If I had to choose one word I’ve used over and over in parenting and teaching, it would be choice. I learned early on as a parent that simply saying ‘no’ over and over had no lasting effect; if I really wanted something to happen – especially with any sort of chance that it would happen the way I wanted – I needed to give choices.
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It went something like this: “What do you want to wear today? You can choose either the red leggings and boots, or the red dress with tights.” Or with my son, “I haven’t decided what to make for dinner tonight – would you rather have pasta or chicken?” Now, when they don’t respond to my texts or block me from some sort of social media, I feel 100% comfortable saying, “Ok, you can keep me blocked/don’t respond to my texts and pay the monthly charge for your bill, or you can respond and I will continue to fund your phone.” That one always works.
Choices like these gave my kids a voice, and practicing that on something simple when they were little meant when they were teens, and we had to grapple with the big stuff, they were used to the process. They knew what it felt like to make good – and bad – choices. They understood logical consequences, and sometimes even unintended ones.
As parents, we are obligated to teach our children about choice from an early age. Kids need to know that their life is full of possibility, and certain choices will make doors open and opportunities appear – or disappear. Teenagers are bombarded with choices to make, some small, but at 15, 16 and 17 many are huge and can have lasting impact on their future. Should I post that online? Do my homework or go to bed? Drink and drive? Text and drive? Have sex? The list is endless, really. How do kids know how to trust themselves, how to weigh options and make good choices if they’ve never had any practice?
Giving my middle school students choices has really evolved for me over the years. As a beginning teacher, I felt insecure offering too many choices-I was afraid that if I didn’t set down the rules, chaos would break loose. In reality, when I started giving kids more choice about what they did and how they did it, management mostly became a breeze. Oftentimes I’ll give choices about what they need to do for a particular grade, or what order they need to tackle different parts of a task. As long as they get to the end result that I’m expecting, giving them choices about how they get there allows students to learn how to manage their time, how to push themselves (usually – but not always) and to take a route for learning that makes most sense to them.
Last year, when my daughter was navigating the stressors of senior year and college applications, I found myself repeating and reminding her that all her hard work paid off in all the choices she had between colleges. I tried to keep mum on my strong feelings about one school or another, and let her not only weigh the merits of each college, but also let her listen to her heart and choose the school that felt right.
Ultimately, I think choice is what makes humans stronger. Choice builds character, empowers people, and provides a barometer of how we navigate the world. Having choices teaches us how to be decisive, how to weigh options, but also to listen to ourselves and trust that we can follow our instincts instead of following the crowd. Sometimes, just knowing that we have choice – that every day we choose how we approach the world, how we treat other people, how we spend our time and what we work for – is enough to make the day just a bit brighter, just a bit kinder, just a bit more full of possibility.
This post was inspired by Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas, a novel where former Olympic hopeful Dan destroys his swimming career and his attempt at redemption after prison. Join From Left to Write on September 30th as we discuss Barracuda. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.