It may surprise you to learn that, from elementary school through high school, kids are generally capable of making decisions that are about as good as the decisions we’d make for them. And the more we give them the ability to make their own decisions, the better they’ll be at it as they grow.
The pressure problem
All parents want their children to succeed—to do and be the best they can. The pressure to get into a good school or have a great career can sometimes lead parents to feel that they can’t afford to let their kids make meaningful choices or manage stressful situations on their own. Despite all good intentions, parents are robbing their children of a sense of control, which can have devastating consequences.
American students are grappling with an epidemic of anxiety. Most teens report a sense that they don’t control their own destinies, and depression in adolescents has risen 37% since 2005. Science shows us that not feeling a sense of control over your life or decisions is one of the most stressful experiences for the brain. And when we feel excessive stress, or when we live in a constant state of anxiety, our “fight or flight” instinct never turns off. That leads to trouble, especially for developing minds—the body turns its full attention to survival, instead of growing or learning.
The power of empowerment
But when kids are given room to make their own decisions, their brains learn how to make hard choices. More importantly, it helps them reduce the stress of feeling helpless or controlled by someone else. In school, teachers help students develop self-reliance and independence when they allow students to make choices, explain the purpose of an assignment, and seek feedback about the helpfulness of their homework. This also fosters a mentor relationship and demonstrates respect, while growing their students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
The brain develops according to how it’s used, so the more experience kids have sitting in the driver’s seat of their lives, the more they will be able to think calmly and clearly, rather than letting their anxiety call the shots. Here’s what you can do to help your child develop a strong sense of control over themselves and their future.
Ask lots of questions, but start small
Ask your child to make a list of what they’d like to be in charge of and make a plan for shifting responsibility to them. Or ask your child’s opinion about something you would previously have just decided, saying, “Do you think we should do it this way or that way?”
For a child to make their own decision, it must be an informed decision
Make thoughtfulness and information-gathering a prerequisite. Talk the issue through with your child, and then say, “It’s your call. I have confidence in your ability to make informed decisions about your own life and to learn from your mistakes. All I’d ask is to discuss your pros and cons so I know you’ve thought things through—and because I love seeing how you think.” Just knowing that you believe in your child will boost their confidence.
Unless your child wants to do something that is truly a terrible idea, give them space to make mistakes
That doesn’t mean they can do everything they want—as your child’s parent, you can guide them against unhealthy or unsafe behavior. However, if your 14-year-old wants to take French instead of Spanish, even though you know Spanish is much more practical, it’s not a crazy decision. The confidence and autonomy your child will experience, and the health of your relationship, will outweigh any benefits of one language over another. In the end, you want your child—and not you—to own the decision.
Seek buy-in before giving your child advice
Let’s say your child is faced with a decision between going to a birthday party they’re already committed to and accepting a more recent invitation from a friend to go to a movie they really want to see. Before jumping in with, “You committed to the party, and so you have to go to the party!” you might say, “Would you like to hear my suggestion?” or “Can I tell you how I see it?” If your child says “no,” then back off. You want to play the role of a trusted consultant to your child, rather than an authoritarian boss.
Don’t force help or advice your child doesn’t want
As the adage goes, “Wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.” If it means your child doesn’t score well on a test or misses a crucial free throw in a basketball game because they refused to listen to advice, it’s okay. Your child will learn what they need to learn their own way, and the process will develop their brain to make hard choices and own them. If you haven’t pushed your help, then you’ll be in a better position to help your child reflect on their decision afterward, asking questions like:
- “How do you think that went?”
- “Is there something different you’d do next time?”
- “What went well?”
- “Is there any way I can help?”
Teaching your child how to become self-reliant isn’t easy, but you don’t have to do it alone. Throughout the process, be in dialogue with the other adults in your child’s life—namely, their teachers. Often parents and teachers feel perceived pressure from each other, but the key is to come together and work as a team to nurture a healthy, self-sufficient human being. Give children space to get to know themselves, to exercise their judgment and to build healthy brains in the process. It will have lifelong benefits.
William Stixrud, Ph.D. is a clinical neuropsychologist and a faculty member at Children’s National Medical Center and George Washington University Medical School. Ned Johnson is founder and tutor-geek at PrepMatters, an educational counseling, tutoring and test prep company in Washington, DC. Stixrud and Johnson are the co-authors of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.