One of the most important goals for parents is to teach their kids to think. We’re trying to raise leaders, not followers. That means we have to begin gradually to let them make decisions on their on—starting when they’re young—so that when they grow into their teen years, they’ve already had the experience necessary to develop the maturity and wisdom to stand on their own.

It’s all about teaching them to choose wisely and to have confidence in themselves. So give them plenty of opportunities to make their own decisions—in age appropriate ways, when the consequences of their choices don’t really matter in the big picture. Then gradually give them more responsibilities to decide for themselves. Continually talk with them about options along with the consequences for each choice.

Some age appropriate tips:

Ages 0 – 3:  Starting when your children are very young, you can give them small choices which begin to develop their sense of pride and self-respect. Don’t overwhelm them with options, but you can give them two choices, both of which would be ok. They can go to the pool or to the park. Before their nap, they can color or read a book.

When my girls were little, they both had distinct notions on what they wanted to wear. Unless they picked a sundress on a snowy day, I encouraged them to select their outfits. And if they had their heart set on that special sundress, we put a turtleneck under it.

Ages 4 – 7: At this age range, kids are offered so many activities. Swimming, soccer, gymnastics, softball or ballet. They may not have the time or energy for all of them, so talk about each one—what they would learn, why it would be important, how much fun it would be. Then let them decide. Once they’ve chosen, explain to them that they must commit and let them know they can’t quit two sessions into an eight session class. They also need to learn follow-through.

You can let them choose the vegetable for dinner, but they need to eat a small amount or they get no dessert. They can choose to go to bed at the designated time or not. But if they don’t, they won’t get to stay up later on the weekend. Each time they decide, it teaches them to think about the consequences of their decision and prepares them for strengthening their own internal structure.
Even if their choices are not ideal, if no great harm is done, your children will begin to learn how to choose. Reinforce good choices and discuss the ones that didn’t turn out so well, so they have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. As they grow older, invite them to participate in family decision-making and ask them to share their thinking process. As you talk with them about your own standards, your own moral and ethical dilemmas surrounding the decisions you make, they will internalize these standards for themselves. Unconsciously they’ll be much more likely to call upon these standards when you’re not around.

These are the ages your children are determining whether or not you’re safe to talk to. If you treat them with respect and create an environment where you let them know how much you love to hear their thoughts and ideas, they’ll continue to share with you when they’re older. You’ll have the opportunity to help them develop the confidence to stand up for what they believe—even when that means standing against the crowd. That’s when they become leaders, not followers.

By Joanne Stern, PhD Author of: “Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life”