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Deciding Together

Even babies can be allowed to choose. They have very clear preferences for when they want to eat, how they prefer to be held, where they like to be tickled, which toy they'd rather play with, and so on. It's important that we tune in to what they're telling us and try to honor their requests whenever possible rather than insisting on a fixed schedule for eating and sleeping, or interacting with them in a way that entertains us but doesn't really please them.

Toddlers are better able to communicate their desires, and they have more options for expressing displeasure if those desires are thwarted. Along with the ability to arrange things so they get more of what they want, of course, comes the potential for conflict. That's why we often have mixed feelings about our young children's growing mastery. It was great when my eighteen-month-old daughter figured out how to turn a toy on and off; I was proud of her competence and perhaps a bit relieved that she didn't need to call me as often. But the stage was then set for a clash of wills. I turned off a noisy device and she turned it right back on. At that point my options were pretty much limited to two: my way or her way. Either I let her keep the toy on or I didn't. (In this case, I did.)

As a child gets older, though, it becomes increasingly possible to explain and discuss. This is a real breakthrough: Rather than being forced to choose between either giving in or imposing our will, we now can take advantage of a third possibility, which is to work things out together. Notice that this is different from merely coming down somewhere between the extremes of absolute freedom, on the one hand, and excessive control, on the other. Sometimes the best alternative to black and white isn't gray but, let's say, orange. In other words, there may be a possibility outside the continuum that has defined our options. It's not just a matter of figuring out how much choice to give kids, what percentage of the decisions to leave to them, but how to become active - and interactive - in the way we help children decide.

An early study of parenting practices discovered that children became more "active, outgoing, and spontaneous" when they were given plenty of opportunities to make decisions. On closer inspection, however, it turned out that freedom wasn't enough. A "high level of interaction between the parent and child" was also required.1 In a general sense, that means we have to proactively support kids' capacity to choose and help them feel that they are at least to some extent self-determining. Our job is to nourish their sense of autonomy and also to think together about ways of negotiating solutions for specific issues, such as bedtime, curfew, where to take a family vacation, and so on.

Consider a child who is spending what we believe is too much time in front of the TV or the computer. Recently I had separate conversations with two different parents about this issue. One was unhappy about excessive television watching in her household, but she shrugged and asked rhetorically, "What are you going to do? It's the times we live in." The other mother, by contrast, felt she had to take action -  so she hid the remote control from her daughter.

Together, these responses define a classic false dichotomy. If we let kids do whatever they want, even when we disapprove, we risk sending the message that we really don't care, that we're washing our hands of responsibility. (In the case of TV, the do-nothing option may actually be more appealing to some parents because, despite their misgivings, they find it convenient to have their children occupied and quiet.) On the other hand, the second response is a doing-to solution. Never mind that hiding the remote is unlikely to work (at least for very long) and merely invites the child to find a way to work around it. What's more important is that this teaches children to use power - or sneakiness - to get their way.

What these two strategies share is that neither of them takes any time, any talent, any skill, any care, or any courage. As I noted earlier, a true working-with approach is more demanding than either "I'm the parent; I decide" or "Do whatever you want." A more constructive response would begin with listening - not only so that kids feel heard but so that you can learn more about what's really going on. TV programs and computer games are appealing in their own right, but children who spend inordinate amounts of time with them may be doing so because they're depressed or trying to avoid other activities (including social interaction) for specific reasons that need to be dealt with. In addition to listening, we need to be candid about our feelings and, ultimately, to look for solutions together: "Let's talk about what's fair to you but also what might address my concerns. Let's come up with some ideas and try them out."

In this case, that may mean agreeing on a reasonable limit to the time spent in front of the TV or PC, as well as specifying which programs or games are okay and which are not (and why). But that's just the beginning of the discussion. We may need to explore the underlying issues that explain why the television has become the child's best friend. And we may decide to spend more time with our kids - at activities they help to choose.

Here's another example: It's one thing to lock your car's rear door so that a young child can't accidentally open it while you're speeding down the highway. It's something else to lock the electric windows so that only you, the driver, can control them. That's another doing-to solution, a way of trying to make the problem go away by stripping children of power. Instead, we might just allow the kids to play with the windows, knowing that eventually the game will lose its novelty. If there really is a problem with what they're doing, however, we should take the time to explain why it's a problem and ask them to refrain from fooling with the buttons too much.

This general approach almost always works with my own children, and I hear from many other parents across the country who have the same experience. Kids really respond when they're treated with respect, involved in problem solving, and assumed to be well intentioned. By contrast, it's the children who are raised with more traditional disciplinary practices (and the corresponding assumptions) who tend to take advantage. "Give 'em an inch, they'll take a mile" turns out to be true primarily of children who have only been given inches in their lives.

In short, with each of the thousand-and-one problems that present themselves in family life, our choice is between controlling and teaching, between creating an atmosphere of distrust and one of trust, between setting an example of power and helping children to learn responsibility, between quick-fix parenting and the kind that's focused on long-term goals.

Look at it this way: One option for parents of older children is to monitor and control them in a desperate effort to make sure they don't get into trouble - read their diaries and rifle through their backpacks when they're not looking, devise technical fixes to prevent them from watching inappropriate TV programs, maybe even install hidden cameras so we can keep an eye on them. The other option is to build a trusting relationship with them from the time they're small and involve them in making decisions. That way, the doing-to approach, which we already know to be offensive and counterproductive, proves to be unnecessary as well.

But are there enough hours in the day to talk over everything with our kids? I think we can offer four responses to this concern. First of all, while it's theoretically possible to spend too much time hashing things out, most parents have a long way to go before they have to worry about erring in this direction. The far more common mistake is to share decision-making authority too rarely. The vast majority of families suffer from too little democracy, not too much.

Second, I'm not suggesting that everything has to be negotiated, only that kids should know many issues can be negotiated. Paradoxically, they'll feel less need to challenge every decision when they're confident that it's possible for them to object (or suggest an alternative) on those occasions when they feel it's important to do so.

Third, children are much less likely to resist decisions that they helped to make. The top-down, "while you're living in my house, you'll do as I say" approach ends up taking a lot more time and energy than we realize because of the defiance it so often provokes. Even apart from the stress experienced by parents and children alike - and the damage to their relationship - the apparent efficiency of bypassing discussions by deciding things unilaterally turns out to be an illusion when you take the long view.

Finally, speaking of the long view, even if working things out with kids really did end up taking more time and effort than the traditional approach, it's one of the best ways parents can spend their time. To appreciate this, we have to look beyond the specific issue we're discussing and remember that this process provides incalculable benefits to our children's social, moral, and intellectual development.

1 Baldwin, Alfred L. "Socialization and the Parent-Child Relationship."  Child Development 19 (1948): 135.

Excerpted with the author's permission from Chapter 9 of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (Atria Books, 2005).  © 2005 Alfie Kohn.

Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on education, parenting, and human behavior. Unconditional Parenting is his tenth book. Among his others: No Contest: The Case Against Competition(1986), The Brighter Side Of Human Nature (1992), Punished by Rewards (1993), and Beyond Discipline (2006). Mr. Kohn lives in the Boston area with his wife and two children.