Why Our Kids Need To Make Poor Choices – And How To Handle It

Watching our kids make choices we don’t agree with is one of the hardest things we do as parents – but we’re doing them no favours if we choose to intervene.


A couple of weeks ago, I got out of bed for an early-hours visit to the bathroom and noticed a light shining from under my daughter’s door. It was 2am. Given she had to get up to walk the dog at 6am, I felt she’d made a poor choice.

I found myself awake at 5.45am, wondering if she’d make it out of bed. She did – but spent the rest of the day complaining she was tired.

It’s not rocket science. If she insists on staying up until the early hours chatting online with friends around the world, she’ll be exhausted the next day unless we let her sleep until lunchtime.

She’s too old for us to insist on ‘bedtime’, but we feel she’s making a poor choice in staying up half the night when she has to get up the next day. We’ve explained that once she’s in the ‘real world’ and has a full-time job, she won’t be able to do that. Or at least, do that and continue to function properly.

To be fair to her, she does honour her commitments – whether it’s walking the dog, volunteering at the local animal shelter, or attending a class. So, should we step in more firmly or leave her to figure it out in her own time? Current thinking suggests the latter.

When your children make bad decisions, they may suffer for it but they can learn from the experience and make better decisions in the future.”

“Decision-making is one of the most important skills your children need to develop to become healthy and mature adults,” explains Jim Taylor Ph.D., a psychologist who specialises in parenting.

“When they make a good decision, they can gain the greatest amount of satisfaction and fulfilment because they chose it. When your children make bad decisions, they may suffer for it but they can learn from the experience and make better decisions in the future.”

The fact is, says Taylor, it’s part of a child’s ‘job’ to do some stupid things. Bad decision-making is part of their journey to maturity. The problem occurs if they continue to make poor choices regularly into adulthood.

So, whether it’s your five-year-old who insists on wearing shorts in winter or a teenager who wants multiple piercings, it seems we parents need to grit our teeth and let them get on with it. And make sure we’re there if they need us to pick up the pieces.

In the meantime, here’s our approach to dealing with their poor decision-making without falling out among yourselves.

1Whose choice is it?

We want to raise our kids to be independent and responsible. But when they’re very young, not everything is up to them. Some things are non-negotiable – like going to school. It will do them no harm to realise that. But ask yourself the question first – and if it’s their decision, let them have the final say.

2Raise concerns carefully

You shouldn’t bite your tongue if they want to do something you disagree with, but pick your moment for a discussion. Find a time when both you and your child are relaxed – maybe at the weekend. Go for a walk or out for lunch. Sitting down at home for a formal talk is more likely to put your child on the defensive.

3Discuss the outcomes

Perhaps they’re picking which subjects to study at school. They’re not sure whether to choose media studies or sociology, while you feel learning French would be more helpful. Discuss what might happen in each case. How will their decision affect future studies, or help towards possible careers?

4Don’t gang up on them

If both parents feel strongly then of course you each have the right to your say. Don’t make your child feel as though it’s the two of you against them, though. You’re likely to have slightly different views, so state your opinions separately.

5Be curious

Ask your child questions to show you’re trying to understand their position. Saying “I think nose piercings look horrible” will put them on their guard; instead, ask why they want one and what they like about them. If your child feels you’re genuinely interested, they’re likely to be more open to discussion.

6Offer advice – but don’t lay down the law

You can use stories from your own life or those of people you know to make your point, but never tell your child they are ‘wrong’. That will only make them more determined. You can give them as much information as you like to help them make a decision, but accept they may choose to disregard it.

7Bring in a third party

If it’s something really important, suggest child speaks with someone outside the immediate family. They can talk it over and get a neutral opinion. A relative or friend, preferably with experience and knowledge of the issue, is ideal.

8Accept their decision

If the outcome isn’t to your liking, you have to accept it. Don’t withhold affection or make your child feel guilty for sticking to their guns.

There’s nothing wrong with letting them know you don’t like their decision. Just make sure they know this doesn’t change how you feel about them or how much you love them. The last thing you want is to cause long-term damage to your relationship.

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