.
- Share your frustrations, the options you’ve thought about, and your reasons for selecting a certain option. This is one of the most overlooked interventions in parenting. Most parents believe that sheltering their child means keeping them from the challenging decisions the parent has to make. On the contrary, sharing the process models decision making for the child.
- Admit when you are wrong, how you will make amends, and/or face the consequences. Admit even when you have wronged the child in some way. Trust me. There is no value to your child seeing you as infallible. It only exaggerates their own mistakes as devastating. When you explain your recovery process, you teach ownership. Your child learns to count mistakes as experience and learning to build character upon.
The other reason to start this level of guidance and interaction at 3 years of age is because age 3-4 represent a transition in parenting. As described earlier in this post, children gain verbal and some cognitive advantages at age 3. Until then, age 0-3, they are much more behaviorally inclined. During the age 0-3 period, utilize behavioral methods.
For example, When you want your child to come to you, say so. If they do not move upon first request, get up and physically move them. My favorite illustration of the importance of this is an emergency. A car is coming down the street, and the child is running after a ball. It is important to have instilled the behavioral trigger that when you say come, they instinctively move toward you.
At 3 years of age and beyond, the patterned behavior to move toward you remains, but you want to prepare your child with the reasoning skills to determine danger and risk for themselves. You will not always be available to predict the danger, make the call, and save the day. That honor (and ability) will be theirs alone. The bonus is that they won’t hesitate to call and tell you about it.