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Whenever I ask my son, Darren, to make a choice, it seems to take him forever. He recently spent half an hour in the toy store flip-flopping about which robot to buy—the one with the eyes that glow or the one that can kick a ball. Sometimes I want to blurt out, "Just decide already!"
Darren isn't alone in his wishy-washiness. "It's normal for 5- and 6-year-olds to make snap judgments about certain things, like which vegetable they don't want, and put too much thought into others, like choosing a toy or an ice-cream flavor," says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety. The reason is their lack of experience. "Until now, parents made most of the decisions, but when kids enter school, their world expands and there are more opportunities for them to voice their preference," she says.
Learning to make their own choices helps children be more independent, responsible, and confident, so decision-making is a good skill to emphasize. While your child won't become decisive overnight, there's plenty you can do to help him work through the "yes, no, maybes."
Put On a Show The next time you're pondering a situation-whether it's what to make for dinner or when to take the dog for a walk—go through the process aloud with your child, suggests Peter L. Stavinoha, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Children's Medical Center Dallas. "Describe the pros and cons of each option, compare them with one another, and talk about anything else that will help you reach the decision," he says.
For instance, if you're trying to figure out what to get Grandpa for his birthday, you might talk about the prices of gifts, Grandpa's favorite hobbies, and which present he'll be able to use the most. Allowing your child to see how you arrive at your conclusions will help him understand the effort that's required and give him a road map to follow when making decisions of his own.
Limit the Options Hand your daughter a brochure of gorgeous cakes, tell her to pick one for her birthday, and watch how quickly she gets lost in deliberation. "Research shows that if we have too many choices, we get overwhelmed because we don't want to reject too many things," says Dr. Chansky. Narrow down the choices to a few and then let your child pick. Kids need experience becoming good decision makers, so practice helps.
Size It Up Children often get stuck trying to decide something because they think every decision is a huge deal. Helping your child learn the different levels of decisions can ease his worry—and save you both a lot of time. Explain that small decisions, like what snack to take to school, can be made quickly; medium decisions, such as which book to get from the library, require a little more thought; and larger, more important ones, like choosing a sport to participate in, call for more time and consideration. Then the next time he gets flustered about which kind of juice he wants to order at a restaurant, you can remind him it's a small decision and he won't feel overly pressured.
Play the "What If" Game When kids ask themselves questions or make compare-and-contrast evaluations, they're actually slowing down their thought process, so they are better able to think things through, says Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., clinical director of the Westchester Group Works, in Harrison, New York. You can help your child get used to this way of thinking by giving her scenarios that require choices and fundamental problem solving. Asking how she would handle it if two classmates invited her to super-cool birthday parties at the same time on the same day or what she would buy if she won $10 in the school raffle are interesting ways to engage her critical-thinking skills and sharpen her decision-making abilities, says Dr. Maidenberg.
Allow Poor Decisions Of course, you know what could happen if your kindergartner takes his entire allowance to school. But if he still insists after you warn him that he could lose the money, let him carry it to school. "As long as it isn't a matter of health or safety, it's important for children to make some bad decisions because it helps them learn to consider consequences," says Dr. Stavinoha. When your son comes home crying because he dropped a dollar in the playground at recess, you can bet that he won't fight you about leaving most of his money at home next time.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Parents magazine.