Why kids need to be allowed to make their own choices

Supporting kids to develop their independence will prepare them for the real world. Here’s how to give your child more autonomy.

As a parent, making decisions when it comes to your child is part of the job description.

However, there comes a point when our kids will need to start making decisions on their own and often the best way to help them do this is to support their development of autonomy early on.

Why it’s important to give kids autonomy

There are myriad benefits when it comes to giving your child a say in aspects of their life (yes, even when it comes to having their toast cut a certain way!).

“Autonomy is important for developing confidence (and) healthy self-esteem, regulating behaviour, and problem-solving,” parenting coach and Chilled Out Mum author Karina Lane says.

Research has found a positive correlation between young children’s self-esteem and their decision-making ability.

But when is the right time to give kids a little more independence when it comes to making choices?

Psychologist and Hopscotch and Harmony director Jessica Cleary says there’s no ideal age to introduce autonomy to a child, and that it’s often a gradual process.

“If they demonstrate an interest in doing something, and there’s no safety reason why they can’t, then let them,” Jessica says.

“Give them the space to try.”

How to give your child more autonomy

Giving your kids autonomy can start with offering age-appropriate choices.

Babrah Tavaziva, whose background as a midwife and child and family health nurse led her to start the Virtual Parenting Hub, says you can start by allowing a toddler to make simple decisions such as whether they want to wear a red or blue t-shirt.

She recommends incorporating these choices within their daily routine.

“(For young children) it’s about offering autonomy in a safe, predictable environment,” Babrah says.

Gradually, you can build up to more choices – for example, asking your child to pick which bedtime stories they want to read, or having your school-aged child choose which extracurricular activities they might want to do.

“The key thing is to try not to be too controlling when their choice is not aligned with your expectations,” Karina says.

“Letting your child make a choice that you suspect won’t end well gives them the opportunity to develop thinking skills that will aid future decision-making.”

This might mean letting your toddler go with their choice of wearing shorts on a chilly day (you can always pack a jumper for later if you’re concerned) and having them discover the consequences of their actions – that they might feel a bit cold later on.

Allowing them the opportunity to discover this on their own will help inform their decision the next time.

When should a parent still have the final say?

“We need to weigh up our child’s capacity for autonomy with where they’re at developmentally and what they’re capable of,” Jessica says.

Ultimately, as a parent, you’re responsible for your child’s safety and wellbeing, so there will still be times when you’ll need to make the final decision.

“I call these ‘stone boundaries’,” Jessica says.

“A stone boundary does not budge.

“For example, your stone boundary could be that a young child must hold your hand while crossing a busy road; for a teenager, it could be that they can’t go to a party with 50 teens and no adults.”

Communication with your child is important when it comes to boundaries and Jessica says it’s important to discuss the reasons behind such decisions clearly and empathetically.

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Written by Tania Gomez.