Occasionally, as I wander through our lobby I hear parents engaged in conversation with our staff regarding the various swim lesson or sports camp programs we offer. The parent dutifully runs through the litany of appropriate questions relating to our group sizes, the training of our staff members, the duration of the program and the pricing. And then a large percentage of them make, in my mind, a huge mistake: they turn to their three year old potential swimmer and say those dreaded words,"Honey, would you like to take swim lessons here?"
Aghhh! Who is the parent here?
Pragmatically, what the parent is doing is giving the child total control of the situation. The parent has already made a decision to come and enroll the child in swim lessons or sports camp, and rightly so – they are the parent. Their adult human brain can weigh the pros and cons of the situation better than the mind of a child who believes that eating green vegetables might kill them and that a bear-like monster lives under the bed. So the parent, showing care and concern for the well-being and development of their offspring, has elected to enroll their child in an activity that will have positive benefits. Good job mom and dad, nicely done.
However, many parents then sabotage themselves by giving their child the choice to go along with their parentally-driven, well-made, carefully considered plans. This scene makes me wonder if they let their kids make other decisions as well. "Hey Johnny, would you like to go the doctor's office today? He's going to stick various devices in your ears and nose, and then give you a couple of shots. Sound good?" I can only imagine Johnny's response.
Let's examine the two potential answers to that open-ended question of "Do you want to do _____?" Answer number one is great when the child responds "Yes." Goal of the parent is achieved, we all move on and everyone is happy.
Answer number two - "no." Now the parent has two options, neither very appealing. Option one - tell the child, "Well, I didn't really want your opinion; we're registering you for swim lessons anyway." That undermines the parent-child communication pretty significantly and has huge tantrum-starting potential. Option two - accept the child's answer and walk out the door or hang up the phone. Congratulations, you have just abdicated all parenting responsibilities and let your three year old control their (and your) own life.
My recommendation is for the parent to make the decision that the child is going to participate in an activity and then allow the child to make a decision about how they will participate. Examine the activity for it's appropriateness for their child as to environment, curriculum and price. Tell the child with enthusiasm that you have made the decision to enroll them in swim lessons, for example, and find a positive reason to do so.
If you feel compelled to offer your child a role in the decision-making, let them make decisions about the options surrounding their activity. Let them choose the time of day they are swimming - i.e. in the morning with one parent or perhaps in the evening with another. Ask "either/or" rather than "yes/no" questions. For example, in our swim classes, we offer kids choices on how to do something ("would you like to kick with a kickboard or a noodle?") but not the choice of whether to do it or not ("would you like to do kicks?").
When my own kids were growing up, we offered them the opportunity to choose the sport they wished to participate in each season. They knew they had to play a sport – that was not a decision they were involved in, but they were involved in choosing their sport. They picked from an appropriate list of options - i.e. a sport we could get them to practice for, one we could afford and one that was not in conflict with another siblings practice schedule. Two goals were achieved: the children knew they would be participating in a sport and they had some choice in the matter.
My youngest son wanted to play ice hockey. We responded with enthusiasm and as he did his research we asked him whether he wanted to attend 5:30 am practice two or three days per week. Suddenly afternoon basketball practice was so much more appealing to him.
My advice is this - do not abdicate your role as parents. You are in a position to make choices for your children because of your experience, knowledge and concern for their well-being. But heed this advice my kids gave me on Father's Day – "be nice to you kids – one day they'll choose your nursing home."