I Talked to an Educator about Age Appropriate Choices & It was Awesome

We absolutely love it when members of our Jelly Bean Journals community submit a request or recommendation for content. We received a recent suggestion to post about age appropriate choices for children. Let me tell you, it was a great idea and you are going to love today’s interview!

I had the opportunity to ask an Early Childhood Educator, Miss Sarah, a series of questions, Jelly Bean Journals style. From each of our blog’s headings, I had her tell us about being a Momma and using age appropriate choices with her own Kiddos. She gives us the skinny on what age appropriate choices are and shares some Love advice for parents or caretakers working together to raise kids with these options. Lastly, she wraps up with explaining the mental Health benefits of this parenting tool, tells a powerful story in Confessions and rounds out our interview in Everything Else mode.

Meeting Miss Sarah

I met Miss Sarah when Kiddo A first started attending his early childhood learning center. Baby B is now in her class and I have learned a great deal from her over the past 3 years. I’m always appreciative of the way Miss Sarah supports my parenting choices as a working mom. She is objective in sharing information and I feel that she sincerely cares about my children.

Miss Sarah is the wife and mother of a blended family with 5 children. They range in age from 10 to 19 years old.  She and her loving husband have four boys; Noah (10), Gabriel (12), Shane (14), and Jered (15) as well as a daughter who is 19. Miss Sarah has degrees in Early Childhood Education and Social Work.  She has worked in the early childhood field for the 18 years.  She openly shares that her passions include her children, advocating for young children, and riding  motorcycles through the Black Hills of South Dakota.

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Momma Question: As the mom of a beautifully blended family, how do you put your professional experience with age appropriate choices to use at home with your own children of different ages?

I believe that the best way to learn anything is through practice.  Recently I wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle.  I learned to ride through a few lessons and practice under the guidance of a skilled instructor.  The same can be held true for teaching children how to make good choices.  The best way for them to learn to make good choices is to practice under the guidance of skilled adults.

We have been offering our children age appropriate choices since they were young toddlers.  During that time we started out with simple choices like, “Do you want to wear the blue shirt or the red shirt?”  With their age we have gradually expanded the types and amount of choices that they make.

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My 15 year old son, Jered had to make a very difficult choice this past fall. He had been playing tackle football for 4 years and  this was his first year of high school football. He chose to go out for the freshman team.  He practiced with the team, went to camp with the team, and then fall practices began.  The very first day he came home asking to quit football.  I could tell that this decision weighed heavily on him.  He really wanted us to make a decision for him.  I had my opinions, but it was not my decision to make.  He took some time to himself.  Then when he was ready, he came out and asked to discuss making the decision with us.  He discussed with us why he wanted to quit, the pros and cons of quitting verses completing the season, and the alternative choices he might have.  He discussed things like being a part of a team, letting his team down, and regretting later not playing. He decided that he was going to continue to go to practice for the remainder of the week and see how it went.  If he was still unhappy he would talk to the coach before the season’s games started.  Jered ended up completing the season.

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He had to live with the consequences of his decision.  The given up free time, hard physical and mental challenges, body aches, and frustrations of lost games.  He also experienced the benefits of his decision.  He loved being a part of the team, got in great shape, was a hero to his little brothers, and shared in the accomplishment of wins.

This choice was by no means easy for Jered.  However, I believe that practice making choices truly helped him work through such a difficult choice.

Kiddo Question: What exactly are “age appropriate choices” and why are they so important for our kiddos?

To me, giving “age appropriate choices” is the act of allowing children to make choices based on their developmental ability, maturity, and decision making history.  A 15 year old can choose what to wear for a day at school from the variety of clothes in their closet.  They know and understand what is weather appropriate, follows school dress code, and is needed for the day’s activities.  Offering the same choice to a two year old would be overwhelming for them.  There are too many options available.  We would be setting them up for failure.  They would be more successful in making the choice if choices were limited to two simple options. As young children grow more skilled at making choices then you expand the number of things to choose from, the types of choices they can make, and then increase the importance of the decisions they are allowed to make.

The optimal time to being giving age appropriate choices is when a child begins to show signs of becoming a toddler, usually between 16 and 18 months old.  These choices should be limited to two things.

“Do you want a banana or an orange for snack?”

One reason it is important to give children choices is because they learn to make good choices through practice. Through making choices at a young age, children learn that choices come with both benefits and consequences.  They also learn that they must live with their decisions and can practice while the consequences are small.  If you chose the red shirt, you cannot change your mind and wear the blue shirt after you arrive at your child care classroom.  This helps them to learn to think through their choices and live with their decisions.

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Love Question: What advice would you give to a parent if their spouse, partner, or another caretaker did not agree with or practice giving age appropriate choices to their children? Have you ever been in this situation, personally?

While I was a single parent of three boys, I depended on the love and support of many close friends and family.  Not all of them agreed with or followed my personal parenting styles and wishes.

One family member that truly filled in as a co-caregiver during that time was our Granny (my boys’ great-grandmother).  I loved and appreciated everything that Granny did for us during that time.  Granny raised three children of her own, which included a set of twins, and for a time helped to raise a few of her grandchildren as well.  Much of the time she did what had to be done in order to efficiently complete tasks.  Dinner needed to be made, clothes needed to be ironed, three children needed to be bathed and dressed, stories needed to be read, and children tucked in with prayers said before the clock struck 8:00 pm.  There was little extra time for the children to make choices.

In the midst of me going back to school, working part time, and trying to raise a family, Granny offered to step in and help out on many occasions. Sometimes she would come help with bedtime when I had a night class. She began to struggle with my then three year old, Jered. He started having meltdowns for her and not following her directions.  I wondered why this was happening. Granny followed the bedtime routine that I did every evening with the children.  They loved their time with her.  What was different?  Then I noticed that Granny laid out their pajamas, she put the toys in the bathtub, and she picked out the bed time stories while they were in the tub.  All the opportunities for them to make choices were taken away.

In those days, Granny and I would sit down at the park to watch the children play. Those were the times that we found to visit as adults.  I gently brought up the topic by stating that I noticed she was struggling with Jered during the bedtime routine.  She said that she had been struggling with him a lot.  I did not tell her what I did right and what worked for me.  Instead, we discussed that Jered was at an age where he was wanting some independence. We discussed ways to give him a feeling of independence and still get things done in a timely manner with three children.  Of course, I offered suggestions of picking out his pajamas and letting him pick out two toys for the tub that night while she cooked dinner.  Also, I recommended letting everyone pick out one story for bedtime, including Granny.  As she added choices to her routines with the boys, she noticed that Jered’s behavior improved.  He did not have as many meltdowns and he started to better follow her instructions.  (Though he did still have some meltdowns and times of stubbornness or lack of hearing).

I think that the best route to take is just researching information, then having a conversation with the other person about why, how, and the benefits of giving choices.  Reassure them that giving children choices by no means undermines the adult authority.  The adult still maintains control over what decision the child is allowed to make and when to offer more advanced choice.

Health Question: How do age appropriate choices impact a child’s cognitive development? As a direct link to mental health, do these choices have an influence on their relationships with others?

Allowing children to make age appropriate choices helps to support their social and emotional development, particularly their sense of autonomy (a sense of being a separate and unique individual). When a child becomes a toddler there are many times that adults tell them that they have to do something or they can’t do something:

“You have to ride in a car seat, you may not walk across the street by yourself, you have to go to bed now, you may not eat a snack right now.”

We do this for their health and safety, but all at a time in a child’s life that they are beginning to build their sense of autonomy. The best way to for a 2 year old to feel a sense of self is by doing things on their own and making choices. Striving to find their sense of autonomy will continue to develop as they grow into young adults. As children grow, expanding their independence and the choices that they make helps in the continued growth of finding who they are as a separate and unique individual.

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Giving children age appropriate choices also helps them to gradually learn the complex process of making good decisions. Young children will make quick choices. They will learn that they must live with the consequences or benefits of those choices.  As they grow, we can gradually guide them through various steps of a decision making process.  We can help them to stop and think before making a decision, look at available choices, search for other options, recognize possible pros and cons of each choice, recognize how choices will affect myself and others, then evaluate the choices that they did make.

Confession Question: You have worked in education for many years and like most professionals have probably encountered circumstances you don’t agree with. What is the most severe consequence you have observed in a situation where parents did not practice giving age appropriate choices?

This is a hard question to answer.  I have seen short term and long term consequences of not giving children choices.

Short Term: One preschooler and his family come to mind. The preschooler had most all of his choices made for him.  His clothes were laid out for him in the morning, his snack was chosen and set at the table for him, and his extracurricular time was planned out for him (church group, karate, music lessons, t-ball).  He began to have emotional meltdowns, often refused to do things required of him, and began to have bathroom accidents.  I remember one particular incident at his t-ball game, where he sat down on second base and refused to get up.  Grandpa went out and carried him kicking and screaming for no apparent reason off of the field.  His mom had shared with me that she felt like he was going through the “terrible twos” all over again.  I believe that he was doing these things because it was the only way he could have some control in his life.

Long Term: Choices are not always easy and with the best experience we can still make a poor choice every now and then.  However, I believe that practice helps us to be more likely to make the right choices during the difficult situations.  Prom in a small town is approaching.  Several Junior and Senior students are invited to an after prom party.  The students know that there will be alcohol present at the party.  One group of friends are actively involved in sports and the music programs.  They have signed a code of ethics and conduct as participants in these activities.  The group of friends know that the party is a junior and senior tradition.  They have heard about it for the past 2 years of their high school career.  They also know that if they are caught at the party, even if they are not drinking themselves, they will give up the remainder of their activity for the year.  A small group of seniors decides to go against the grain and plan an alcohol free party. The long term consequences of not teaching and guiding children through age appropriate choices can be countless and many.  We face young adults who give in under peer pressure, and do not recognize the consequences of their choices.

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I prefer to focus on the positive, though.  What could guiding our children into good decision makers result in? I have seen the result of this over and over in a Boy Scout Troop that I know.  Let me just tell you one example of the many that come to mind.  The Troop is on their monthly camp out at a local park.  A group of Scouts from the Troop, ranging in age of 13 and 14, are out riding their bikes on a trail.  As they ride, they see some horses that are on another section of the trail.  They notice that one horse does not have a rider.  The Scouts make a choice to slow down and see what might be going on, rather than just riding on by.  As they move closer to the horses, they notice that the horses are agitated and a young lady is laying on the ground.  After evaluating the scene, the Scouts chose to take action.  The group of Scouts approaches the young lady on the ground.  Two Scouts decided to go back to camp to get the help of a Scout Leader, while the others remain to administer first aid.  The Scouts, skilled in decision making, notice that something is not quite right, choose to investigate further, choose to take action, and choose each step needed to handle the situation.  Their abilities and practice as good decision makers allowed them to respond to the emergency situation and help someone in need.

Everything Else Question: As an early childhood educator, is there anything else you’d like parents to know about age appropriate choices?

I often hear caregivers give false choices.  This is when a caregiver gives a child a choice when the child really has no choice at all.  On a cold and rainy day a parent tells the child, “Go get your shoes.”  The child returns with a pair of sandals.  The child is then told that they can’t wear their sandals in this weather and to go get their boots.  Choices given to children must be authentic, real choices that we as adults are willing to let them make.  Then, we must respect the decision that is made.  On a cold and rainy day I would not give my preschooler a choice to go pick out a pair of shoes from his closet.  He might pick out the sandals that I am not willing to let him wear on such a day.  I would set out to let him choose from his cowboy boots, snow boots, or rain boots.  Any of these choices I am willing to live with because they would keep his feet warm and dry while outside.

A second thing that I see parents doing is giving their children all of the control over choices.  While children need to be given the opportunity to make choices, they also need boundaries and expectations.  They need to know that adults will follow through with those boundaries and expectations.  This helps children to feel a sense of security and to know that parents will take care of their need and safety.  Children who are given all of the control struggle when they enter places that have rules and expectations for them, such as public schools, sports, and other extracurricular activities.

Thanks to Miss Sarah for a great interview!

Check out these other JBJ shares:

Why We WILL Travel With Our Children
Rough & Tumble Play
A Dad’s Dilemma: Why is this Kid Crying?
I Talked to The Tall Mom & She’s Awesome
9 Things I Hope My Grown Son Can Say About His Working Mom
I Don’t Always Think About You
From the Mouths of Mommas – #1
Scream-Free Mommy
Loving Life with a Toddler: The Things I Most Appreciate Today
Happy, Healthy & Loved. Stop the Mommy Wars! Part I
Frustrating Parent Lessons
It Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect
Dramatic Play: Everyday Life as a Learning Tool
On Becoming a New Mom and Handling a Crisis
I’m a Bad Ass and So Are You.
To the Momma Who Is Doing the Best She Can
Between a Baby and a Boy
How I Learned I Need to Date My Husband
My Husband’s a Better Story Teller Than I Am
Love Him As He Is Today

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