Adults and children make bad choices at times, and supporting your child through hard decisions and poor choices shows you love her unconditionally. Of course you want to point out that some choices are not acceptable, but if she makes the same mistake again, make sure to reinforce you still love her. You can also help her make up for those mistakes. Did she hurt a friend? Have her write an apology note and ask for forgiveness.
Some decisions like which book to read at bedtime or whether she wants carrots or sweet potatoes with dinner are not big choices for you, but allowing her the choice will make her feel more involved and give her more autonomy. Also give her room to make decisions even if she doesn’t make a choice you agree with, as long as the consequences don’t affect her health or safety. For example, if your child wants to take her allowance to school, let her make that choice. If she ends up losing a few dollars or coins at recess, she will likely feel bad about it and learn that it wasn’t a good idea. Letting children learn from their own mistakes is a great teaching opportunity that they will likely remember longer than if you had simply said “no” from the beginning.
This can help give her tools she can use to make her own decisions in the future. Ask her questions like, “What do you think will happen if we don’t wear our coats outside today?” or, “If you don’t go to sleep on time, what do you think you’ll be like at school tomorrow?” or, “How do you think your sister will feel if you play with her favorite toy without asking?” Taking another person’s perspective enhances the quality of your child’s decision-making because in order for your child to make the best decision she must be able to understand how it will affect others. Learning that there are consequences for actions that affect your child and others is a good way to promote empathy and responsible decision-making.
Books that center on characters that have to make decisions, like the Berenstain Bears series, are a great option. Pause when the characters get to the problem. Ask your child what she thinks the bears should do, and what she thinks will happen. Talk about the problem as you’re reading, using terms like, “How would you solve this problem?” or, “What is the problem again?” and “What should Sister Bear do now?” This is a great opportunity to ask your child about problems she has faced recently and how she was able to solve them. For more age-appropriate book examples, see our reading list.
For example, inside or quiet voices need to be used in places like libraries and movie theaters, but cheering or loud yelling can be appropriate when watching sports or playing them. This allows your child to understand the differences in situations that can impact her decision-making.
For example, you could focus on things like what you’re planning to buy at the grocery store. Talk through your plans for making dinners, what ingredients you think you’ll need and why you’ll choose what you will. Why are you going to make tacos instead of pasta? What are the health implications of the items you’re buying and why do you choose them? Are you trying to make sure everyone in the family has something they like to eat this week? Maybe you’ve decided to make pancakes for dinner one night for a change of pace, or you’re planning to put broccoli in the mac and cheese to get a vegetable into the mix. This gives an opportunity for your child to see the decision-making process in action and understand that even simple decisions like what brand of tomato sauce to buy have reasoning behind them. Alternatively, you may make a choice that doesn’t have reasoning behind it, like choosing a sweet potato over a plain potato. Letting your child see that some decisions can’t be explained will be a comfort at this young age, when your child is likely unable to give a reason behind most of her decisions.