Good Decisions Come From Making Decisions, Not Directions

Ironically, on last week’s general election day, I was delivering training on ‘Re-Empowering The Powerless Child’.
Power abused, rather than used, can be catastrophic, so it’s no wonder that society largely feels it’s safer to make sure young people don’t get much of it.

But the truth is, they not only need to experience as much healthy power as possible,  but that they’re seeking it from the moment they’re born, even before cognition takes hold; the cry for human contact or to be fed at birth is the power to stay alive.
The discovery of being able to roll or crawl is to exert power over their own bodies.
The fingers-in-plug-socket stage is the power to find out more about this very interesting world, and how it works.

In other words, becoming more powerful and autonomous is a neurodevelopmental necessity of growing up into a well-developed human.
Thus it stands to reason the children we live and work with need as much practice at this as possible. Not especially easy in our western world, which not only exerts a tightly managed education system, but highly prizes compliance and obedience.

And these qualities can certainly make the job of raising, caring for and educating small people easier and more fulfilling; oppositional behaviour, defiance and confrontation are no fun for anyone, after all.

Yet it’s easy forget that it’s not children’s job to make their adults’ lives easier or happy and, while it is important that kids learn – to master compromise and negotiation, to pick their battles, to practice pro-social skills and the art of co-operation- it’s essential that they have plenty of room to spread their wings and learn to fly, highly inconvenient as that can sometimes be…

It’s frustrating when they struggle to make decisions, or you know they’re making the wrong choice; you just want to make it for them, but as Alfie Kohn said, ‘Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions’.

It’s scary as hell letting them take risk we aren’t sure they’re ready for – crossing the road alone, using knives or other potentially dangerous tools, risk peer rejection etc. – but how do they learn to assess those risks and manage them, if they’re never given the chance?

If kids constantly get the message that they’re not trusted or trustworthy, how will they ever learn to trust themselves?

Whether we live with them, care for them or work with them, the amount of power that children need to help them grow and stretch themselves vary from child to child, even from day to day, so we’re right to proceed with that awareness, but the gifts we give to them when we empower them can be extraordinary.  

How can you help the children in your life self-identify as an individuals in charge of their own lives and what happens in it? Give them choices, hold them accountable, insist that they take at least one step towards the desired outcome themselves.

How can you support their resilience, so they don’t just admit defeat when the going gets tough?  ‘Difficult’ is not the same as ‘impossible’; it’s an important truth to learn, but not an easy one. What’s the reward that motivates them so much, that they’re willing to persevere and tolerate the discomfort it entails?

What strengthens their belief in their capacity to grow… to change direction or their mind, or to go against the grain?
Even if you don’t believe their choices or action is the right ones, convey that you trust them work it out for themselves. The support of another person is often the security blanket any of us need to take a leap of faith, so make sure the child knows it’s available, even if you’ve do things differently in the same situation.

How can you support them to manage uncertainty and the unexpected? Find ways to pave the path for the unknown. A healthy dose of novelty, anticipation or personal challenge (not terror!) helps affirm that uncertainty is not the enemy, and that, even when it’s uncomfortable, they can handle it.

Reminder: Whatever your role in their lives, these are just a few of the powers that you have,  to help raise a powerful child, without having to give up on any of your own. 

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