It's a scene moms are all too familiar with:
Mom: Come put your dress on for church.
4-year-old daughter: I don't want to wear that one!
Mom: Which one do you want?
Daughter: I want the pink one!
Mom: The pink one is dirty. Would you like to pick a different one?
Daughter: No! I WANT THE PINK ONE!
Mom (exasperated): You can't wear that one. How about the one with purple flowers?
Daughter: That one is ugly.
Mom (tosses purple flower dress on the floor): Okay, how about the yellow one from Grandma.
Daughter (pouty lip in full bloom): I don't LIKE that one.
Mom (tosses yellow dress in the pile): We are running out of choices here. How about the blue and green striped one?
By the time you get out the door you are forty minutes late to church. Your daughter is wearing a dirty pink dress, her bedroom floor is obliterated by the pile of dresses she rejected, and you are flustered. Ironically, your daughter isn't happy either. Late, dirty, miserable.
What went wrong?
Answer: We often treat our kids as if choices are their right instead of their privilege.
We think we are being kind to our little ones when we give them choices. We think we are teaching them independence and freedom, but often we are actually hurting them by feeding their discontentment.
It all goes back to our philosophy of mankind. If humans are born naturally good, then by all means give your child as many choices as possible. But, if we admit that they are born naturally sinful, then their hearts need to be trained. Our kids don't know how to be happy. We have to teach them. They are born knowing how to be miserable, greedy, and discontent. They are not ready for choices yet.
Maybe you've experienced this: Your two-year-old sits down to eat and you hand him his yellow spoon. He frowns and throws it on the ground and demands the blue spoon. You glance over at the counter. The blue spoon is sitting right there. Do you give it to him? After all, it's available so why not?
Because it's not about the spoon.
If you give him the blue spoon you might pacify him...for now. Next time he will throw that one on the ground, too. Pretty soon there won't be enough spoons in the house to satisfy his discontent heart.
That's because a discontent heart is a bottomless pit. The best way to give our kids the tools for happiness is to seal off that pit. Limit their choices until they are thankful for what is already in front of them.
"You may not throw the spoon on the ground. This is the spoon Mommy gave you. You need to be thankful for what you have. Say, 'Thank you for the spoon, Mommy.'"
This is training, Moms. They need our help. Of course you will experience resistance when you try this approach for the first time. One option is to take away the spoon altogether. "If you are not thankful for what you have, you may not have anything." If he continues to fight and fuss he may be excused from the table until he is ready to say thank you.
Is it okay for kids to have preferences? Of course. We LOVE to hear all about their favorite foods, colors, games, etc., and we always take those feelings into consideration. But here is the important distinction: Their preferences influence decisions; they do not dictate them.
The point is not to say no just to say no. Kids will pick up on that and it will become a fruitless power struggle. Instead the point is to carefully select times to say no when you sense that the hungry monster of discontentment has already gained a foothold in your child's heart. Feeding the monster only makes it grow. That's when you put your foot down and say, "Because I love you I am not going to give you a choice. I am going to teach you how to be thankful for what you have."
Think about it from an adult's perspective. The wealthiest people are often the ones who struggle with contentment the most. With anything and everything at their fingertips, why would they stop at what they already have? They keep changing it and adding to it, but it never makes them happy. We roll our eyes and pity them. But when we give our kids too many choices we are preparing them for that same exact lifestyle. We are training them to be miserable.
"Then when do you let your kids have choices?"
As our kids become firmly established in habits of thankfulness, it's time to introduce choices. There are two things that show they are ready.
1. When they are already thankful. If your child sits down to dinner with a good attitude, surprise her by giving her a choice. "What would you like to drink tonight? What would you like for dessert?" Choices are given when thankfulness already exists.
2. When they ask in a respectful way. "Mommy, is it okay if I wear my cowboy boots today?" We love to recognize respectful behavior. We say yes as much as possible to acknowledge that asking respectfully shows they are ready to make choices.
Think about the most thankful person you know. It's probably not the healthiest, richest, best looking, or most successful person you know, but I bet it's the happiest. That person is already so content that whatever good thing comes their way is like icing on the cake. Isn't that what we want for our kids?
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