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Tuesdays with Jane: Controlling free choice

One thing we know from the science behind Kidtelligent is that children can’t make mature decisions unless they’re in charge of decisions. They need to gather enough information to know that they’ve looked at enough options, and then narrow down those options by applying appropriate criteria. Think about it—comments about immature people often center around, “He rushes into things” [i.e., didn’t check out options] or “She can’t make up her mind about anything!” [i.e., can’t narrow down the options].

Yes, life is simpler if parents lay out clothing, plan meals, set homework schedules, etc., but the sooner you help your children take charge, the sooner they’ll develop the skills to make wise choices about sports, books, movies, academic classes, and driving. They’ll be ready to choose colleges wisely—and less likely to be living in your basement long after your nest should be empty!

Here’s how to get started.

With preschoolers, begin by letting them know any relevant criteria. “Today is going to be pretty cold, so pick out long pants and a sweatshirt or sweater.” “You can choose dinner—a main course from these choices, a salad and a veggie.” “Let’s look at several presents you could make for Grandma. Which ones would be most fun for you to make? Which do you think she’d like best?”

With grade schoolers, providing relevant criteria is still necessary, but increase the importance of the decisions. And, help them gather enough information. For example, give them a say in the sports or other activities they try, but help them track down time commitment, costs, and any “consequences” that they may not understand, such as lost future opportunities. When our son turned ten, he still wanted to play both soccer and baseball, which meant he couldn’t play on the traveling teams. We gently reminded him that this could reduce of his chances of making those teams in high school, but he felt strongly, “They’re both fun. I shouldn’t have to choose yet!”

With middle schoolers, start asking, “What do you need to know to decide? What factors are most important?” Summer activities and camps, extracurricular activities, and volunteer commitments are all within their ability to choose, although parents can, of course, still narrow the options based on cost and any other criteria! Also, the more involved they are in setting consequences for misbehavior or irresponsibility, the better. Ask, “What do you think the consequence should be for disrespect/forgetting to tell us where you are going/skipping homework?” Even grade schoolers can do some of this, but at the middle school level, it helps them develop cause/effect thinking in ways that form those prefrontal cortex synapses that lead to rational planning!

With high schoolers, keep reminding yourself that in just one to three years they will be in charge of most of their own choices. The more choices they make while you are still around to help them reason and decide, the better. Even for the college search, see how uninvolved you can be. Provide structure such as, “Your junior year, we need to visit at least one local college or university in the fall so you can get a better idea of what to look for.” Give them a website to use in narrowing down which to visit College Board has great sorting tools and then step back unless they fail to follow through by a certain date. Hold a conversation about the criteria you used to make your own education choices. Encourage them to start listing criteria.

Your goal is to help them develop and trust their decision-making ability. Use the Kidtelligent Assessment as a resource to help determine interests and communication styles. Rather than nagging or setting out a plan yourself, help them work backward from May 1st of their senior year, the current date for committing to a single school, to help this almost-adult child understand when/why certain actions need to be finished by certain times.

Mature, independent offspring—if that’s your goal, it’s never too early to help your child learn to make good decisions!


By Jane Kise, Ed.D. – Educational Advisor and Consultant, 
Jane  writes an insightful post every Tuesday for Kidtelligent. Jane is an educational consultant, specializing in teambuilding, coaching, and school staff development. She is also the coauthor of more than 20 books. Jane’s website  is