The most important aspect to remember when offering choices to your child is that you must be comfortable with all the choices given. As a parent, you have to be willing to follow through on your child’s choice, so offer these choices carefully. For example, giving a three year old the choice between riding his tricycle in the driveway and riding his tricycle around the block unsupervised is not acceptable. Once you begin to offer choices to your child, it will become second nature. You will begin to see everything as a choice and will learn how to phrase things as opportunities for choices rather than commands.
So, what good does offering all these choices do? Children who have been raised with appropriate levels of control in their own life grow to be teens who are intrinsically motivated. All the millions of choices that they have been allowed to make over their lives have taught them that they have the power and ability to make their life what they want it to be. These children have what is referred to as an internal locus of control. They believe that the outcomes of their actions are the function of their effort, skill, and personality. They are confident in their abilities to succeed, and motivation for that success comes from within. In fact, “allowing children the freedom to pursue their interests without interference is paramount for intrinsic motivation” (Mercogliano, pg 10). However, a controlling parenting style leads towards children who have an external locus of control. These children have been so controlled from the outside that they do not know how to make decisions without outside help. They believe that they have very little power to make life what they want it to be. They are waiting for someone to come along and do “it” for them, or are hoping for a miracle to make their dreams come true. Those with an external locus feel as though they are not responsible for the outcome of their actions.
Giving up control also allows our children to internalize their values. Parents desire to see their children make decisions that are based on their value system. It is sad to see a child who makes decisions based on the desires of his peer group or cultural influences. A responsible child is one that makes right decisions because he is confident in his values and view them as more important than the applause of peers. Internalized values are a very important part of identity development, as what we value contributes greatly to our thinking. And when our thinking is deeply rooted in our values, our behavior usually lines up. The positive result is an integrated identity.
Finding a healthy balance in the amount of control we give to our children is difficult, but so important. Remember, a child with too much control is no better off than one with not enough control. I encourage parents to start small. Give your child control over as many things as possible while maintaining appropriate limits. Having clear limits for your child will help to balance the temptation to over-control. As long as the child is within the clear limits, he is free to behave and choose as he wishes. When he wanders outside the limits, make sure he experiences a consequence that reinforces the limit.
In summary, a gradual release of control to your child will help him to grow into a teen that believes that the outcome of his actions is a function of effort, skill, and personality. Giving up control will also foster the internalization of a child’s values, which is a key component to the development of an integrated identity. Over-control by parents will leave teens with a sense that they are not responsible for the outcome of their actions. They will also be susceptible to the influence of peers and culture in regards to decisions about values and conduct.