Table of Contents

Parenting for an Age of Information

Chapter Four - Choosing


1. Give your child more than a single choice

Virus protection begins early in life as a child learns that actions are really choices among several options. While it may not seem that way to a one-year-old, grabbing a treasured toy away from another toddler is not the only way to handle a conflict. Nor is throwing a spoon on the floor the only way to signal the end of a meal. The toddler engages in hundreds of experiments to find out how things should be done, testing a variety of behaviors to see what they produce, learning along the way that some choices work better than others.

The primary selection process employed by most children (and many adults) is impulse buying. Driven by strong appetites and emotions, the child is drawn to the flashiest, most attractive option. Instead of making a rational, careful selection from among several possibilities, there is a blind leap of enthusiasm as the picture on the box grabs hold of the senses or the electrical outlet acts like a magnet attracting the exploring child.

Caring and attentive parents shelter their children to some extent from this impulsiveness by teaching rules or boundary lines which curtail the exploration and limit danger. Early in life the child learns from parents that certain objects of desire like electrical outlets and stove tops are, in fact, "no-nos." They learn that certain places like Farmer MacGregor's garden are off limits. Another form of sheltering is "child-proofing" a room or house so that it contains no dangerous or fragile items.

All of these parental strategies are wise and healthy as long as there are areas in which the child can still make choices. Much behavior should be conducted on a semi-automatic basis as a child learns to do what is right in a given situation without paying it much thought. This is especially true when it comes to matters of safety. Touching the stove is an unnecessary and highly undesirable childhood experience.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to raise a child thinking that we can pass through life with our minds "already made up." We must all learn when it is appropriate to set our auto-pilot and when it is dangerous. Because there are many decisions which should be made upon the basis of careful analysis, our children deserve practice with situations offering more than a single choice.

As with inventiveness, choosing skills cannot easily thrive in a play-pen. The parent must offer situations which combine safety with choice. Fortunately, the world offers far more choices than may readily meet the eye.

Watch parents and children enjoying a playground or a wide expanse of lawn. Who is making the choices and the decisions about what to do next? In some cases the parent sits back at a distance while the child runs from slide to see-saw to sand box, deciding what they want to do and how long they wish to concentrate on one task or another. In other cases, the parent hovers nearby, takes the child by the hand and seems to manage the progression of events.

Much of the apparently random and impulsive decision-making displayed by children on the playground is a precursor for the later development of thoughtful decision-making. Underlying the behavior is a basically unconscious trial-and-error process which involves the child in doing something which catches her or his fancy until something else seems more attractive and worthwhile. It may seem as if the child is flitting from one activity to the next without ever settling down with any one thing. Under these circumstances, the parent may wonder when the child will learn concentration on task.

The child is simply testing out preferences, browsing if you will, playing "what if" games with the playground, tasting a bit of one experience before moving on to the next. In a similar fashion, when the child builds towers out of blocks, there may a great deal of testing going on. What happens when you place a block this way? and this way? How long before it all comes toppling down?

This kind of exploration leads to the discovery of basic principles of balance, proportion and harmony without any real adult assistance or interference. It is sometimes called "the school of natural consequences." The child uncovers rules through trial-and-error. The "what if" questions lead to relatively consistent answers which stick in the child's mind at some unconscious level where they may guide future actions.

The gift of parent to child is the freedom and the opportunity to explore choices through experience. If your child must spend time in a play-pen, fill it with toys or objects which truly support exploration, choice and experimentation. At other times, make certain that his or her life is filled with wonderful playgrounds, meadows, seashores and gardens, places which offer delightful and fascinating choices. As you wander down the beach together, step aside and let the young one decide which shell to notice, which rock to collect, which hornpiper to watch. Take turns sharing a sense of wonder.

Limit the amount of time allowed with television programs which place your child in a passive role. Even though the camera may take your child to the beach or a jungle, the camera person, the director and the narrator make all of the choices about what to notice. There is no browsing or selection allowed.

The transition from impulsive exploration to careful analysis is well served by an early childhood unhampered by too much abstract reasoning and adult interference. This free play is a foundation for wise decision-making later in life as the child discovers how the world works in a basically intuitive fashion. Viewing the world in essentially concrete terms, the child determines relationships and laws of that universe by building towers, digging tunnels and testing out slides. These relationships and laws find their way into the child's mind with few if any words attached to them. They are unspoken understandings which play an essential role in helping the growing child to make up his or her mind. In many respects this early way of making sense of the world is associated with what adults commonly label "common sense."

Piaget's work with developing children suggests a parental strategy to help young children begin thinking about how they make decisions. Ask them "why?"

"Why did you go that way?"

"Why did you make that choice?"

By explaining their thoughts after-the-fact, children learn to back into decision-making on a conscious level. The act of attaching reasons shifts their level of awareness.

As the child matures and adds increasingly abstract reasoning and verbal agility to the toolkit with which decisions can be made, these early years will prove extremely valuable. The ultimate goal is to produce a young adult capable of making wise decisions which reflect common sense as well as careful reflection.

2. Develop the skill of compare-and-contrast

Just as free play and exploration is a foundation for later decision-making, so is the skill of comparing and contrasting. How are these two rocks the same? How are they different? How are these two breakfast cereals the same? How are they different? How are the two characters in the story the same or different?

The opportunities to practice and develop this skill abound. At the earliest age the parent may begin with concrete objects and keep the comparisons simple, making it into a game. At any age the goal is to figure out the attributes of each object and then see how they match up. What is the color? the size? the shape? the texture? the weight?

Which is brighter? duller? smoother? rougher? more intricate? more simple?

Pairs or groups of objects provide excellent practice for the skill of compare-and-contrast, but the child can graduate to more abstract comparisons.

Which story had the saddest ending? Which character would make a better friend? Which song had the most interesting lyrics? the strongest rhythm?

The purpose of this kind of thinking is to develop a critical thinking foundation for making wise and thoughtful choices. Buying a car or some other product should set in motion this kind of comparing and contrasting, as the shopper assesses the qualities of each product - the price, the repair record, the gas efficiency, the road handling, etc. - in order to identify the one which most closely fits her or his preferences and needs.

Chapter Four - Choosing (continued)

©1991 JMcKenzie

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