We all want our kids to succeed in life and, above all, to be happy. One step in the long journey toward that destination is letting your child start making his own choices—and learning to live with them. It is a process with a slow learning curve and lots of trial and error.
In our pages we've suggested starting the process by letting young kids choose what to wear. This gives your child a chance to assert his independence in a low-risk setting, since whether he wears a red or a blue shirt (or even whether she wears a princess dress to preschool) doesn't matter in the long run. As he gets a little older, you can let your child figure out how he wants to spend his allowance or a gift allotment during a vacation. All along the way, your goal is to help him learn to make good decisions, in part by teaching him to consider the pros and cons of each option.
But at what age is your child truly ready to be accountable for his choices? That's a question my wife and I pondered this past week, as our ninth-grader was faced with a long-anticipated dilemma: Tennis or baseball. Granted, it wasn't exactly Sophie's Choice. As I pointed out to him, having to choose between two varsity sports teams was "a nice problem to have." The school's athletic director told Matthew he could try out for both squads but would ultimately have to pick one. "This isn't middle school anymore," he said. "You can't do both."
We had always assumed Matthew would pick tennis, knowing that his skills are further developed in that sport. He played last summer at the National Tennis Center, was a U.S. Open ballperson, and is already giving his dad a tough singles match. When the tennis coach told him that he'd likely be a first doubles player as a freshman, we were thrilled. Matthew, though, wasn't. He felt the baseball team had more regular practices and, more important, he had a lot of friends (many of them fellow freshmen) who had also made the team.
We tried to sway him toward tennis, pointing out his brighter prospects for possibly playing for a college team (perhaps Division III), which might also make him a more attractive candidate for entrance. We gently reminded him of all the tennis lessons we had paid for, including a winter session that was intended to prime him for the team. He asked what we thought he should do. We suggested he make a list of the pros and cons of each option before deciding. He did so, and chose tennis. For a day. After a bunch of his baseball buddies cajoled him at school, he changed his mind. "I'm only doing tennis because you made me," he complained. "I'd rather do baseball."
"Then do baseball. It's your decision," we replied. He attended the next baseball practice, and he hasn't looked back—except, in effect, to accuse of "forcing" him to do tennis and then "making" him to switch by not standing our ground. (Sometimes you just can't win as parents.) That's where we drew the line. Yes, we had encouraged him to go one way, we conceded, but it had been his decision to make all along. We supported his choice. He simply had to take ownership of it.
I'm still not 100% satisfied with how this process played out. We debated contacting the athletic director (who we feel was hoping Matthew would choose tennis). But we choose not to be Tiger Parents. It was his choice to make, not mine. I hope he has a great baseball season—and that he considers switching to tennis next spring. Either way, my fervent wish is that this experience makes it easier for him to make up his own mind—not only about which sport to pursue, but also about a lot of far more significant decisions he'll be making down the line.
Manners & Responsibility: Getting Your Child to Listen
Young boy doing facial expressions via Shutterstock