Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2004 / 5 Shevat, 5764
Limiting children's choices
At next year's fun fair at my children's elementary school, I'm going to be in
charge of the Sno-Cone machine.
That's because of what happened when I recently volunteered at the fair and
ended up as only the "assistant" Sno-Cone maker. I was paired with a loving
mom who enslaved all of us to the culture's commitment to "always giving
My job was to scoop the ice shavings into the cone, after which she put on the
flavored syrup. As the children started to gather, she took orders for "red, yellow,
blue, green, and purple stripes, please," "I'd like um. . .cherry, purple, no, wait,
green and um. . okay, and orange and could you please put those in great big
dots on the cone? No!! don't let them overlap can I have another one?"
Now, this might have been just grand except for one thing: While mom
perfected the color arrangements on the cones per each child's exacting and
totally gratuitous choices, the line grew to five kids, then 15, 20, 25 and finally
more than 30 children waiting for almost 20 minutes to get the "perfect"
Sno-Cone. Meanwhile, most of the kids had little real preference. They were
just having fun playing with the colors. That, too, might have been fine if they
weren't keeping their classmates, and themselves, from being held up for so
long and so missing much of the fun fair.
Given that we didn't have more helping hands, I suggested that in order to
move things along, we should let the children pick only one color. Or better yet,
until the line was down, simply decide that "we're serving grape cones at the
moment, come back in five minutes and it will be lime," after that cherry, and so
We could have gotten the line down to nothing and satisfied every child quickly.
But the head Sno-Cone mom was adamant. "Let the children choose" she
insisted. "That's what makes it fun."
Fun for whom? A bunch of antsy kids who have to wait in an unnecessarily
long line to get some "perfectly" striped Sno-Cone, the flavor of which doesn't
matter to them in the first place? Let's face it if we were only serving cherry
Sno-Cones, the kids would have been thrilled with cherry Sno-Cones.
This dear mom apparently believed in grabbing the golden ring of American
child raising: Kids should always, always, be allowed choices. From parenting
guru Dr. Sears, to Parenting Magazine, to the authors of the best-selling "What
to Expect" books, these experts say giving children choices as much as
possible gives children a sense of empowerment, raises their all important
self-esteem and teaches them how to make good choices.
Only, kids can't be allowed to make choices when it's totally dangerous or
completely inappropriate, of course.
There's actually some good thinking there there's just no principle to make
sense of what at first glance are conflicting notions.
Here's why: It used to be that we understood that children, by definition without
the wisdom that comes only through experience, are born under their parents
loving authority. At times, their parents may well give them the privilege of
making a choice, but it's always under their parents' wise purview.
But no more. We've completely flipped that principle around. Today, making
choices is seen as the inherently wise child's "right." When Mom and Dad must
step in and choose differently, and all the experts agree that's sometimes the
case, it's only as a last resort.
So the child is not only used to making choices all day long. More importantly,
he sees them as his "right" to make. Which cereal to eat, which shirt to wear,
which activity to do, which friends to play with so it's no wonder he then thinks,
"What do you mean I can't choose my bedtime," or later, "which computer Web
sites to visit" or even, "whether or not to obey you?"
But, as one experienced mom who gets it right said to me, "children don't learn
to make good choices by making choices they learn to make good choices by
having good choices made on their behalf." And, of course, when appropriate
having those choices explained. As in, "No honey, we can't let each child dictate
his 'perfect' five-stripe Sno-Cone, because that's inconsiderate to all the other
children. And when our choice negatively affects other people, sometimes we
don't get to make that choice."
Next year there will be no line at the school fair Sno-Cone machine. I guarantee
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