Just us Talking: When should kids get to decide for themselves?

None of us like to say we live our own lives through our children. We recognise that their lives are their own – not a do-over for ourselves. But what do you do when you see your kids be offered an opportunity that you think is fantastic, but that they want to turn down? What if that opportunity is a really big deal? Can you stand back and let them allow it to pass them by?

It starts early. Sport teams, friendships, perhaps even student council or volunteer stuff… little things. You might want your child to get involved, but they’re reluctant. Some people might nudge their child’s choices in the ‘right’ direction with negotiation or even bribery (oh come on, we’ve all totally done that). Others allow children to have the final say, and then are criticised for allowing their kids to do whatever they feel like.

For example, one of my sons had an opportunity to become part of an organised sporting team. He didn’t want to commit to the formality of it all even though he liked to just hang out with the team while they were training in our local park behind our house and he was always invited to play along too. He liked the relaxed, fun part. He didn’t feel the need for membership, didn’t want the shirt, and honestly, without a car of our own and travel/work schedules, I didn’t need the responsibility of it all. One parent of another child in the team said how “disappointing it was” that my son didn’t get more involved in the team (read: you’re being a bad parent for not getting your child to do this). Over and over again. Sigh, walk away.

That’s just the beginning. Kids grow up. They make bigger choices. Classes, part-time jobs, internships all enter the picture, along with social choices. It actually never gets easier. The kids get bigger, but so do the choices. It’s never easy to just let them make all their decisions.

When do you start giving your kids control over what they choose to do? Perhaps you let them decide, but you bend their ear relentlessly about whether their choice is the ‘right’ one or not. (Pause right here… sorry Bec. I should have been quiet more often. I’ve learned that. A bit.) During the teen years perhaps the parenting becomes more about your ability to nag than the ability to physically have influence and limitations on the choices your kids make. Perhaps we overcompensate with our opinions because our children get to the point where they have the same rights in society that we do?

When do we step back and let them make their choices, just as we make ours, and allow them to see what happens? Perhaps we never really do. My own mum sent me an email at the start of the summer, letting me know that she thinks the kids need a haircut. (She’s right, but they didn’t want one really and as long as it’s clean, I don’t care that much.) I’m 42. I hope she never truly steps back – it made me feel great that she told me what she thought. Then in June I was making Max’s birthday cake. I sent her a picture of the tin I was using. She emailed quickly back, “Don’t forget to grease the pan well, and let it cool for 10 minutes so it doesn’t stick…” Yep, she’s parenting me still from thousands of  miles away. I don’t actually have a problem with that at all.

I’m old enough now that I can do whatever I like, and not need my parents’ approval – but I would still prefer it. And I’m glad to have kids that are all over 10 years of age, who are becoming solidly independent individuals. Sure, the kids have their own decisions to make that I’d do differently. But they’re not me, and their choices are not life-threatening unless I let my mind run wild with highly unlikely circumstances which would make them so. For example, I’d prefer one of my sons not play football, but he wants to. I could decide he’s likely to end up with a neck injury because you know, that’s happened to people in the past, so I’d like to discourage him… but I’ve allowed him to drive a scooter in a car park (he crashed), so really they should take the whole parenting licence thing away.

Finally, my 11 year old, Charlie, has caught two buses on his own home from school for over a year – the link stop is outside the supermarket, so of course it didn’t take long for him to decide to go in there for a soda on occasion – he even got his own store loyalty card at the service desk so he gets the discounts! And at Christmas he gave the $20 bill he had in his wallet to a homeless guy on that same corner. It was his choice. And while for us, $20 is a lot of money, for the homeless guy I’d guess it was even more. Charlie’s decision to give his money away would not have been mine. But I’m glad he decided to do it. Because sometimes the decisions the kids make remind me they really know better than me, and they should totally have the freedom to embrace those decisions – and teach me too.


  • I think you’re doing it the right way. Let them have the respect of making their own decisions for the most part. And they will naturally flock to what is important to them. It’s really hard not to interject your opinions on thinks you’d like to see them do. Ignore everyone else!!

  • I am all for kids making their own decisions – mine are only 6 1/2 and 8, but I have chosen to raise them on a path of independence from day 1. I have never coddled them or hovered. I believe giving them the chance to make choices from a young age will empower them as they get older as they have been allowed to think for themselves. If we don’t allow our kids to decide whether or not to pursue an activity (which should reflect THEIR interests) how on earth can we expect them to make bigger decisions about drugs, teenage sex or what career path to choose. If they make the “wrong” choice about a decision at 8 or 12 how big a mistake can it really be? To me it is a minor risk in the scheme of things. One of my biggest aims with my kids is bringing up free thinkers even if it means they totally disagree with me LOL.

    (now as i said on twitter tonight I am American – from NYC – living in Australia and I can say that here in Brisbane promoting free thinking in kids is not high on others’ agenda so I am an odd duck here)

  • Im 14 ad my mum is really smothering she is always telling me what i should and shouldn’t wear, what marks i should be getting in school and how i should behave. I know she just wants me to turn out a good person when i grow up but she needs to let me make my own decision to find out if they are the right ones for me or not. For example today i woke up late and of course i had a consequence which was ok with me, i had to clean through my room thoroughly and when i was done i went downstairs after getting a phone call from a friend asking me if i was still going trick or treating. When i got downstairs and asked mum if i could still go she said no i know she wanted me to stay home because of me waking up late but she needs to know that i no what i did was bad and that i wont do it again but she isnt trusting of that. she thinks that i will do it again which is why she wont let me out.
    To all the parents that are like my mother im leaving ou with a note saying let your children make decisions for themselves instead of you choosing for them.
    Beth Xx.

  • I’m 24 and I still feel like I’m being treated like a kid and having my decisions taken away from me. If I ever have children of my own I’d rather not raise them in this way. I think it is important to allow people to make their own decisions, even if some of those are mistakes (it happens to us all at some point.) I think people can only develop and grow to be confident individuals if they are given the chance to stand on their own two feet, either learning how to deal with failure as it comes or realizing that they are capable of finding the right solution all by themselves. My biggest regrets in life are the ones where I didn’t stand my ground and stick to what I wanted to do; but if you ask my parents they’ll probably tell you that the biggest mistakes in my life were the few decisions that I got to make for myself. I feel really uneasy on a regular basis because I often feel like I don’t have control over my own life. I appreciate all that my parents have done for me throughout my life and that they just want the best for me (in fact I’d it if they could keep giving me advice),
    but there are some things that I believe I have a right to keep personal to myself (like how I choose to manage my relationships.)

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