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Giving Your Children Choices Lays Good Foundations for Future

By Benison O'Reilly - 15th August 2011

As our family gears up for the Higher School Certificate (HSC) later this year, I find I am doing more than my fair share of driving. Admittedly it’s my own fault, as I’ve decided to drive my eldest to school three days a week, to add to the two days I already drive my youngest to his special needs school across town. That’s five days a week in Sydney peak-hour traffic - in both cases a minimum one hour round trip.

One of the consolations is that I get to listen to ABC radio and hear things I might have missed otherwise, such as a recent interview on the ABC current affairs program AM.  Dr Jeffrey Pfeifer, a forensic psychologist from Swinburne University of Technology, was asked about some research he’d conducted into sixty American sports stars. Thirty of these stars were ‘models of professional behaviour’; the other thirty had been in trouble with the law. He found that:

     ": the group of individuals who had found themselves in trouble with the law were less likely to have experience in their lives with making choices whereas the ones who had not gotten into any trouble seemed to have a lot of experience in their lives from childhood up, making choices.
     …it is based on a parenting style theory that is very popular in psychology which suggests that if you want to help your children to make good decisions as adults what you want to do is when they are very young give them lots of choice so that they understand choice when that time comes… for example you might say to your child, you know, we are going to have milk with dinner this evening. Would you like half a glass or a whole glass?"

Leaving aside the fact that we were offered no information on the research methods used - I would have liked the journalist to ask Dr Pfeifer how he uncovered so much about these athletes’ early lives* - the theory instinctively makes sense to me. One of the positive consequences of having a child on the autism spectrum is that it forced me to examine exactly how children learn. If your child picks up life and social skills naturally, then much of early parenting can seem a no brainer, in summary: keep them safe, fed and loved.

If, however, your child does not develop along the normal trajectory - as my third child certainly did not - then you have to go back to basics and think carefully about parenting.
In the past, parents and educators tended to infantilise young people with special needs, especially those with an intellectual disability. The grown-ups believed that they ‘knew best’ and made all the decisions for their charges. Experts now argue that this can lead these children and adolescents to develop problem behaviours, such as meltdowns.

Everyone - even those with extra challenges - likes to feel they have some control over their life, and if we take away their right to choose, we are in essence saying to these kids ‘you cannot be trusted; you are not capable’.  Imagine the effect on their self-esteem.

And in this regard it’s no different to how we should be parenting our typically developing children. We need to offer them choices. Of course, implicit in this is that we also have to accept that they will occasionally make the wrong choices.  That’s all part of the learning process.

They may, as my eldest son tends to do, choose to go out with friends on a Sunday afternoon, rather than study for an exam they have the next day. Result: poor marks.  
When it came to selecting his HSC subjects way back in 2009, the same son chose to study chemistry.  "It’s meant to be a really hard subject to do well in.  Since you want study acting do you think chemistry is the wisest choice?’" I asked. "But I like it,’" our son declared.  A few months ago he was flunking chemistry so badly that the school suggested he drop it.  "I really regret taking chemistry now," he said to me.   I showed remarkable restraint in not saying, "I told you so".

Along the same theme, I was talking to a mother recently whose son chose the same HSC subjects as his best friend - ancient and modern history - even though he had no interest in or aptitude for either!  Not surprisingly he completely bombed out in his exams and had to repeat the HSC at technical college. He is now, finally, at university studying for a degree, albeit a few years behind his peers.

It was a lesson hard learnt, but it was his choice.

Our teenagers will likely be faced with many serious decisions in the coming years: whether or not to drink and drive, whether or not to experiment with recreational drugs, whether or not to have unprotected sex.  Despite our best efforts some of our children will make wrong choices. All we can do is educate them as best we can and hope there are no catastrophic consequences.

But as this research with young sportsmen suggests, if we offer our children lots of choices early in life, it’s possible they’ll make less dumb ones later on. Food for thought, don’t you think?

Do you consciously offer your children choices?

*The research was presented at a conference, so I’m sure it was conducted rigorously.

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