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Should You Make Choices for Your Kids?

Tuning in—or being tuned out

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Our responses to our children’s choices require care and sensitivity. The things that attract them can be driven by outside influences and also can convey a great deal about their desires, needs, and personality. So, they understandably interpret our critical reactions of their choices as criticism of them.

I recall such issues surfacing one Halloween when my 10-year-old son raced into a costume store, selecting a monster mask that exuded a bloody-like substance throughout its head as he squeezed a rubber ball under the costume. He was riveted. As I was beginning to say, “No way!” I observed the edges of his face dropping.

Thankfully, I caught my response and regrouped. This was not my costume but his! Maybe I didn’t like it, but he clearly did. Rather than reacting, it was much more important to tune in to his excitement. We bought the mask, and I ended up with a very engaged, very happy 10-year-old “Screamer” on our trick-or-treat run.

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Embracing the choices that genuinely attract our kids shows that we respect them, their process, and their decisions. Most decisions are rarely crossroads and life determinants; they are daily explorations, investigations, and great learning opportunities: maybe trying a new hairdo for your eleven year-old; your 17 year-old son considers flaunting a mustache. Openness to considerations on our part does not convey, “Anything goes;” it provides a message that we support them and their discovery!

So, when we start to say no, we need to stop and think about our reaction? Are we understanding our kid’s needs or only our own? Do our judgments inhibit them from experiencing their childhood—or do we want them to act as if they’re 40 when they’re only 10? Are their real losses for supporting their choices or more costs from prohibiting their exercise of choices they want to make? Can our reaction squash their spontaneity?

Of course, withholding quick judgment needs to be differentiated from providing solid guidance and prudent direction. When our children’s choices are shortsighted, let alone dangerous, it’s essential to provide sound direction and clarity that focuses on our children’s best interest. This requires establishing a setting for listening on both sides: listening to their plan and their reciprocal listening to hear you. In such instances, remain calm, engage genuine exchange, discuss consequences, raise questions, and explain your position. The situation may warrant exercise of your ultimate decision. If so, this action best includes a plan designed to have both of you on the same side, accessing mutual respect and love—the basis of a healthy relationship.

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Our success in participating in our children’s lives invites us to support their wishes, reserving the parental trump card for rare and extenuating situations. Our children’s choices are driven by many factors—from personal decisions to social and gender-based norms. Their choices are stepping stones that build their character. By embracing and working with them to understand the choices our children make today, we lay a foundation for their ability to negotiate independent, responsible judgment that we can all trust and understand for their actions tomorrow.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information visit, and

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