Have you ever regretted letting a child choose from every ice cream flavor in the freezer section of the grocery store or at the ice cream shop? Do you find yourself making suggestions to hurry them along? Does it help? Are they paralyzed by choice? Does the same thing ever happen to us, as adults?
Adults have the ability to narrow down our choices based on internet reviews, recommendations, past experience, and our knowledge of ourselves. Kids on the other hand have very few of these options at their disposal. They might know that they like chocolate ice cream because they’ve had it before, but what about butter pecan or rocky road or rainbow sorbet?! Ahhhhh! So many choices!
Now while I would argue that ice cream flavors are a great opportunity to explore new things, there are plenty of other situations where endless choice simply overwhelms kids and stops them in their tracks.
Example: I picked up a first grader from school one day. Lucky him, we had no plans for the afternoon. We could go where the wind blew us– which isn’t usually the case. I was rather excited to pass along this good news. Imagine my surprise when he was given the option to do practically whatever he wanted, I was met with resistance, a bad attitude, zero enthusiasm and even some anxiety. “What the heck?” thought I to myself.
It took me a little time to figure out that having the “whole world” at your disposal can be a daunting prospect.
You might have guessed where this is heading: Choices! If you know me at all, you know I love giving kids choices. Red or blue? Hot or cold? Water or milk? Frowny or smiley? Time out or good behavior? Giving kids appropriate and livable choices is the way to avoid that feeling of paralysis when faced with every option in the world? It’s our job to help them feel like they do have a voice and some control over the very big world around them.
We all realize at some point in our lives just how large the world is and consequently, how small we are. Since kids are smaller than the average adult, their ability to feel “in control” of any situation is exponentially smaller than ours. So we need to create a world for them in which they do have some say and are also not overwhelmed by having too many choices.
As kids grow, we see their worlds grow too. When they’re very young, they are almost always in our sight unless they are ensconced in their crib or playpen. We allow their worlds to grow as they do. Now they can ride their bikes to the end of the driveway without us watching them all the time. Then they can go to a friend’s house down the street without being escorted and so on. We can’t let their worlds get too large too fast or they’ll feel a) helpless and unable to choose things; or b) that they do have the right to choose everything in their lives. This might mean having the unrealistic expectation that they can choose what they eat for dinner every evening. Or that they’re the ones who get to choose what movie the rest of the family watches. Or if mom and dad say that it’s time to take a bath, then they believe that they can choose to say “No, not now.”
So let’s use our judgment and give kids boundaries appropriate to their size, age and maturity. Don’t hem them in too much, but don’t let have free reign as well.
They are indeed little people and they do need little worlds.