TEACHING KIDS TO CHOOSE: ON BEING SEEN AND HEARD...

"And what would this young man like today", the wait- ress asked, looking at Jeremy's mother? Mother looked at Jeremy and smiled as the five year-old replied, "the young man will have a hamburger, well-done." Impressed, the waitress added, "I know, remove all the juice, right?" "Yes", said Jeremy, "and the E. Coli, too!" Someone once said, "Give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day. Teach him how and you have fed him for life!" Although he never met Jeremy, he shared a similar belief about having choices: They help us develop a system of values, resolve conflict and respond assertively in ap- propriate contexts, all in preparation for adult life.

Most of us were raised to be obedient and please people-- especially adults. The familiar adage of the day was, "Children should be seen and not heard." The person who originally coined the phrase may have been a botanist, since that type of thinking works well with plants! But on the topic of thinking, it does little to promote the development of creative, discriminative and intelligent choices.
The importance of having choices is essential to the concept of requisite variety. This "law" states that in any system, man or machine, the element with the greatest variability is the controlling element. In effect, a person whose beha- vioral repertoire contains flexible choices has greater op- portunities to achieve success in areas where others might become stuck; and a greater liklihood of resolving conflicts. At this point, parents with perhaps more traditional values might ask, "What kind of conflicts can a three year-old have?
The problem most kids have today is that they don't get enough discipline!" Perhaps. And the problem with many parents who advocate the importance of discipline above all else is their failure to recognize how teaching choices leads to discipline. Children are capable of making decisions at a very young age. In dec- iding, children develop strategies for considering similari ties, differences, options and consequences. Teaching children to have choices in no way means parents should abdicate parental authority. However, children who are taught to make choices will select behaviors that are useful and condoned with less resistance than those whose behaviors are coerced by parents. To help children learn flexibility, consider that they are performing a play in which each generates a life script. You the parent are the director. You start and stop the action and determine the parameters of a scene:
THe first one is Act 1, Scene 1- Getting going at home. If allowed, young children would sit in their pajamas, motionless, glued to the t.v. until mid-afternoon. Parents who haven't the time deal with "choices" lay out clothes and after repeated prodding, may virtually dress the child. In contrast, others may ask, "What would you like to wear today?" Although the latter is a good approximation, that child might select a sleeveless T-shirt in January. As the director, you set the limits. "It's time to get dress- ed. Would you rather wear your Lion King sweatshirt or this blue turtleneck?" Similarly, "How would you like your eggs, fried or scrambled", is better than, "What do you want for breakfast?" The latter could result in, "Nothing." Or, "A donut." 2) Act 2, Scene 1- Working and playing with others. An in- evitable part of socialization among children is the resolu- tion of conflict. When your child describes a problem situa- tion, rather than telling him/her how to behave, help him review the events with new choices by asking: "What did you do (say)?" "Did it work?" Then, "What else do you think you could have done?" The first question explores the limits of the child's understanding, the latter two expand those limits to include the relationship between behavior and it's consequences. When teaching choices, start with the child's current belief. To accomplish this, show you understand his predicament. Using this model, you can guide a child toward generating acceptable solutions. "The next time Johnnie takes my Action Rangers I'll punch his lights out!" Rather than saying, "It's not nice to hit people. If you do, you will be punished", try, "Hmm, that would make me pretty angry, too. But what would happen if you hit him?" And, "What else could you do instead?" Teaching choices not only fosters discipline, but empathy and judgement, two important interpersonal skills they will need throughout their lives.